I'm delighted to be able to bring you a guest blog post today from a dear friend of mine, writer and gourmand Rachel K. Rachel has a reputation around these parts for arriving at social gatherings laden with bowls and platters of the most delicious dips, salads, meats and pastas this side of the Prairie.
Here she brings us a much-valued omnivore's perspective to the Ten Ingredient Project in her whole food re-creation of a highly processed health food imposter: a "Lean Cuisine" entree. Enjoy, and thanks to Rachel for this terrific adaptation!
Lemon Chicken With Whole Wheat Couscous and Vegetables
When it comes to TIP offenders, denizens of the frozen food aisle are among the worst, what with their “natural flavors” and mile-long ingredient lists. Take, for example, “Lemon chicken,” an offering from Lean Cuisine, which, from what I gather, is TV dinners for health-conscious Weight Watchers. It’s “lightly breaded chicken breast with rib meat in a lemon glaze with broccoli, carrots,& whole wheat orzo.”
Ready for the ingredients? Here goes: BLANCHED WHOLE WHEAT ORZO PASTA (WATER, WHOLE DURUM WHEAT FLOUR), WATER, COOKED FLOURED CHICKEN BREAST WITH RIB MEAT (CHICKEN BREAST WITH RIB MEAT, WATER, SEASONING (DRIED CHICKEN BROTH, CHICKEN POWDER, FLAVOR, SALT), CARRAGEENAN, MODIFIED CORNSTARCH, SALT, WHITE PEPPER. FLOURED WITH: ENRICHED FLOUR (FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), SALT, SPICE, DRIED ONION, DRIED GARLIC, DEXTROSE, PAPRIKA EXTRACT. BREADING SET IN VEGETABLE OIL), BROCCOLI, CARROTS, RED PEPPERS, WHEAT BERRIES, SUGAR, 2% OR LESS OF SEA SALT, MODIFIED CORNSTARCH, SOYBEAN OIL, BROWN SUGAR, WHITE WINE VINEGAR, LEMON JUICE CONCENTRATE, SHERRY WINE, TOMATO BASE (SAUTEED VEGETABLES (CARROTS, ONIONS, CELERY), SUGAR, TOMATO POWDER, MALTODEXTRIN, CANOLA OIL, CORNSTARCH, WATER, SALT, NATURAL FLAVORS, CARROT JUICE, DEXTRIN, LACTOSE), CHICKEN FAT, SOY SAUCE (WATER, WHEAT, SOYBEANS, SALT), SALTED MILKFAT BLEND (CONCENTRATED MILKFAT, SALT), GARLIC PUREE, SEASONING (FLAVOR, SUGAR, SALT, MALTODEXTRIN, SPICES, SOY LECITHIN), BROWN SUGAR SYRUP, SPICES, CARRAGEENAN, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, YEAST EXTRACT, DEHYDRATED GARLIC, DEHYDRATED ONIONS, LACTIC ACID, CALCIUM LACTATE.
Carrageenan, it turns out, is a vegan/vegetarian alternative to gelatin that is derived from red seaweed. Which, OK, doesn’t sound so terrible. But salted milkfat blend? Dextrin and dextrose? What could possibly be the difference between the ingredient “flavor” and the ingredient “natural flavors”? And what is “chicken powder”? Is it ground up chicken nuggets?
The good news is, it’s not only possible but downright easy to avoid scary chicken powder (and up the nutritional ante!) when you’re cooking your own “lean cuisine” using fresh vegetables and homemade stock. Simmering chicken bones results in something so nourishing, it’s no wonder the stuff is nicknamed (aptly) “Jewish penicillin.” The process of simmering draws out the minerals in the bones, cartilage, and marrow, which become available in the easily assimilated form of electrolytes. If you’ve ever made stock and refrigerated it to later find meat jello, that’s a job well done. The gelatin in stock is so important: it aids digestion and treats intestinal disorders, fights cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Most immediately and perhaps most importantly, stock is tasty, and takes plain grains and pastas into another, better dimension. It’s proof that the most delicious things are the best for you, too.
Lean Cuisine’s frozen offering features “lightly breaded” chicken breast cutlets, but because that has the appeal of a chewy dish sponge, the recipe here is for a whole skin-on chicken. Why “lightly bread” when you can forgo the lame jacket of flour, and roast your chicken instead? Chicken skin (and fat in general) helps your body absorb nutrients from food. (Did you know that if you eat a salad with fat free dressing, you won’t be able to properly reap the benefits of alpha- and beta-carotene and lycopene?) Not only does fat bring joy and happiness, your body also needs it (see also “rabbit starvation”; it’s possible to starve when subsisting on only lean meat). Plus, by using the whole chicken, you’ll wind up with another carcass for stock-making.
Busy people cite convenience as a reason to turn to TV dinners, and I get that, I really do. But I promise this recipe is nearly as simple and foolproof as shutting the microwave door, and more gratifying by a landslide. Couscous cooks in five minutes, less time than a Lean Cuisine spends being, well, radiated. The peppers basically roast themselves, and the aroma of stock simmering is, swear to God, one of the best smells to study to (rivaled only by the smell of baking bread). Omit the stock and peppers to save time if you like; you’ll still have spared yourself from the evils of maltodextrin, potassium chloride, and calcium lactate, to name just a few.
Lemon Chicken with Whole Wheat Couscous and Vegetables
Serves four (or more, if you’re not counting any 16-year-old boys. I was.)
Chicken, 2.5 to 3 pounds
2 cups whole wheat couscous (because there was no orzo in the bulk bin!)
Extra virgin olive oil
Four or five scallions, chopped
2 cups water or broth*
Two cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
One roasted red pepper, cut into strips
Broccoli, to taste (I used two crowns; I like broccoli a lot)
Carrots, to taste (I used three; I like carrots a lot)
Lemon zest (the lemon slices went into the chicken cavity, remember?)
Free Spice Blend
Salt, pepper, cumin
The key is to procure a small chicken about 2.5 to 3 pounds, with lots of skin. The eve before you plan to roast, salt and pepper the chicken liberally. If you’re opting for the optional lemon, zest a lemon and set zest aside for the couscous; cut the zested lemon into slices and stuff them into the cavity. Loosely wrap in plastic wrap or a clean plastic bag and put it in the fridge overnight. When you are ready to roast, preheat the oven to 475. If you own a cast iron pan and like to live dangerously, let the pan preheat inside the oven. When both the oven and pan are nice and hot, place the chicken on the pan, breast side up. It should sizzle. If you are without a cast iron pan, or if danger is not your particular cup of tea, putting the chicken on any oven-safe shallow roasting pan works, too. The high temperature will make the skin crispy and awesome (if it starts to burn or smoke, reduce by 25 degrees). After about thirty minutes, flip it to crisp the other side. Continue cooking another ten to twenty minutes, then flip it once more if you are a fiend about crispy skin (and you should be!), and want to recrisp that first side. That’s another five to ten minutes. After pulling the bird from the oven, let it rest before cutting into it, at least 15 minutes.
While the chicken is resting, roast the vegetables:
Break broccoli into smallish florets, slice carrots on a bias, and toss the vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper; roast in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes. The peppers can be sliced and prepared similarly, or—if you aren’t in a hurry, and you want something truly magical—you can slow-roast them for about an hour. This can be done in advance. They are worth it, and so transcendent this way. Put them on a sheet pan and roast in a 375 oven, turning by the stem every twenty minutes until all sides are evenly cooked. The skins will slip right off. I keep roasted peppers around stored in their juices, because they get so sweet and silky and fragrant and wonderful, and are better than anything you can purchase in a jar (which needs preservatives! Gross!).
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. When it is shimmery, add the scallions, salt, and a big pinch of cumin. Once the scallions have softened a little, add the garlic and stir until fragrant. Add the couscous to the pot, and push it around to get it toasty. Add two cups of your ultra-nourishing chicken jello/broth (water works too, if you don’t have any broth on hand), and the minute it comes to a boil, give it a stir, cover the pot, and turn the heat off. In five minutes, the couscous ready to fluff with a fork.
Combine with the roasted vegetables, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the chicken on top of the couscous so the grains can soak up the juice from the meat. Or, because cold roast chicken on a hot summer day is one of the best things on earth, chill everything in the fridge, and pack it up for a picnic later. If I were to take the couscous on a picnic I’d season it a little extra (cold foods need a little extra to coax flavors out), squeeze more lemon juice in there and give everything another glug of olive oil, so it’s less “pilaf” and more “refreshing grain salad.”
*For stock, use a leftover roast chicken carcass or a fresh chicken, add water, and simmer gently, over the lowest possible flame, for 4+ hours. You can add peppercorns, bay leaves or thyme, any vegetables you like for added nourishment. I keep a freezer bag of vegetable scraps: carrot ends, onion peels, less-than-perfect celery for stock making purposes. Feed the bag and watch it feed you!