Spring (dis)Comfort

I have a confession to make…I really find Spring to be a challenging season. I know, I know- what I am saying is sacrilege; but, hear me out.

First of all, just so we are clear, I truly do appreciate the respite from winter that comes with Spring. We all need it. And, I admit I adore watching the trees bud and bloom and flowers burst into view. But, with those same trees and plants comes wicked allergies that both my daughter and I-to a lesser degree- suffer from. I spend April, May and June constantly looking for a Kleenex-that is, when I am not begging for sleep due to allergy-induced exhaustion.

Also, the weather in Spring is schizophrenic-one minute it is cold and blustery, the next 85 and perfect. A morning of beautiful sunshine can easily turn on a dime and become a multi-day stretch of freezing rain. All this crazy weather begs the ever-important questions: what’s a girl to wear? How’s a girl to plan? How’s a girl to grill?

Then there is the inevitable end of the school year. There is no question that the wrapping down of the school year is a challenge for me and always has been. I am not bothered by the fact that my children will be under foot for the next 2.5 months-I actually like that part. I find it difficult because the routine that grounds us all changes and remains unknown until September when a new academic year takes shape. It is as if the summer, with its fleeting nature, never fully allows you to develop a routine. So, I spend 2.5 months a little at sea. Once I am in the sea, I am fine. It is the knowing now that come June, I am going to have to jump in the water that’s hard for me!

So how does any of this relate to food? I want comfort food. But, I want it light. I want food that will warm me on a blustery day; but if the sun shines will be just fine too. And, if I can figure it out, I want food that everyone will eat. Tough criteria I know, but isn’t that what The Dinner Dilemma is about?

Anyway, a few months ago there was an article in the Dining section of the New York Times with several interesting chicken breast recipes. I cut the whole article out- rare for me- because all the recipes looking intriguing. I was particularly drawn to one: Gently Cooked Chicken Breasts with Garlic-Chili-Ginger Sauce by Zak Pelaccio. The photo showed the dish looking a little bit like a Japanese Ramen soup- minus the noodles. I don’t know about you, but I think that Asian soups, with their complex flavors define sophisticated comfort food.

So last night, after a slightly rainy, then sunny and always-harried day, I needed comfort food. Gently Cooked Chicken Breasts would be mine!

I made the recipe as written, and I have to tell you, I would not change a thing. It was everything that I hoped. You can build each serving separately- letting you doctor and season the chicken to an individual palate-so everyone, from the most timid eater to the most brave, will eat this. With the leftovers, I mixed everything together and made a delicious soup that Julia could not wait to take to school today. Hurray! This was a home run.

One note: Do not be put off by the number of steps- it really is easy and much of the work could be done ahead. As written, in a crazy kitchen of children doing homework, arguing and being boisterous, it will take 45 minutes.

Gently Cooked Chicken Breasts with Garlic-Chili-Ginger Sauce
adapted from Zak Pelaccio and published in the New York Times, January 13, 2010

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts halves
sea salt/freshly ground pepper
1 5-inch-long piece of fresh ginger root, peeled
8 fat garlic cloves
4 jalapeno peppers
1 quart chicken stock or broth, preferably homemade
3 T soy sauce
2 T dark brown sugar
2 t fish sauce
2 t. fresh lime juice, plus more for seasoning later
Cooked rice, for serving
Sesame oil for drizzling
1 bunch roughly chopped basil, for serving
1 bunch roughly chopped cilantro, for serving
1 bunch thinly sliced scallions for serving
1 European cucumber, thinly sliced, for serving

1. Cut each chicken breast in half crosswise and season with salt and pepper.
2. Slice about an inch of ginger root into thin rounds and place in a large pot. Coarsely chop the remaining ginger and place in a blender.
3. Thinly slice 2 garlic cloves and add to the pot. Coarsely chop the remaining garlic and add it to the blender.
4. Thinly slice 2 jalapenos and add them to the pot. Halve remaining peppers, discard seeds and coarsely chop flesh; place in blender.
5. Add the chicken stock/broth to the pot and bring to a simmer. Let cook for 10 minutes. Add the chicken pieces to the broth and let the liquid come back to a simmer. Immediately turn off the heat, cover the pot and let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into a piece of chicken to test for doneness. If not done, bring broth back to a simmer, then turn heat off and let stand for another 2 to 3 minutes.
6. In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce and brown sugar until the sugar mostly dissolves. Set aside.
7. To the mixture in the blender, add the fish sauce and lime juice along with ¼ c. broth from the pot. Puree and if necessary, adding a bit more broth to help the mixture move in the blender. Taste and add a pinch of salt and more lime juice if needed.
8. When the chicken is finished, transfer to a cutting board and slice. Remove garlic and pepper from the broth and discard if you like (I recommend doing this if you are serving this to kids.)
9. To serve, heap rice in four bowls and top with chicken slices. Spoon several tablespoons of broth over the chicken and rice, and then drizzle with the sweet soy sauce and the sesame oil. Sprinkle the herbs, scallions and cucumber on top. Serve garlic-chili-ginger sauce on the side; have additional sesame oil and sweet soy sauce on the table for more drizzling.

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