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Hot Cheese Chicken is Copyright © 1997 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Hot Cheese Chicken is my favorite dish to make.
It doesn't require a great deal of skill, but it does demand some perseverence. Of all the dishes featured here, this one most closely approximates what you'd find in a fine restaurant. The taste is addictive, and stays in your mind. We've gone through periods where we've made it four or five Saturdays in a row, because we just couldn't get enough of it.
friends before food
hot cheese chicken
Mary and I first tried cooking this dish while we were living in Cape Elizabeth, Maine just south of Portland. It's adapted from Paul Prudhomme's first and best cookbook, Louisiana Kitchen, published by William Morrow & Company, Inc., still available and highly recommended. Our own copy is asterisked with food stains, with a split spine-- that's how often we've used it. Every kitchen should at least have a knife, a pan, and this book.
In the late eighties, when we were preparing to take off again across country, with everything we owned in the world crammed into our Honda's trunk, we thought of stopping by Prudhomme's restaurant in New Orleans, K-Paul's, even though readers of the New Orleans daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, complained the place had "more rules than East Berlin" (this was while the wall was still standing). Once we got there though, the long line of camera-slung tourists out front and the shared-table seating policy put us off, so we went to Ralph and Kacoos' instead, where we were treated to the muddiest, garlickiest crawfish gumbo ever-- one of those meals we still talk about, years later.
As we do Hot Cheese Chicken, which is officially known as Cheese and Hot Pepper Chicken.
I should caution that this meal does take some time to prepare. It can be broken down into different stages done on different days. I tell you below where you can stop if you don't want a marathon cooking session. We usually prepare it on a three-day weekend, making the stock and first stage of the sauce on Friday, then finishing off and eating on Saturday. For us it's a lot of fun to start preparing it after work on Friday, having a few drinks, listening to music while we chop, drop and stir.
The recipe can be divided into four parts: The Stock, The Sauce Part One, The Sauce Part Two, and The Rice.
The easiest way to make the stock is to buy a few cans of Campbell's chicken broth. I'm not going to be purist enough to pretend for a moment we don't use this solution ourselves from time to time, but you really are better off if you do make a homemade stock, which is remarkably easy to do. Making a stock is one of the simplest of all cooking skills, in large part because it's almost impossible to screw up.
All you need to do to make a stock is add to a dutch oven which is three quarters full of cold water:
A few words of wisdom: CHICKEN BONES: you used to be able to buy chicken backs and necks in supermarkets, but these are getting harder and harder to find as our food gets increasingly processed for us (supermarkets, responding to our clamor for convenience, now do all but eat the food for us). If you can't find backs and/or necks, the best substitute is wings, which are still relatively bony and cheap. COLD WATER: don't try to get a jump on making the stock by starting with hot water. The ingredients need to start off in cold water, so their flavors can be gently extracted from them. Hot water is too much of a shock. CELERY: Very few ingredients bland out a dish like celery does. Half a stalk is great. A whole stalk will turn your stock into yellow water. Trust me. SKIN STILL ON: onion skin adds a lovely patina to the stock. Plus it's easier not having to peel the skin and cry, cry, cry during the process.
To Make: distribute the chicken parts across a cookie tin, and roast them in a 350 degree oven for about half an hour, or in other words until they're brown and sizzling. The reason why you're doing this is to intensify the flavor. Tilt the cookie tray over the dutch oven of cold water, spilling the chicken into the water, then add the vegetables. Bring to a boil (very important!) then simmer (i.e. let the boil get lazy) for as long as possible, at least a few hours, preferably eight, with lid ajar. If necessary, add more cold water if the level gets low. After the stock has simmered for its first ten or twenty minutes, use a large spoon to scoop out and discard the foam that has risen to the top. It's a great, comforting feeling to spend the day inside your home, occasionally traipsing out to the kitchen to the slow bubble and all-pervasive smell of a stock simmering.
Once your stock is done to your satisfaction, pour it into a colander placed over a large bowl. Press down on the meat, bones and vegetables to extract as much of the juices as possible. You can eat the scraps of chicken in the colander if you want, although they won't really be that good at that point, but never eat the vegetables. Vegetables cooked that long can cause indigestion.
Don't expect your stock to be as yellow or as strong-flavored as canned broth. You don't want that. What you want instead is a stock that's as full-bodied as the canned broth is thin; as subtly-flavored as the canned broth is sharp.
Because the chicken parts you used contained fat, there will be whorls of oil sheening the top of your stock. The easiest way to remove this (because you want as little oil in your stock as possible-- oil is another flavor-robber) is to refrigerate the pot once it has cooled sufficiently, so that the oil will rise and solidify, at which point you can peel it off like soft ice on a pond. If you don't have time to do this, simply trail a few paper towels across the surface of the stock-- they'll absorb enough of the oil.
THE SAUCE - PARTS 1 AND 2 - PREPARATION
The best way to make this dish is to separate the ingredients into nine bowls.
To make Hot Cheese Chicken you'll need:
All leftover vegetables should be tossed into a separate bowl, which you will add to the rice.
A few words of wisdom: ANAHEIM CHILIES: the easiest way to roast them is to place them on the broiler rack in your oven (gas or electric), turning them occasionally with tongs. Once the skins of the chillies are blackened and puffed, transport them on a plate to the sink, where you can line them around the drain and place wet paper towels over them, like putting good green babies to sleep with blankets. The wetness of the towels will produce steam, which will help loosen the skin. After ten minutes, lift the chilies to a cutting board, and using your thumbnails peel off the stiff, blackened skins. Spilt them open with a long knife, and using the straight back of that knife, scrape away the seeds and membrane (ribs), which you don't need. To get the required quantity of chilies, you'll need to buy about eight. JALAPENO'S: as you know already, treat them as if they're radioactive. Avoid handling them as much as possible (some people wear gloves). If you're in the habit of touching sensitive parts of your body while you cook, avoid doing so after handling the jalapenos.
THE SAUCE - PART 1
Once you have everything prepared, transfer bowl 2 into a plastic food bag, and add half a tablespoon of bowl 1.
Arrange the chicken breasts on waxed paper, and use the rest of bowl 1 to thoroughly cover them on both sides, pressing the spices and herbs in with your fingerpads.
Pour enough oil into a dutch oven to have half an inch. Paul Prudhomme uses an iron oven, one which is nonstick, scratching up the clumped residue on the bottom of the oven with the back of a wooden spoon, but we find we get the best results with a stick-free surface, plus you don't have to worry so much about burning the ingredients. I would advise using a Teflon-coated dutch oven the first time you make this dish, then graduating to a heavy, iron oven once you've more familiar with the recipe.
Drop the chicken breasts into the bag of spiced and herbed flour, thoroughly coating them. You might want to drop in two breasts at a time, waiting until the first two are cooked and ready to be retrieved from the dutch oven before putting in the second batch of two, to avoid having their flour coating get gummy.
Lay the first two flour-coated breasts in the hot oil, turning after about three minutes. You don't want to completely cook the breasts at this point-- you're searing them. They'll complete their cooking later on, as explained below. This method of cooking helps keep their insides moist.
Touch the top of your thumb to the second joint up from the knuckle of your index finger. Push the index finger of your other hand against the web of flesh on the back of the hand between the touching thumb and index finger. When the chicken breasts, poked in the pan, feel like this, they're ready to be removed.
Once the first two breasts are finished, transfer them onto a plate draped in a doubled paper towel, then cook the other two.
After all four breasts are cooked, pour the hot oil into a glass measuring cup, trying to leave as much of the seasonings in the pot as possible. Pour off all of the hot oil in the glass measuring cup except one-quarter cup, which you should return to the pot.
Reheat the oil; add bowl 3.
This will cause a lot of sizzle and excitement. Stir the vegetables around until the onions start to turn brown. Be patient! This will take long minutes to accomplish, but by browning the onions you are caramelizing them, adding a necessary sweetness to this dish. Don't proceed when the onions are merely transparent. Expect to spend at least ten to fifteen minutes on this step.
Once the onions are done, add bowl 4. Stir well, then add bowl 5, which you've built from the leftover seasoned flour.
Stir until everything in the pot is coated with the seasoned flour, which usually takes a couple of minutes-- you don't want to rush this dish-- then add bowl 6.
Stir again, then add 1/2 cup of stock.
Stir thoroughly, blending all the ingredients nicely, then add another cup of stock.
This concludes Sauce-Part One. At this point, if you're tired and cranky, you can slip the chicken breasts back into the sauce, and refrigerate overnight.
THE SAUCE PART 2
If you refrigerated overnight, heat up. Otherwise, proceed as indicated.
Add another 1/2 cup of stock to the heated sauce, and stir thoroughly to blend.
Bring the sauce, with the chicken breasts in it, to a boil, then simmer for thirty minutes.
Once you reach this point, prepare the rice.
While the sauce is cooking for thirty minutes, measure out your rice.
Rice is easy to cook. Use the 1-2-3 method. I've never seen rice recipes expressed this way, but it would make a lot more sense if they were. One cup of uncooked rice, combined with two cups of liquid, produces three cups of cooked rice.
Put a cup of uncooked rice in a saucepan, then add two cups of stock. Add your leftover chopped vegetables-- onions, green bell peppers, Anaheim chilies and garlic. Add two tablespoons of finely minced celery, and a half teaspoon each of red, black, and white ground peppers (the holy trinity); three quarters of a tablespoon of garlic powder; and a tablespoon of butter.
A few words of wisdom: the best RICE in the world to use for this dish is Texamati, which is derived from Indian rice. If you cannot get Texamati, substitute River rice. If you can't get River rice, try at least to get a full-flavored rice. Never use instant rices, and avoid national rices like Uncle Ben's, which are processed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. You want a rice with a good, nostril-filling scent.
FINISHING THE DISH
As the rice is near completion (which can be anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes), add bowl 7 to the sauce, then bowl 8, and then once that is integrated, bowl 9. Try not to bring the sauce to a boil at this point; merely heat it through.
If you have a ramekin, pack it with the rice mixture, then invert the ramekin over a plate, towards the plate's top. When you remove the ramekin, the rice should hold the ramekin's shape. If you don't have a ramekin, spoon the rice near the plate's top. Arrange two chicken breasts on each plate below the mound of rice, pointing in opposite directions, then top-coat rice and chicken with the sauce until the whole plate is smothered.
You're bound to wind up with extra sauce, which can be fridged and used up to a few days later with vegetables such as corn. Or, you can pour the sauce into a bowl, grab some french bread hunks, go off into a quiet room, and treat it as a soup from heaven.