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“So, what’s your backup plan?”

Everyone who lusts after a job in some creative field runs into this inevitable question. When I was 10, I told my mother I was destined for Broadway. When pressed for a possible fallback, I shrugged and said I could always go into journalism. She has worried about me ever since.

In the fall of 1931, Zora Neale Hurston was working on several projects, all of them artsy and none of them lucrative: short stories, concerts, book proposals. Recently divorced and without a steady income, she was being supported by her godmother, the philanthropist and New York socialite Charlotte Osgoode Mason. Mason and my mother would have had a lot to talk about. “I know that you worry about my future,” Hurston wrote to her godmother. “Therefore, if I had a paying business—which after all could not take up a great deal of my time,—I’d cease to be a problem.”

That’s how she came up with her backup plan to become “New York’s Chicken Specialist.”

Like any good start-up entrepreneur, Hurston did her research. She surveyed the local competition: “I have been sampling the chicken soups already on the market and find not one really fine one.” She outlined the business model: Ever practical, she would use all parts of the bird. The bones would be for soup. The chicken breasts, “they’d be my salad material. The other part of the chicken would emerge as a la king.”

But despite her concessions toward her godmother and her own pragmatism, Hurston never wavered in her assurance about her real talent. “I firmly believe that I shall succeed as a writer, but the time element is important,” she wrote to Mason. “Besides I like to cook.”

* * *

New York’s Chicken Specialist wouldn’t make any ordinary chicken soup. Your grandmother could whip that up. “I aim to make the soup so well that it can be served as a cold consommé or hot as clear soup,” Hurston wrote. Making consommé can be a tricky business, with an additional process that gets rid of impurities and makes the broth extra clear. But the result is more flavorful (not to mention more “refined”) than any chicken noodle, which is exactly what Hurston was banking on.

Stock:
2 chicken carcasses (and any leftover bits – wings, thighs, etc.)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion
2 carrots
2 celery ribs
1 leek, white part only
5 garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
6 to 8 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Place chicken carcasses on a roasting pan, drizzle with  tablespoon oil, and roast until lightly browned, about 30 minutes. (If you’re using leftovers from an already-cooked chicken, skip this step. You’re set!)

2. Chop onion, carrots, celery, and leek into a rough dice (about 1-inch cubes). In an 8- to 10-quart stock pot, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add vegetables and garlic and stir until slightly softened, about 5 minutes.

3. Add chicken carcasses to pot and cover with water, about 10 cups. Add bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil. Skim froth, then reduce heat to a simmer. Let cook uncovered 3 hours; every 30 minutes, skim froth and add water as needed to keep chicken submerged.

4. Strain stock through a fine-mesh sieve into another stock pot or large bowl, discarding solids. Skim remaining fat, then add salt to taste.

Consommé:
1 yellow onion
1 leek
1 carrot
8 ounces ground beef or chicken
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
6 cups chicken stock
Garnishes (chopped herbs, mushrooms, dumplings, etc.)

1. Roughly chop onion, leek, and carrot and put in the bowl of a food processor. Add ground meat and pulse until pureed. Stir in egg whites.

2. In a heavy saucepan, combine chicken stock and egg mixture over medium heat. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly, making sure that the egg mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom or side of the pan; it will begin to form a “raft” floating on top of the stock.

3. Once the stock has reached a boil, stop stirring and lower heat. Make a hole in the middle of the raft big enough for a ladle or large spoon and let simmer 20 minutes.

4. Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth. Through the hole in the raft, ladle the broth into the strainer over a large bowl or saucepan. Discard raft. Garnish with whatever you like (I used chives and mushrooms) and serve either hot or cool (not cold, as it will form a gel).

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