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Monday, September 6, 2010

Holiday Hospitality

Our Labor Day weekend weather was perfect for early autumn, with blue skies, a bit of crisp coolness in the air and breezes (that have been strengthening into full force winds this afternoon). Perfect weather both for eating out on the new deck and firing up the oven for the first home-baked bread in awhile.

The second of the "ever-bearing" raspberry crops is in full force, so I invited two friends over to help make another batch of raspberry jam. They would be staying for dinner, so I started the day cooking some beans for a soup to go with the freshly baked bread and still warm from the stove jam. The meal was a simple one but all the fresh from the garden flavors were perfect for the setting. Yes, we donned sweatshirts by the time dinner came, but it was still a delightful evening, topped off with a little more raspberry picking for my friends to take along with them.

Meanwhile, the freezer is filling up with the bumper crop of berries, so I took out a package of chicken leg quarters to thaw on Saturday night. I wasn't sure how I would use the chicken but thought that cooked, deboned chicken and broth would take up much less freezer space if all I did was cook it and return everything to the freezer.

Sunday morning, the five pounds of chicken (which had cost less than $3 on sale) was quickly trimmed of fat and skinned before putting it into the slow cooker on low, with just some poultry seasoning, some dried herbs, and seasoning salt. I rendered the fat and skin (that's a topic for another post) and then went off to church, leaving any further decisions about the chicken until later.

And there at church were some old friends from out of town visiting their daughter. After catching up a bit, we discovered they had time to come over for lunch before going on to a 3 pm appointment. They went home to change and make up a quick vegetable saute--zucchini, yellow squash and cherry tomatoes with some fresh herbs from the farmers' market--and I dashed home to do "something" with the chicken.

Rice was an easy decision for a side dish, as I could put that on to cook while I worked on the rest of the meal. There was still bread from Saturday night, along with plenty of jam, and I had cantaloupe, honeydew, and raspberries to make a fresh fruit plate for dessert. Now all I had to do was turn the chicken into something worth serving to guests.

The aroma of roasted chicken met me at the door (by adding no liquid, the chicken had developed a lovely browned, roasted, appearance, with the juices now a deep golden--and very rich--broth), and I decided to just prepare an old-fashioned gravy into which I would cut the chicken and serve over the rice. It worked beautifully, with about half the deboned chicken in the refrigerator for another meal. The best part? Lunch became a wonderful time for breaking bread and talking together with old friends, with very little fuss for any of us.

Both the soup and the chicken sauce were put together with very little measuring, but an approximation of how I made each of them follows.

Garden Vegetable Soup--Tomato Base

1 29 oz can or jar spaghetti sauce, your favorite flavor
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes and chilis
1 large onion, diced
2 medium to large carrots, sliced thinly
2 to 3 c frozen corn
3 c grated zucchini
3 c finely shredded cabbage
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 t Worcestershire sauce
1 T sugar
2 t vinegar
1 to 2 T mixed dried herbs (mine was a mixture of basil, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 c beans, cooked with little or no salt (see NOTE)
salt and seasoning to taste
water and bean liquid

Saute the onion and carrots in a small amount of canola oil until the onions are translucent and the carrots are barely tender.

Meanwhile, put the all the tomato products and other vegetables in a large slow cooker turned to HIGH. Stir in the onions and carrots and beans and liquids to reach desired consistency. (My soups like this often end up being almost as thick as stew!) For the liquid: Rinse the spaghetti sauce and tomato and chiles containers with a little water and add this to the soup. You may use as much of the bean liquid as desired in the soup too, depending on how much you want the bean flavor to predominate.

Add the seasonings and taste. Cook on HIGH for about half an hour or so and then turn to LOW, cooking another few hours or so. Taste for seasonings again after the mixture has been cooking for awhile.

NOTE: I had cooked a mixture of pinto beans, kidney beans, and black beans earlier in the day, but any beans would work for this soup. If you are using canned beans instead of starting with dry beans, be sure to taste before adding ANY salt!


Old Time Sunday Dinner Chicken and Gravy


2 c cut up cooked chicken
1 to 2 c chicken stock
2 to 3 c water
1 c instant nonfat dry milk powder
1/3 c flour
seasoning salt, poultry seasoning, and sage
1 t Worcestershire sauce--no more, as it will quickly overpower the relatively mild flavors of the rest of the dish
black pepper to taste
1 small onion, chopped
about 1/4 c green or yellow bell pepper, finely diced

Combine the chicken stock, water, and dry milk powder in a LARGE microwave-safe bowl. Stir about 1/2 cup of water into the flour to make a paste and stir this into the stock and water, stirring to be sure all the flour is dissolved. Cook on medium power three or four minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture bubbles and thickens. (You will need to watch, because these mixtures can boil over even very large containers very quickly!) Stir in the seasonings to taste.

Meanwhile, saute the onion and bell pepper in a little of the chicken fat until just tender. Stir the chicken and onions and pepper into the sauce and serve over rice. (If this were really traditional Sunday chicken and gravy, it would probably be served over piping hot biscuits or mashed potatoes.)

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