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Joni Woolf: Chicken (almost) always a good choice

Unless you are preparing foods for vegetarians, chicken is generally a safe choice for a meat dish to serve those outside your family. (You learn rather early what the family will and won’t eat.) Relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare in a wide variety of ways, and easy on most digestive systems, it’s no wonder that chicken is the main course at many (if not most) public functions where meals are served.
Always looking for new ways to serve this ubiquitous dish, I have recently enjoyed it at the homes of two friends, served in quite different ways. Visiting my friend Lynn Cass in North Carolina last week, I enjoyed, on the first night there, a generous serving of chicken pie. Her husband is not fond of vegetables (in fact, she once said his favorite vegetable was candy corn), so she was looking for a recipe that contained none. She found it, and this one had a most delightful crust and well-seasoned chicken (butter enhances everything). I brought the recipe home, and when I try it, I think I might add carrots, peas, onions and mushrooms, but frankly, it was delicious just as it was. As a side dish, she offered chopped heirloom tomatoes with sliced avocados, flavored slightly with a little olive oil and salt and pepper — a complete and delicious meal.
Making my way home, I stopped in Macon and enjoyed dinner with Terry Holland and Jeff Logan again (both fine cooks). Terry prepared a tasty recipe of chicken marsala, served over large butter noodles. This is a robust dish that makes a meal without any side dishes, though you could add a salad or a green vegetable if desired. Terry served it with a crusty loaf of bread and a nice white wine — we ate every bite.
Then as I scanned the New York Times yesterday, I came across a fine-sounding recipe — chicken of course — this time paired with artichoke hearts. The writer described the difficulty of cleaning and preparing the artichokes, and offered as a substitute those found in the freezer section. I think I might prefer those, and also, we might not always find fresh artichokes locally. Because variety can be life’s spice, I’ll add that recipe as a third and great-sounding way to enjoy chicken — though I haven’t tried it yet. If someone beats me to it, let me know how it turns out. It’s the last one listed today.
So add these three chicken recipes to your collection, and like all recipes, you will make it your own — if you choose — by trying additional or substitute ingredients, according to your own tastes. I recommend making the first two just as they are before you begin changing them. The third I’m already thinking of changing to the canned or frozen alternative for artichokes.

Chicken Pie
Place cooked and deboned meat from a 4-pound chicken in a 2-quart casserole. Mix 1 can cream of chicken soup with 1 cup chicken broth and pour over chicken. Top with 1 stick melted butter. In a separate bowl, combine 1 cup self-rising flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder. Stir until smooth. Gradually add 1 cup milk until there are no lumps. Pour over the casserole. Cook at 350 degrees F. for 45 minutes. Serves 8-10. Serve immediately — the crust is so light it resembles a soufflé. (Note: one package sliced fresh mushrooms could be added, if desired.)

Chicken Marsala with Mushrooms
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, 1/2 inch thick
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves or 2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced
4 tablespoons butter
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup marsala wine
2/3 cup beef stock
Mix flour, salt and pepper and dredge chicken in mixture to coat. In large pan, heat 2 tablespoons butter and oil over medium heat. Add chicken and cook till light brown, about 3 minutes per side. Remove chicken and keep warm. Add onions, garlic and mushrooms and sauté until onions are tender. Return chicken to pan; add marsala and beef stock; bring to boil; reduce to simmer and turn chicken. Simmer slowly until liquid is reduced by one-third. In the meantime, cook wide noodles according to package directions, add parsley flakes and salt and a heaping teaspoon butter. Serve chicken over noodles. Very good dinner.

Braised Chicken with Artichokes and Olives
1 1/2 lemons
3 medium artichokes, about 1 1/2 pounds
3 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken pieces
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup pitted olives, halved (used black, green or a mix)
2 large rosemary branches
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, as needed
Chives or mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
Squeeze juice of 1 lemon into large bowl of water. Discard the outer leaves of each artichoke. As you do so, and as you continue cleaning the artichokes, dip them into the lemon water the stop the sides from browning. Use a paring knife to peel the base and stems. Slice off the top third of each artichoke. Slice the artichoke in half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon or grapefruit spoon, scoop out the hairy chokes inside, pulling out any prickly purple leaves as well. Slice each half into three pieces. Put trimmed artichoke pieces in lemon water until needed.
Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Pat the chicken dry with paper towel and season with salt and pepper. In a large (12-inch) ovenproof skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken pieces and sear in batches until well browned, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a plate.
Add artichokes and garlic to pan, adding more oil if needed, and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and red pepper flakes; cook 1 minute more.
Pour in wine and stir in olives, rosemary branches and grated zest of 1/2 lemon. (Do not discard after zesting.) Return chicken to pan. Bring liquid to a simmer. Cover pan and transfer to oven. Cook until chicken is tender, 30 to 35 minutes. (Check white meat after 25 minutes and remove from oven if done.) Transfer chicken to a plate and place skillet over medium-high heat. Simmer until pan juices thicken and become sauce-like, about 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in butter.
Return chicken to pan and sprinkle with cheese. Adjust oven heat to broil and place pan in oven until cheese is melted and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Squeeze juice of remaining lemon half over pan and serve garnished with chives or mint, if you like. (Several comments on this recipe suggested that canned or frozen artichoke hearts reduce the time and effort substantially —  recommend doing that.)

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net