Sometimes I think back to the time when recipes on the Internet did not come ensnared in ads and autoplay videos, all throbbing with that yearning pulse of SEO optimization. How varied our tastes and expressions were back then! Websites came in all sorts of colors and arrays and there was a randomness to finding good content because in those early days, there was no shortage of medicine men–Lycos, Excite, Jeeves–who all gave different answers to the questions we brought before them. This was hardly economical, but difference could survive in this fractured landscape. We were all just people then, putting our thoughts on the Internet just because. My friend, I tell you–those were the days.
But nostalgia can only take us so far. We all must live in the world as it is. And today, of course, those medicine men are no more. They have been supplanted by a single machine that generally does a much better job at answering the questions we present it. I have no doubt that this has made my life more efficient. The machine dissolves the friction of conformance–and so I, like everyone like me, do things in unison. We have bought the same products picked by The Wirecutter, made the same sourdough starters just last week, and we continue to get fired up day after day by the same bad takes in The New York Times. The machine is exceptional at telling me what it thinks I want based on what others like me do–and it is right a lot of the time. But what is lost in this aggregation? This consolidation and scale?
I have a confession. I continue to watch Top Chef, notwithstanding that the show is in its 17th season and has, for the third time now, opted to assemble a cast of fan favorites from past seasons rather than bring on new contestants. This is a familiar manifestation of that ancient prophesy, Reality TV’s Ecclesiastes, the inevitable admission that all things have been seen under the sun and they are meaningless, a chasing of the wind. But still I watch! And this past episode, there was a contestant, Gregory Gourdet, who made this Haitian stewed chicken that looked really good. I wanted to make it.
So what did I do? I went to the Internet. I asked the machine. I went to website after website, navigating minefields of pop-up windows and autoplay videos, searching for the truth. And what struck me was the sameness, how in vying to be the machine’s #1 recommendation, every website ends up doing the exact same things. And this isn’t exclusive to stewed chicken! Search any food you like–from beef bourguignon to bolognese to mapo tofu–you will see the same patterns in veneer after veneer of content. The layouts, the photos, that distinct and clipped copy written more for SEO than other human beings. At some point in the search, it’s unclear where the machine and the person end and begin. Am I using the machine or is the machine using me?
Back in the salad days of the Internet, a book titled Life of Pi was published. The book (spoilers ahead) is a survival story of a boy named Pi who is marooned in a lifeboat at sea. At some point in the novel, Pi’s journey takes him to a magical island lush with vegetation and whose waters teem with fish. This island is a respite from the harsh and unforgiving ocean, and so Pi quickly settles in. After many days, he happens upon what appears to be a fruit. Having long been at sea, he can hardly believe his luck with the island’s bounty. And so he sets about peeling it, layer by layer by layer. He peels and he peels and he peels only to find–to his horror–that at its core is not a fruit, but only what is left of a human tooth.
The Internet sure can feel a bit like this sometimes! And I never did find a recipe that seemed right. So here’s what I did instead. I have no idea if it tastes like it’s supposed to taste, but it sure did taste good. It was one of those soulful things that was hearty and also at once fresh and bright, thrumming with floral heat and citrus. For me at least, it was a moment of rejuvenation in this difficult time. I hope I did it justice.
- 1 yellow or white onion, sliced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 green pepper, diced
- 1-2 carrots, cut into handsome chunks (just under 1″)
- 4-5 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 1 tsp ginger, minced fine
- 1 scotch bonnet pepper (or habanero), sliced (this is an important one, scotch bonnets and habaneros bring a floral fragrance that other peppers just don’t have)
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (or 2 tbsp tomato paste)
- 3-4 skin-on and bone-in chicken thighs
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 16 oz chicken stock (or enough to braise)
- 1-2 cups green cabbage, roughly chopped into long strips
- 1-2 limes
- Scallions, green parts for garnish and white parts sliced
- Cilantro leaves, for garnish
- Olive oil, salt, pepper
Spices (you don’t need all of these but it’s tasty if you have them)
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1-2 cloves, whole
- 1 tsp allspice, whole
- Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and save for later (we will fry these up at the end so they will be nice and crispy). Season the thighs with salt and pepper.
- In a Dutch oven or big pot, brown the chicken thighs in olive oil over medium heat on both sides. We just want to get a decent golden brown crust on these (they won’t be cooked through). Remove from pot. There should be a good amount of oil and chicken fat left in the pot and there will be browned bits stuck to the pan. This is all good.
- Add the onions, celery, green pepper, and carrots. Saute for 2-3 minutes until just softened and aromatic. They will release water as they sweat and you should be able to use a wooden spoon to scrape up the brown bits and incorporate them into the mix. Season with pinch of salt and pepper.
- Add the garlic, ginger, scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, scallions (white parts only), and spices. Saute until fragrant, just a minute or so. It will smell great.
- Add the tomatoes. Saute for 3-5 minutes. They will release their juices and you will know they are ready when you see the liquid start to thicken. Season with pinch of salt and pepper.
- Add the apple cider vinegar. Simmer for 3-5 minutes. This removes the vinegar’s pungency while still preserving its bite.
- Add the chicken thighs back in and add enough chicken stock to submerge them halfway. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Braise at a low simmer with the pot partially covered for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally and flipping the chicken thighs every 20 minutes or so. (The chicken is technically done when its internal temperature hits 165F but I’ve found that at that temp, the chicken juices still run quite pink, which can be unappetizing even if it’s supposed to be safe to eat. The juices run clear when you get into the mid-170s – low-180s and I find chicken thighs to be tastier at that temp anyway. In any event, braised chicken thighs are very forgiving and stay juicy for a long time so don’t worry too much about overcooking anything.)
- When the chicken’s close to done (about 155-165F or so), add the cabbage and a pinch of salt and pepper. Make sure the cabbage is at least partially submerged by the braising liquid. Keep braising partially covered. The cabbage and the chicken should finish around the same time (just another 10-15 minutes or so). You can tell when the cabbage is done because it’ll be tender and taste good and not taste like raw cabbage.
- When the chicken and cabbage are done, add the juice from 1-2 limes. Simmer uncovered for just another minute or two and taste. It should taste assertive and bright and delicious, with a floral burn and citrus zip. If it doesn’t taste like this, adjust the seasoning until it does (if it’s bland, add salt; if it lacks punch, add lime). Once it’s where you want it to be, turn off the heat.
- You don’t need to crisp the skins, but it sure is good if you do. To do this, season the skins with salt and pepper and lay them flat on a non-stick or cast-iron pan. Turn the heat up to medium-low. The skins should slowly start to render and crisp. Flip occasionally until they’re golden brown and crispy. Be careful and take them off before they start to blacken, as they don’t taste as good when that happens (though they’re still not bad). Set the skins on a wire rack or paper towel to train.
- Plate everything in a shallow bowl. Start with a bed of braised cabbage and rest a chicken thigh upon it. Spoon as much broth as you want into the bowl (you’ll want a good amount). Set a piece of crisped skin on top of the chicken thigh. Garnish with a few sprigs of cilantro and some thinly sliced scallions. Serve with rice and if you really want to treat yourself, some pickled cabbage.