Pairing chicken with grains

For me, eating Thai, Indian or Afghan chicken stews without the accompanying rice almost seems nonkosher.

rice plate 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rice plate 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A chicken hot pot with dried chili peppers and colorful vegetables that we tasted in a Los Angeles Shanghai-style restaurant was enticing. But something was missing until the waiter brought the rice bowls. The richness of the sauteed chicken chunks and the peppery sauce made the entree almost overwhelming when served alone. Spooned over the rice, however, the chicken-vegetable medley became an ideal entree – moist, tender meat and a savory sauce seasoning the rice, which balanced the spiciness of the dish. The unseasoned steamed rice provided welcome relief while becoming delectable on its own.
The importance of grains was emphasized at a lecture we attended last week, given by Los Angeles veteran restaurant reviewer Merrill Schindler. He noted that much of traditional cooking developed as a way to stretch expensive protein, and thus meats and sauces are highly flavored because they are intended to act as a seasoning for grains. His example was kung pao chicken, a popular Chinese entree of boneless chicken dice with peanuts and hot peppers; the customary Chinese way to eat it is not as a main course but as a flavoring, in small amounts, spooned over a bowl of rice.
A Filipino friend made a similar comment: “Some Westerners find our stews overly pungent due to our use of soy sauce and fish sauce, but the entrees are designed to be eaten with copious amounts of rice.”
Around the world, cooks have recognized that chicken with grains may be one of the most appealing culinary combinations. As a chicken cooks, it does wonders for flavoring all sorts of grains, from barley to bulgur. I’ve enjoyed Chinese chicken steamed with sticky rice in lotus leaves, delicate French chicken with rice in a creamy veloute sauce, Kurdish-style chicken stew with bulgur wheat, Assyrian wheat berry and chicken porridge, Mexican chicken with green chilies and hominy (a form of corn) and of course, Ashkenazi chicken barley soup with mushrooms. For me, eating Thai, Indian or Afghan chicken stews without the accompanying rice almost seems nonkosher.
There are countless techniques for combining the two elements: Braise the bird with the grains, bake them together in the oven or saute the chicken and heat it in a pan of cooked grains. Or pair them in the Persian style by partially cooking basmati rice and chicken in separate pans, then finishing them together in a heavy pan over low heat so they exchange flavors. There’s the Spanish paella technique of browning chicken pieces and cooking them with the rice, as well as the Italian risotto method of cooking rice in chicken broth and then adding some cooked chicken when the rice is nearly done. And naturally, cooked rice makes a fine stuffing for roast chicken.
These time-honored dishes are delicious, but for better nutrition I do like to update them in three basic ways: (a) by adding a generous proportion of vegetables to traditional recipes that don’t already include them; (b) by reducing the amount of fat traditionally used; (c) by substituting whole grains for refined ones.
Brown rice is easy to substitute for white. It uses the same amount of liquid, and simply needs to cook for 35 to 40 minutes instead of the usual 15 to 20 minutes.
Even if you are watching the amount of salt you use, remember the importance of seasoning the chicken well, whether cooking it together with grains or simply combining them at serving time. A moment taken to check the final seasoning makes all the difference in the taste of the finished dish.
Variations of this Middle Eastern stew abound. Some cooks make it with barley or coarse bulgur instead of wheat berries. In this version I have added extra vegetables to make the stew more colorful and more nutritious.
700 to 900 gr. chicken thighs, skin removed
11⁄2 cups wheat berries, rinsed
1 cup dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans), sorted and rinsed
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
about 7 to 8 cups water
4 to 6 small dried hot peppers
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tsp. ground cumin
1⁄4 tsp. turmeric
pinch of cinnamon
2 large carrots, cut in thick slices
225 gr. mushrooms, quartered
2 large white squash (kishuim) or zucchini, halved and cut in thick slices
4 to 6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 to 4 diced tomatoes, fresh or canned (optional)
cayenne pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup chopped parsley
Combine chicken, wheat berries, chickpeas and onion in stew pan and add enough water to generously cover ingredients. Bring to a boil. Skim off foam from liquid. Add dried peppers, salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon. Cover and cook over very low heat for 45 to 60 minutes or until chicken pieces are tender. Remove chicken.
Cover pan and continue cooking, adding more hot water 1⁄3 cup at a time if necessary, for 30 more minutes; if pan appears dry and wheat and chickpeas are not yet tender, add hot water, 1⁄3 cup at a time.
Add carrots and cook for 15 more minutes. Add mushrooms, squash and garlic and continue cooking until vegetables, wheat berries and chickpeas are tender. Skim excess fat from sauce.
If sauce is too thin, remove wheat, chickpeas and vegetables with a slotted spoon and boil sauce until it thickens. Remove chicken from bones, cut it in strips and return it to pan. Add diced tomatoes and cayenne pepper and heat through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add parsley. Serve hot.
Makes 6 servings.
This is a simplified brown rice version of Spanish chicken paella. If you don’t have saffron, the traditional paella spice, use cumin for a different, but also savory, flavor.
3 cups chicken stock
1⁄2 tsp. crushed saffron threads or
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 to 1.25 kg. fairly small chicken pieces
1 large onion, chopped
1 small sweet red pepper, cut in strips
11⁄2 cups brown rice
1 ripe medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
3⁄4 cup frozen peas
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Bring stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan. If using saffron threads (but not cumin), crush them in a small bowl and pour hot stock over them; let mixture stand about 20 minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, deep heavy skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken in batches, sprinkle with salt and pepper and brown the pieces well.
Transfer to a plate.
Add remaining oil to skillet and heat over low heat. Add onion andsweet pepper and cook, stirring often, about 10 minutes or untilsoftened. Add rice and saute, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in hotstock, tomato and garlic. Add chicken and bring to a simmer. Sprinklewith salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 35minutes. Scatter peas over top, cover and cook about 5 to 10 moreminutes or until chicken and rice are tender and liquid is absorbed.Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook.