Sunday, September 27, 2009

Armico, a Sephardi chicken dish for before the fast, and what to do about the flabby skin in chicken stews

I find the day before Yom Kippur both rushed and endless, whether it is a Sunday or a workday, and the pre-fast meal to be hurried and unsatisfying. Kol Nidre hangs over you all day, and there seems to be both too much time, and not enough, especially to clean a bit after dinner before rushing out to shul. However, our sages teach that in order to get the full merit out of the fast, you must feast before, so people put a lot of effort into it. Growing up the meal was invariably boiled chicken with soup (BORING!!!). The more people went on about what a treat it was, the more you knew they were weren't enjoying it, especially because it was prepared with little or no salt, so that you wouldn't get thirsty during the fast. While boiled chicken can be good when done right (i.e. not overcooked), without salt it is hard to take. In our house, where salt is a major staple to the point that I think we eat more salt than rice, especially in this low-carb age, this would not be an acceptable "festive" meal.

So, for more years than I can remember, I have been preparing a Armico, a Sephardi dish of chicken in tomato sauce with leeks and herbs. It needs no added salt so it makes a great pre-fast meal. I originally got the recipe from a synagogue cookbook from the West coast that I lost and dearly wish I could find. The recipe has grown and changed over the years to become almost a one-dish meal chicken and vegetable stew (it only needs rice and a salad).

The main innovation I have introduced is to brown the chicken under the broiler after stewing in the style of a Filipino Adobo ( chicken stewed with garlic, black pepper, vinegar and soy sauce, definitely not recommended before a fast). This method is a great solution to the flabby-skin- on-chicken-stew problem in general. The only other acceptable solution is the Indian one, of skinning the chicken before stewing. It is a lot easier than browning the bird beforehand, which I find does little good since after stewing, the skin is pretty gross anyway. Much better to broil the cooked chicken and brown the skin, and at the same time reduce the sauce, pour it over and serve. Try this next time you make any chicken stew. Here is my recipe, which is in the pot as a write and wait to the big event this evening:

Armico (Sephardi-style chicken stew)
  1. Trim a bunch of leeks of most of the greens, split in half, and cut into 1/3 to 3/4 inch chunks. You will probably need to soak them several times in water to remove all the sand. Put in a large pot with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and saute over medium heat.
  2. Add other vegetables to the pot in the order that they are prepared, all cut into large-ish dice or smallish chunks: 3 or 4 carrots, 3 or 4 stalks celery, about 1/2 pound green beans, a zucchini or two, and 3/4 to 1 pound of washed quartered mushrooms (I like cremini here). After each addition, stir and continue to cook.
  3. Wash a bunch of flat-leaf parsley and a bunch of dill very well, dry and chop. Add to the pot, reserving a few tablespoons to use as garnish later (something which I almost always forget to do). Add one or two bay leaves.
  4. Add a 28 ounce can diced tomatoes. I like to use Muir Glen Fire Roasted Diced tomatoes. Cook a very few minutes.
  5. Add a chicken, cut into quarters or eighths. Simmer on medium-low heat for about 40 minutes until just done. (The meat and skin on the legs will be pulling away from the bones and the juices will be clear when pricked. The exact time depends on too many variables to list here.)
  6. Remove the chicken pieces to a large broiler safe serving dish, skin side up. Broil on the middle shelf of the oven on low for about 10-15 minutes until well browned.
  7. Meanwhile, boil down the sauce and vegetables on high heat, stirring frequently so that it does not burn.
  8. Pour the vegetable sauce over the chicken and serve. You can hold this warm for while before serving and do no damage.
  9. Serves 4.
Meatballs: This year, we are adding turkey meatballs. Take one pound of turkey, mix with a small grated onion, some chopped parsley, and a bit of oregano. Shape into largish meatballs (we got 8 out of the pound) and brown in nonstick skillet in a bit of olive oil. You need to firm up the meatballs so they stay together. Add to the pan with the chicken, deglazing the skillet if you want to be fancy. I am not sure what we are going to do about broiling the meatballs at the end, since this is the first year we are trying this. (Harry, our mutant carnivore, has become something of a meatball enthusiast.)
Tomatoes: The resulting dish is not all that tomatoey. If you want a redder result, add another 16 or 28 can or diced tomatoes or tomato puree.
Serving the dish at other times of year: This is great anytime, and makes a wonderful Friday night dish, and we have evened served it at a seder. By all means salt it well, and add some pepper too and garlic or a pinch of cayenne while you are at it. Even though for a pre-fast meal, it is fine without these, it is much better with.
Gmar hatimah tovah, and an easy and joyous fast to everyone.

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