Before the children, back when I was gainfully employed, cooking was something of a rich man’s hobby for me. I worked at a DC-area consulting firm racking up billable hours throughout the day and the early evening hours, but on weekends I reveled in a kitchen stocked with expensive gadgets, copper cookware, and entitlement. My wife and I subscribed to glossy cooking magazines (Saveur, Fine Cooking, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated) and we gifted ourselves with professional-grade carbon steel cooking knives, imported from Germany, that cost $250. To sharpen those knives, we bought a high-end electric sharpener. We played with white truffles, foie gras, and exotic mushrooms, learned how to glaze pan-seared Muscovy duck breasts with a blueberry reduction sauce so ineffably delicious that it once brought tears to my eyes.
Typing this now, from a distance of more than a decade, I cannot believe how well we ate. We weren’t gluttons—we were epicureans determined to experience the most exquisitely prepared meals we could muster.
One day, I bought a pair of stainless steel Hoffritz poultry shears for forty-five dollars. I had it in my mind I was going to snip chickens into six or eight pieces and, guided by my expensive cookbooks, roast those pieces to perfection. And yet, mere chicken seemed too ignoble a fare to devote myself to. The poultry shears languished in a drawer among larding needles, roux whisks, and mandolins. Once, I remember actually using the shears but when matched up against a whole fryer, the shears failed to accomplish their task. Perhaps I wasn’t holding them right. Or snipping the right kind of chicken. Or maybe the problem was with the messiness of a raw chicken, its blood and juices, its skin squishing in my hands. I remember getting squeamish. I remember not making more than a feeble snip or two before abandoning the project. What became of the chicken, I remember not, but I washed the shears assiduously, scalding them with boiling water to sterilize them from the chicken germs.
Nowadays, with three children, most of our cooking is accomplished via microwave. Chicken Nuggets. Hot Dogs. Frozen taquitos. Or we chow down on staples from the pasta family (spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccini with pre-packaged pesto sauce, macaroni and cheese). If I’m adventurous, I’ll make a red beans and rice dish. Once or twice a year, I’ll make lasagna—which, honestly, is easy to prepare. Yet I’m still troubled by memories of our epicurean days. These days, our budget is tight. We spend less money—far less—feeding a family of five than we used to spend, my wife and I, just feeding ourselves.
We’ve moved several times into progressively smaller houses since leaving the DC-metropolitan region. Most of our old cooking equipment has been packed off into storage sheds, or collects dust in our basement, yet our cookbooks and bound volumes of Cook’s Illustrated taunt us from their positions on the living room bookshelves, where they sit alongside Pixar and Disney DVDS. Recently, I reached for one those Cook’s Illustrated volumes and recalled the life I used to know. Grease-smudged and dotted with the drops of long-dried-up sauces, most of the recipes called for ingredients pricier than our present budget allowed and yet, while flipping through pages, I stumbled upon a recipe for something called “Chicken in the Pot.” The accompanying illustration showed precisely the kind of rustic dish I once imagined preparing regularly. To my surprise, the recipe’s ingredients were not that extravagant, calling for
- 1 chicken (3 to 4 pounds, cut into 8 pieces
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 4 medium carrots
- 8 oz. mushrooms
- ½ cup dry white wine.
Better yet, except for the chicken and mushrooms, we had most of the other ingredients. I went to the market. The recipe allowed for either fresh or dried thyme. In the past, I would have chosen fresh—but now I was not about to spend $2 for a bundle of fresh thyme I would only use once, so later, when I returned home, I went the dried route, sprinkling out ½ teaspoon from a jar that might be as old as our youngest child, who turns eleven later this month. Eleven years might not be a reasonable shelf life for dried thyme, but two dollars is two dollars.
While the children are in school, I got to work on the chicken.
Unsurprisingly, age and inattention had dulled our German carbon steel professional knives. They couldn’t even slice an onion, let alone cut through the foggy memory of past cooking accomplishments or the squishy skin of an actual chicken. Back when I was gainfully employed, and fearing I would damage my knives, I never trusted myself with our knife sharpener. Maybe I used it once, but mostly I dropped off the knives every few months at a fantastic cookware store to have them professionally sharpened.
Our electric knife sharpener was still in its original box, the original price tag ($89.99) still stickered to the box’s bottom. Today, I’d never be able to justify $90 on a knife sharpener. Can you imagine? $90!?! But it was cool. Evidently, some of my $90 had gone toward a good technical writer, because the directions inside the box were remarkably easy to follow, and the machine itself surprisingly easy to operate. I placed the knife into a slot, sliding it over the machine’s internal grinding stones. The sound was harsh, concussive, like the jackhammers that are ripping apart the street the next block over, but within minutes, my knives were sharp again.
At times, it amazes me how readily I give myself into a sense of accomplishment. I sliced the onion so thin that I could not imagine a thinner cut, a more translucent slice of pearly white onion flesh.
The poultry shears were still sharp because they’ve hardly ever been used. Aided by the illustrations in my old Anne Willan’s LaVarene Pratique cookbook, I performed an eight-piece cut on the four-pound whole chicken I had bought at the market. The shears ripped through bones, gristle, skin, and meat with astonishing ease. I cannot even fathom how the shears could have failed in my one previous attempt at using them.
Although time-consuming, the recipe was relatively uncomplicated. I browned the chicken pieces evenly on all sides before, in a separate pot, sautéing the vegetables. Along with the chicken and spices, I splashed the wine into the pot and brought the whole mixture to a boil before cooking everything for another 25 minutes on low heat.
The resulting dish was delicious. Tender. Flavorful. Fragrant. I served the chicken and vegetables atop a mound of couscous to absorb the cooking juices that I ladled over each plate. Even the children liked it, a rarity whenever I venture into foods beyond their comfort zones.
New poultry shears like the ones I used now sell for $80 at Williams Sonoma. Our knife sharpener normally goes for $220 on Amazon. To make the dish, I used a 5.3 quart Le Creuset “French Oven”—when I bought it, I paid $140; now, it retails at the Le Creuset website for $280. Can you imagine? This, for something that we mostly keep boxed up in the basement closet. Even the Anne Willan cookbook that I referred to for its beautifully photographed instructions on how to cut chicken cost $60. It seems impossible we ever had so much disposable income.
I’m also amazed it took me this long to make a “chicken in the pot” type recipe. The ingredients were so inexpensive. What remains of the “chicken in the pot” sits in the Le Creuset pot inside the refrigerator. Tonight, when everyone’s asleep, I’m going to pull it out, lift up its cast iron cover, and inhale. Tomorrow, we’ll eat hot dogs for dinner. The side dish will either be mac-n-cheese or a couple cans of baked beans. Maybe I’ll steam some green beans. I think they’re on sale this week. But for now, I have leftovers to inhale again.