Friday, November 30, 2012

A Frequent Request: City Chicken!

I can't remember how many times people have asked me, "What is city chicken?" If you didn't grow up in the Midwest or eastern part of the country - especially in or near an industrial city, you may have never heard of this dish. First of all - it doesn't contain any chicken. Here in the Detroit area, it was made using a combination of veal and pork, or with all pork. These are cubes of meat that are put on short wooden skewers and then breaded, browned and baked.

My understanding is that back during the Great Depression or even before, fresh chickens were not easy to come by in big cities. So someone came up with the idea of taking scraps of meat and putting it on a skewer - it looks a little like a chicken leg from a distance. However this dish started, it's become a tradition and standard on most of the Polish restaurant menus in Detroit.

Mom made city chicken on a regular basis, and it was a meal everyone looked forward to. She would have the butcher make up the city chicken for her by putting cubes of stewing pork on a skewer. If you could find the right skewers,  you could do this yourself. Many meat markets here regularly have city chicken all made up in the meat case. Generally, there are four or five cubes of meat on a skewer.

It also calls for using cream of mushroom soup to make the gravy. While a lot of people are turned off by using canned soups in recipes, this really works well here. I tried making my own gravy and it was a lot of extra work and didn't impart the same flavor in the dish, so I break out the soup every time I make city chicken.

Whether it's an old favorite or something you've never had before, city chicken is a great dish no matter where you are!

City Chicken

12 city chicken or 3 lbs. stewing pork, cubed
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. water
1 cup flour seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika - or you can use a ready-made seasoned flour like "Fryin' Magic"
vegetable oil
2 10-oz. cans cream of mushroom soup
1/2 can water
1 mushroom or chicken bouillon cubes

If you don't have the city chicken already made up, put 4 or 5 pieces of pork on wooden skewers. Make an egg wash with eggs and water. Dip skewers in egg wash. Dredge in seasoned flour mixture. In a large skillet, add 1/4" of oil and heat to frying temperature. Brown "City Chicken" on both sides and set aside.

Make gravy by combining Mushroom Soup with 1/2 can of water. Put 1 ladle full of gravy into the bottom of a roaster. Put City Chicken on top of gravy [OK to stack if 2nd layer is needed]. Pour on remaining gravy. Crumble bouillon cube and sprinkle over top. Cover entire roaster with foil and place lid over foil. Bake at 325ºF. 2 hours or until meat is fork-tender.

Serves 6.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Autumn Pumpkin Pasta Sauce

One could very easily argue that autumn presents Michigan at its most beautiful and bountiful. The crisp weather, the trees aflame with colors that no human can replicate, farmers markets overflowing with harvest, and a wonderful smell created by the falling leaves and cooling damp soil. It puts one in mind of all we enjoyed, endured and accomplished in the now dwindling year.

And while each season has its own flavors, those of autumn have now seemed to reach critical mass. As soon as Labor Day passed, I couldn’t help but notice an explosion of pumpkin-flavored offerings at the stores. Pumpkin marshmallows, pumpkin coffee, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin beer, pumpkin oatmeal, pumpkin soup, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin air fresheners…it was a pumpkin –palooza!

When I was a kid, pumpkins were for pies and not much else. I’m glad that we have come to embrace this wonderful squash for more than just pies and Halloween carvings. In talking to a few farmers, this was a good year for pumpkins in Michigan. While some crops were hurt by the crazy weather, pumpkins seemed to like it just fine. This means there should be plenty of pumpkins on the shelf – in the form of canned puree – in the year ahead. We decided to see what happens when we introduced pumpkin to pasta sauce. It was a great match!

Autumn Pumpkin Pasta Sauce

2 TBSP   Olive Oil

1 lb ground beef (I use chuck but you could also  use ground turkey)

2 small onions, diced

Salt and pepper

1 clove garlic, put through garlic press or finely diced

1 28oz can San Marzano tomatoes

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes

1 15oz can pumpkin (do not use pumpkin pie mix/filling – just the plain pumpkin)

2 bay leaves

½ tsp basil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp oregano

½ tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp ground nutmeg

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil and then add ground meat, diced onion and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium high heat until meat is browned and onions are soft. Add garlic, San Marzano tomatoes (if you don’t have San Marzano you can use regular whole canned tomatoes) and crushed tomatoes. Bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Using a potato masher or the back of a large spoon, crush the whole tomatoes and stir them into the sauce. Add can of pumpkin and stir well until it is incorporated into the sauce.

Add seasonings: bay leaves, basil, salt, sugar, pepper, oregano, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cover and allow to simmer for 20-25 minutes. In the meantime, cook up a pound of your favorite pasta. Top pasta with sauce and add grated Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!