As a chef, I often get asked, “what is your favorite thing to cook?”
I usually hesitate to answer because the dishes that truly bring me joy are not so glamorous and seldom appear on restaurant menus. Dishes like chicken stew, red beans and rice, and smothered round steak are some of my favorites.
Affordable cuts of meat, cooked in a dutch oven, with other humble ingredients, and the result is always greater than the sum of the parts. The most important element time.
Though I love to include thyme in just about every recipe, time spent simmering on the stove is more important because there is really no shortcut to flavor.
Whether using leg quarters or the whole chicken, dark meat is essential for flavor and also more economical than boneless skinless breast. My mom always left the chicken on the bone, browned it, made a roux, then added onions and thinned the roux with water, added the chicken parts and simmered until the meat was falling off of the bone and the gravy was irresistible.
She liked to finish her stew with Lima beans. I was not partial to Lima beans for most of my formative years, so she would ladle my portion of stew over a heaping mound of rice, then stir the beans into the pot for everyone else.
Red beans and rice
One of the first meals I cooked for my family, as a kid, I combined a can of cream-style red beans with a can of cooked kidney beans and added water and the vegetable trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery) and let it simmer away.
I always preferred to cut the kielbasa (we didn’t get andouille in the suburbs until after Paul Prudhomme was a national sensation) into two-inch chunks instead of thin coins. You got fewer pieces with each plate, but those pieces would burst with flavor.
Once I figured out how to cook dried kidney beans and to add a ham hock early on in the cooking, this low-cost, one-pot wonder got much better. Repetition breeds consistency, and as a young sous chef at NOLA, I cooked many pots of red beans and rice for Monday family meal.
Smothered round steak
The technique is similar to the chicken stew. First, trim the connective tissue from the round steak, then tenderize it with the back of your chef’s knife and cut the beef into smaller pieces.
Next, dredge the seasoned meat in seasoned flour before browning it in canola oil, removing the meat to a clean plate and then making a roux. Again my mother thinned the gravy with water; we didn’t use stock or bouillon cubes or anything but water to make the gravy.
The round steak simmers so long in the gravy that it essentially infused the gravy with a beefy flavor like using a stock would. Some nights, we’d have mashed potatoes with this dish, other times, white rice.
With each of these dishes, the leftovers are even better than the first time around. And after all of the meat is eaten, the remaining gravy over rice is a wonderful side dish.
I guess the key to my love of cooking all boils down to rice and gravy.
Granny’s Chicken Stew
1 chicken, cut up (8 pieces)
2 teaspoons salt
fresh ground black pepper
3/4 cup Canola oil
3/4 cup all purpose flour (to start; I like the stew thick, so I add flour as the roux is cooking)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, chopped
3/4 cup chopped celery
2 cloves of garlic, minced
dash of dried thyme (up to 1 teaspoon)
4 bay leaves
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
Tony Chachere’s (to taste, might want to decrease the salt if you don’t like it salty)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Preheat cast-iron skillet. Season chicken well with salt and pepper.
Brown chicken on all sides, starting with skin side first to render a little fat into the pan.
Remove chicken parts to a clean plate
Combine oil and flour in a cast iron skillet. Stir slowly and constantly over medium high heat until the roux is the the color of milk chocolate.
Add the onion, celery, garlic and bell pepper, mix well and remove from heat.
When the vegetables stop sizzling, transfer roux to a dutch-oven- sized pot.
Gradually add the chicken stock.
Add water as needed — the stew should be thinner than you want the end result to be.
Add salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves and Tony’s. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Add browned chicken pieces and simmer 20-30 minutes.
Add parsley in the last few minutes.