No new recipe today, I’m afraid. The semester is rolling now and both opportunities and inspiration are getting thinner. But I will say that with a flavorful, long-cooked sofrito and well-browned chicken thighs to accompany it, quinoa makes a worthy substitution for rice in an adaptation of arroz con pollo.
Well, I fell off the wagon longer than I’d intended for a number of reasons, but I owe you a soup recipe for April, so let’s get on that. It would feel disingenuous, I think, to careen through a year of soups without at least gesturing toward the perennial classic that is chicken noodle. Darling of head-colds everywhere, this is the feel good, childhood callback, gentle-on-the-tummy go-to. Every commercial soup company has a version. Usually it’s chunks of chicken, often cooked in the broth itself, along with a mélange of vegetables, and a heap of noodles of some sort, usually high on the egg content.
The problem is, though, and this is an issue with soups in general, that when I think of chicken noodle soup, all I can think of is softness. The vegetables, cooked to within an inch of their lives, are soft. The chicken chunks are tender (unless they’ve been cooking in the broth too long and have toughened while giving over their flavor to the liquid they are drowning in), but the noodles have lost any indication of al dente, sinking into near-mush while they wait for you to drag yourself out of bed and dip up a bowlful. And probably because this soup has become synonymous with “get well soon” food, it is made to be gentle on the belly, and thus its flavors are also soft: it is entirely unobjectionable. While that doesn’t sound like a tremendous issue when discussing food – who would want a bowl of soup to be objectionable? – to me, that’s just a polite way of saying that it’s boring.
My version of chicken noodle soup needed to break, therefore, from the softness that so often pervades both its ingredients and its flavors. When I want a soup with a deep, flavorful broth and perfectly cooked, just chewy noodles, I find I want ramen. This is perhaps a function of living in Los Angeles, where ramen shops are fairly ubiquitous (seriously, between pho and ramen, you could probably live for more than a week in my neighborhood consuming only Asian noodle soups, and you wouldn’t have to eat at the same place twice. And that doesn’t even take Thai restaurants into account).
A bowl of ramen is a treasure chest. In a way, it’s the soup version of my favorite sort of salad: full of stuff. Once you dig through the perfectly chewy noodles, there are hunks of meat, there are so-thin-they-are-almost-transparent slices of chili, there are vegetables or mushrooms or scatterings of herbs or sesame seeds, there are still fresh and crunchy green onions, and of course, quivering like unguarded crown jewels, there’s the soft boiled egg. Sometimes the broth is pork based, sometimes it is miso based, sometimes it is fish or seafood based. I saw no reason, with its deep flavors and its pile of noodles, why it couldn’t be chicken broth and form the basis for my own twist on chicken noodle.
I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to put into my chicken (ramen) noodle soup, but because I was curious, I asked the internet, and Laura’s recipe looked so perfect that I ended up following it almost exactly. I have adapted a few things – adding baby bok choy and changing up the broth approach a bit – but the approach is essentially the same, and her recipe for soft-boiled egg – the first one (and then the second one) I’ve ever made – worked perfectly for me. We did find we wanted the shiitake mushrooms in smaller pieces; the whole caps looked gorgeous floating in there like rafts, but were a bit ungainly to eat. You can do with or without the jalapeño or fresno chili slices; think of them as sinus-clearing options.
Here, we are starting with a premade chicken broth and enriching it, enhancing the flavors even more with more vegetables, and the aromatic warmth of ginger and garlic. Your chicken broth might already be pretty tasty, but trust me on this: deeply flavored broth is important for a good bowl of ramen. When you serve this up, it’s a play of textures, and really, you get to be the boss. If you are nuts about broth, make it brothier. If you are noodle-crazy (like me), use less broth and pile in the chewy noodles. The chicken will still be juicy after a crisp in a skillet and then a quick roast in the oven, but it will still absorb some of the broth from the soup and lap up some of those flavors. As for the egg, well, if you need me to extol to you the virtues of a just-runny yolk stirred into noodles and vegetables, then you’ll need to come over and sit down for a while, because there’s too much to say for this one little post.
This isn’t your traditional chicken noodle, but I see no reason why, with its deep flavors and treasure chest of ingredients, it shouldn’t become your new favorite way to slurp up those classic soup components.
Chicken (Ramen) Noodle Soup
Lightly adapted from Fork, Knife, Swoon
Serves 4 modestly or 3 generously
6-8 cups chicken broth, store-bought or homemade
2 inch knob of ginger
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 yellow onion, root and stem end removed, quartered
2 stalks celery
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 chicken breasts, bone-in, skin on
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
3 heads baby bok choy, trimmed, rinsed, and larger leaves separated so only small heads remain
½ cup sliced scallions, dark and pale green parts only
2 packages (3 or 3.5 ounce) ramen noodles
Optional: thin slices from 1 jalapeño or fresno chili, ¼ cup cilantro leaves, 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- Preheat the oven to 375F. While it warms, add broth to a large pot – if you prefer a more noodle-forward soup, use 6 cups of the broth. If you prefer a brothier end product, use all 8 cups. Pop in the prepared onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and ginger, then bring to a boil with the lid on. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
- While the broth is warming, season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in an oven-safe skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the chicken breasts skin side down and cook without moving them for 5-7 minutes, until the skin is golden and crisp. Flip both breasts over, cook another 4-5 minutes, then transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 15-20 minutes (start checking doneness at 15 minutes), until cooked through. When done, remove from oven and cover with tinfoil to keep warm until you are ready to serve the soup.
- After the broth has simmered 20 minutes, remove the large vegetable pieces with a strainer or a slotted spoon. Taste for seasoning and add soy sauce until the broth reaches your desired saltiness. Add the shiitake mushrooms as well, and simmer 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are softened. If desired, now is the time to fish out the mushrooms, remove their stems (which can be a bit tough), and slice them before popping them back in.
- At this point, pause for a moment to make your soft-boiled eggs. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, then use a spoon to add the eggs, still cold from the refrigerator, one per diner. For a custard-y middle (that is, still liquid but quite thick), boil for 7 minutes, then remove to an ice bath for 5 minutes before peeling.
- With your eggs working, add the prepared bok choy to the broth with mushrooms and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the noodles and simmer 3 minutes more.
- Now you are ready to assemble. With tongs, pile the noodles in a large bowl. Add broth and vegetables. Slice the peeled soft-boiled eggs in half and position atop the noodle pile. Slice the chicken into thin strips, keeping as much of the skin on as possible, and arrange these around the bowl. Scatter on the scallions, and add the chili pepper slices, the sesame seeds, and/or the cilantro, if using, over the top. Serve immediately.
This last week has been a lot. A new president, an elderly dog with suddenly severe mobility challenges, a new president, a state that seemed to offer a pointed meteorological response, particularly on inauguration day (and then clear, sun-swept skies for the women’s march the next morning – what up, universe!), oh, and that whole new president thing. I opted, as is my usual practice, to respond in part by shuffling into the kitchen. Cooking doesn’t do a great deal on a large scale, but it makes me feel safe and in control, and it is with those feelings that I gain a foundation of strength and confidence to undertake other, more consequential actions. So let’s talk foundations. The foundation – the basis – of soup is liquid. That’s not always the part you add first, and it often doesn’t feel like the most interesting part,* but it’s what separates soup from puree, or pasta, or pile-of-diced-vegetables-with-some-beans-and-meat-or-maybe-potatoes.
Obviously you have a lot of choice when it comes to choosing this liquid. You could, of course, work with plain old water, and per some rational arguments this does work, but most soups advocate for a stock or broth of some sort – usually the variety that most closely matches the “star ingredient” in the finished dish. I’d wager a guess that chicken and vegetable are the most common, with beef coming in a wavering third. There are many good options in the aisle at the store for all of these varieties – when I go with store-bought I opt for low-sodium – but what fun would it be if I told you to go out and buy the base of our project for the whole year? Nope. Doesn’t sound like me. We need a strong foundation. We’re going to make it ourselves.
The first hurdle to surmount is the question of broth vs. stock. These terms get used pretty interchangeably, but there is a difference. Harold McGee offers mostly an etymological distinction, citing the latter as deriving from “an old Germanic root meaning ‘tree trunk’” and the former as “more specific and ancient,” going back to the turn of the first millennium with the root bru, which means “to prepare by boiling” – quite similar to our word “brew” (599). Alan Davidson agrees, adding that though broth or bru at its inception just meant the liquid and its contents, in recent centuries the word has implied the presence of meat. A broth could be the resulting liquid of brewing down these ingredients, or a finished product in itself, like the broth of a soup. Stocks, on the other hand, Davidson positions as less finished, component parts of a dish-to-be (108).
More recently, though, at least in American cooking parlance, stock vs. broth tends to be a question of bones vs. meat. A broth is a liquid made from meat that has been simmering, usually along with vegetables and herbs for flavor. Stocks are made from bones as well as connective tissue, along with vegetables and aromatics for flavor, and the collagen extracted from the bones during the simmer results in a product with more body – a heft or thickness absent from broth. As Alton Brown notes, it is hard to remove all meat from bones when you are making a stock, which means that many homemade stocks are actually a hybrid between the two bases; that may be in part why we tend to use the words interchangeably. At least, that’s the answer I’m going for.
According to these defining principles, then, what we’re going to make here is one broth (no bones; all vegetables), and one stock (well, broth-stock. Brock? Stoth?). The ingredient lists are similar and the procedure is easy, if a little time-consuming: roast some veg or a chicken, pop the roasted veg or bones in a big pot, add flavoring agents, cover with water, simmer long enough to produce a bronzed, aromatic liquid. Strain, cool, and store. That’s it. Yes, it’s an additional step or two on your quest for soup, but it makes plenty, and then you’re set for a few months, depending on the frequency of your broth needs. Call it a project for a rainy day, which we seem to be having plenty of lately.
I particularly like making the effort just after Thanksgiving, when the bones and trimmings of that turkey carcass make enough meaty, strengthening, belly-consoling stock to service my soup, stew, risotto, couscous, and arroz con pollo needs for at least a quarter of the year.**
* it’s also not the most interesting or sexy thing to take photos of, so I hope you appreciate Lucy’s willingness to help out by posing with various vegetables (she couldn’t be bothered with the celery, so we stuck with onion and carrots).
** with the Thanksgiving turkey carcass, I increase the amount of water in the mix, but tend to leave the other ingredient quantities about the same.
Roasted Vegetable Broth
Makes 10-11 cups, depending on how much evaporation takes place
About 2 hours, if you are organized
The mushrooms and soy sauce here produce a final product that is darker in color than the broths you might be used to, but I like including them because they contribute such deep, earthy flavors. Don’t worry about the saltiness of the soy sauce – it’s only a few tablespoons in a tremendous three quarts of water. This leaves the finished broth slightly under-seasoned, so you can reduce it down into a sauce without worries, or add salt to taste as you use it for other dishes.
1 onion, stem end and root stub removed, papery skins still on, quartered
1 leek, dark green leaves removed, roots lopped off, halved and rinsed well between the layers
3 thick carrots, stems lopped off, cut in thirds
3 celery stalks, top and bottom tips removed, rinsed free of dirt, cut in thirds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
8-10 garlic cloves, skins on
8-10 shiitake mushroom stems or 4-5 whole shiitake mushrooms (you could use crimini instead, if you prefer, but I had shiitakes. Just go for a dark, flavor-rich mushroom that you like.)
¼ – ½ bunch of parsley, stems and leaves
2-3 big sprigs of thyme (2-3 inches each)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons soy sauce
12 cups (3 quarts) cold water
- Preheat the oven to 375F while you prep the vegetables. In a large bowl, toss the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery with the 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Line a large cookie sheet with aluminum foil and scoop the vegetables onto it using a slotted spoon. Roast at 375F for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, add the garlic cloves and the mushrooms or mushroom stems to the bowl and toss around a bit to coat them with the remaining olive oil and salt.
- After half an hour, remove the cookie sheet from the oven, toss the vegetables around a bit to prevent sticking and encourage even browning, and add the mushroom stems or whole mushrooms and the garlic. Put the cookie sheet back into the oven and roast another 20 minutes, until the edges of the onions and leeks are deeply browned and a bit crisp.
- Put the roasted vegetables into a large stock pot or dutch oven (if you’re careful, you can just lift the whole sheet of aluminum foil and dump them straight in). Add the parsley, the thyme, the peppercorns, the bay leaves, and the soy sauce. Dump in the water, turn the heat on high, and clamp on the lid.
- When the liquid in the pot reaches a boil, turn the heat down to medium low or low and keep it at just a simmer for 60 minutes.
- After an hour, turn off the heat and use a strainer or fine mesh sieve to scoop out the vegetables and peppercorns. Let the remaining liquid cool, then strain into your chosen storage containers. I like to use clean large yogurt containers – I portion out about 3 cups per container.
- Roasted vegetable broth can be stored in the refrigerator for one week, or frozen for several months. Use as needed for soups, stews, deglazing vegetables; anything that needs a rich, earthy liquid as a base.
“Everyday” Chicken Stock
Makes 14-15 cups, depending on how much evaporation takes place
About 2 hours (not counting the time required to roast and pick the chicken)
Here we leave the vegetables in bigger pieces since we will simmer for a bit longer – that way they won’t break down entirely as the hot water extracts the necessary flavor and collagen from the bones. I use skin as well in the mix, because I like the extra flavor and seasoning it contributes. You can leave it out if you wish. I’m calling this “everyday” because though I realize you won’t make it every day, it is nice to have access to on a daily basis, which is why always having a few quarts stashed in the freezer is one of my kitchen goals.
Carcass (and remaining skin, if desired) from a 4½-5½ pound chicken, picked reasonably clean of meat (save for chicken tacos, or pot pie, or sandwiches, etc.)
3-4 whole carrots, stem ends lopped off
3-4 stalks celery, leaves and all (rinse or brush off any dirt at the root end if needed)
1 onion, stem and root ends removed, quartered (you can use or discard the papery skin; I’ve done both and there isn’t much difference to the resulting product)
10-12 cloves garlic, papery skins still on
½ bunch parsley, stems and all
3 thyme sprigs (2-3 inches each)
3 sage sprigs (2-3 inches each)
3 rosemary sprigs (2-3 inches each)
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2-3 bay leaves
16 cups (4 quarts) cold water. We want to cover the ingredients by an inch or two (though some of the vegetables will float), but not add so much water that the final product is diluted – the bones can only give up so much flavor.
- Place all ingredients together in a large pot. I like to use a big pasta pot with the removable strainer insert. You could, I suppose, make use of the strainer insert, but some of the smaller pieces (i.e. the peppercorns) are going to fall through, so I just use the empty pot. Saves at least one dish to wash later.
- Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, then reduce to low or medium-low and simmer for 1½-2 hours, until the liquid is golden and aromatic, and the vegetables are extremely tender but not yet falling apart.
- Use a fine mesh sieve or strainer to remove and discard the bones, vegetables, and peppercorns. Let the remaining liquid cool, then strain into a large pitcher and store in the refrigerator overnight. Excess fat in the stock will float to the top and solidify; scoop it off and discard it the next day.
- Once the fat is discarded, strain the stock into your chosen storage containers. I like to use clean large yogurt containers – I portion out about 3 cups per container.
- Homemade chicken stock can be stored in the refrigerator for one week, or frozen for several months. Use as needed for soups, stews, risottos; anything that needs a fragrant, golden, poultry-flavored liquid as a base.
As I did last year, I want to conclude my study in meatballs with a few reflections. Having now conducted twelve experiments, I have a few definite thoughts to offer, if you’re thinking of increasing your own meatball intake.
1.) Meatballs are not as photogenic as a food blogger might like. I mean, the finished dish, with its starchy base and the browned and simmered balls and their garnish artfully arranged look nice enough. The process of making them, though, is decidedly less so. Think about it. Chopped and sautéed aromatics, sopping breadcrumbs, and a bowl of raw ground meat. Not particularly aesthetically pleasing. As I went through each recipe, I found myself struggling a bit to achieve attractive shots. This was, in part, due to the ragged look of the raw ingredients themselves, but also the overlap in staging possibilities: you take the bowl of raw meat, you roll it into balls, you brown and then simmer the balls. You can only take pictures of each step so many times before it begins to feel repetitive.
2.) Meat is expensive. For financial, ethical, and digestive reasons, N. and I tend to limit our intake of meat, especially red meat, and when we do buy it, we try to buy responsibly and humanely farmed product. This, of course, means a certain type of grocery store or butcher shop, and when you add one or two different types of ground meat to your list a couple times a month, your grocery bill gets noticeably higher.
3.) It’s SO MUCH MEAT! As a side effect of our choice to limit our meat consumption, N. and I have become much less accustomed to, well, how bodies process meat. While we really liked most of these meatball dinners, we definitely noticed how much more meat we were eating, and how our stomachs, among other parts, responded. It’s not an official resolution, but I think we’ll be laying off the meat for a little while next year (though the cheeseburgers my dad made us a few nights ago were everything good about beef).
4.) Despite these critiques, meatballs are delicious, and really quite easy. They follow a definite pattern: prep some aromatics, whether that means chopping some herbs, sautéing aromatics, or both; whizzing up and soaking breadcrumbs or beating egg; massage the seasonings and moistening elements in with the meat; roll, brown, remove, bring the sauce component to a simmer, and plop the meatballs back in to simmer until cooked through. In all honesty, and to no real surprise, the trickiest thing about the whole process is having all three components – meat, sauce, and starch or accompanying side – ready at the same time.
Next week I want to show you a few of my favorite images from the past year, and I’ll be back with a new recipe for you in January!
We are now officially half a year through this meatball exploration. I like assigning myself these year-long projects because they give me plenty of opportunities to experiment, and when I emerge, breathless, come December, I feel I’ve attained (sometimes tenuous) mastery over the subject at hand.
A year-long food project can present challenges, though. The chief difficulty, it seems to me, is the bald truth that single food types don’t often translate well through the seasons. A sweet potato project, as delicious as that might sound, would not be as welcome in July as it would in November. Meatballs, similarly, seem most suited for cooler months: draped with sauce, topped or wedged beside or squashed between bread and cheese, they are a heavy prospect.
What is needed, then, as this month grows more and more sultry, is a summer-soaked meatball: light on the stomach, feathery in texture, heavy only in flavor. Conveniently, this meatball dish delivers not just on flavorful meatballs that didn’t leave us feeling meatball-shaped, but it takes into account and makes gratuitous use of that most prolific and dreaded of summer vegetables: zucchini. If you have a garden, chances are you’re growing zucchini. And as you know, it’s getting to be the season when you’ve given loaves of zucchini bread to everyone you can think of, jammed a few in your freezer for good measure, stuffed and baked a few of the baseball bat sized specimens that escaped your notice for a few weeks, and the thing just keeps spitting out squashes. This dinner takes at least two more off your hands by offering them sliced into thin strands, barely cooked, and woven into a tangle of soba noodles.
For the meatballs themselves I went in an Asian direction, inspired mostly by pot stickers, one of my favorite indulgent snack foods, but in part by the container of miso paste hanging out in the back of my refrigerator. The aggressive saltiness of the paste means you don’t have to add a tremendous amount of additional seasoning to the meatballs, but as long as you are judicious, it doesn’t overwhelm the classic, welcome pairing of ginger and garlic. There’s lemongrass here too, for some fragrance and brightness, its persistent woody fibers tamed and made entirely edible after a run-in with a microplane.
The meatballs cook in a simple broth flavored with more ginger and lemongrass – which conveniently helps you use up those stalks after you’ve grated down the bulb end – and means you can serve this like a pasta, with just a bit of flavorful sauce to moisten the noodles, or, my preference, enough broth to make it almost like a soup, with the meatballs all but bobbing. Beautifully, the meatballs, the noodles, and the broth taste just as good at room temperature as they do just off the stove, in case you, in the midst of summer, are boiling quite enough on your own.
Chicken Miso Meatballs with Soba and Zucchini Noodles
2 tablespoons red miso paste
1 lb. ground chicken (dark meat preferred)
1 tablespoon grated lemongrass bulb (remove the outermost layer first, then use a microplane or a zester)
1 tablespoon grated fresh garlic (about 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (easiest if frozen first)
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion, dark and light green parts only
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
3 lemongrass bulbs, smashed with the back of a knife (you can certainly use the one you grated from earlier)
knuckle of fresh ginger (about 2 tablespoons)
1-2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce (if you are gluten-free, be sure to check the label – most soy sauce contains wheat)
2 bundles soba noodles (200 grams or about 7 ounces)
2 medium zucchini
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Toasted sesame seeds and sprigs of cilantro, optional
- In a large bowl, whisk together the egg and miso paste. The goal here is to break up the miso a bit for easier integration with the chicken.
- Add the ground chicken, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, cilantro, green onion, black pepper, and fish sauce to the egg and miso. Using your fingertips, lightly mix and work the seasonings into the ground chicken until evenly distributed.
- Heat a teaspoon of the olive or vegetable oil in a large, deep skillet over medium high heat. Scoop up about a teaspoon of the meatball mixture, press it into a small patty, and fry it about a minute on each side until cooked through, then taste for seasoning and adjust for the rest of the mixture if needed.
- Heat the remaining olive or vegetable oil in the skillet over medium high heat. While it warms, use a tablespoon and moist hands to make small meatballs. They will be very soft – don’t worry about making them perfectly round. As you make each tablespoon-sized meatball, set it aside on a clean plate. You should have enough mixture for 18-20 meatballs.
- Carefully place meatballs in the skillet, taking care they do not touch. You will likely need to fry them in batches. Brown them on all sides (about 2 minutes per side), then remove to a clean plate. Repeat with a new batch of meatballs until all are browned.
- Your skillet should now have a layer of deeply browned bits and drippings stuck to the bottom. This is called fond and it is lush with flavor. Add the 3 cups of chicken broth directly to this residue in the pan and use a whisk to scrape up and incorporate the fond into the liquid. Toss in the smashed lemongrass bulbs and the knob of fresh ginger, then bring to a simmer.
- When the liquid reaches a simmer, taste for seasoning. If it needs salt, add the 1-2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Keep in mind the flavors will concentrate a bit as cooking continues. Add all of the meatballs back into the broth mixture. Try to keep them in a single layer, but it’s okay if they bump up against each other now. Clap on the lid, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, basting and turning the meatballs occasionally.
- While the meatballs simmer, make the noodles. Draw a y-shaped peeler along the zucchini lengthwise repeatedly to cut it into long, thin strips. Stack up 5 or 6 of these strips at a time and, very carefully, cut them into thin “noodles” with a sharp knife (see photos above for reference). Set aside.
- Cook the soba noodles in boiling salted water according to package directions. About 30 seconds before you are ready to drain them, toss in the zucchini noodles and stir gently. Drain and rinse as instructed.
- In the same pot you used for the noodles, heat the 2 teaspoons of sesame oil over medium-low heat. Add the drained noodles back in and toss gently to evenly coat them with the oil and to be sure the zucchini is well distributed, not just clumped up by itself. Keep warm until the meatballs are ready.
- To plate, coil up a tangle of soba and zucchini noodles in a shallow bowl. Top with meatballs – 5 per person is about right – and ladle on about ½ cup of broth for a soupy presentation (my preference), or 3-4 tablespoons of broth for a more pasta-like assembly. Add a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds or sprig of cilantro if desired, and serve hot or warm.
I wasn’t expecting that a barbecue sauce would be one of the dozen pourable concoctions I developed this year. Call me a snob but, barbecue sauce? It just seems so… pedestrian. Break out a bottle, squeeze it over some drumsticks, and reach for the wet-naps.
But that’s exactly what happened. Faced with a summer that just won’t end (upper 80s/low 90s predicted for the first weekend of October. October, people!), we couldn’t bear to waddle back to the butter-laden list of French classics. Brimming from the success of last month’s gastrique, I found myself continuing to think about fruit-based sauces – at once sweet and tart and deep in flavor from long simmering – and realized that barbecue sauce is, at its core, something like a gussied-up gastrique. There’s almost always a molasses or brown sugar component, and there’s usually vinegar of some kind, even if that is hidden within one of the most ubiquitous barbecue sauce ingredients of all: ketchup.
I’ve never been a huge fan of ketchup, so I decided to steer clear of it here and build my own collection of flavors. I’d been considering the merits of combining the flavors of apricot and bourbon, and what better place to do that than in a sticky, bubbly sauce, well-spiced, just aching to be brushed gently over some lucky poultry? Deeply caramelized onions, a squeeze of dijon mustard, a whisper of cayenne, and some cider vinegar joined the party, and then, because the richness and depth of concentrated tomato is such an expected note in this sort of sauce, I gave in and added some tomato paste for verisimilitude.
The important thing about this sauce is the time you give it. The onions must be cooked down and toffee colored. The simmer must last at least twenty minutes – I did mine for thirty before I was satisfied. The thick, slightly lumpy result can be used as is, or you can give it a quick whir with an immersion blender or standard blender to make a glossy, velvety smooth glaze you’d eat just as happily on a piece of toast as on a grilled chicken breast or pork chop (at least, if you’re me). I briefly considered using fresh apricots here rather than preserves, but since the prep time already promised to be the better part of an hour, I decided to take just one shortcut. Besides, the sweetness quotient in fresh apricots is unpredictable, and dealing with their thin, impatient skins did not sound like a welcome addition to my weekend plans. The guaranteed sticky thickness of a pectin-laced jar of preserves was the kind of guarantee I wanted.
It should not come as a surprise that apricot and bourbon, balanced against a meaty tomato backdrop and laced with just enough spice, are a beautiful match. The chicken thighs we lacquered this onto never stood a chance. Neither would pork, or salmon, and I’d even venture that with a splash of soy sauce, this could make an interesting adaptation of teriyaki to sauce a bowl of perfectly steamed rice and veg. What’s more, even though it’s still summer here, the blend of fruity sweetness and dark caramel from the bourbon make this sauce a lovely offering for fall as well, if you are lucky enough where you are to be watching the seasons shift.
Apricot Bourbon Barbecue Sauce
Makes 1 cup (will generously sauce 6-8 chicken thighs)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion (about ½ a large onion – I like the purple ones)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup apricot preserves
½ cup bourbon + 1 tablespoon, divided
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
6-8 boneless chicken thighs or desired protein
- In a 10-12 inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the finely diced onions with a pinch of salt. Slap on the lid and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are nicely caramelized. Lidding the skillet will help the onions brown faster while allowing for less burning.
- When the onions are caramelized to your liking (deeper brown = deeper flavor), add the tomato paste, mustard, and cider vinegar and stir through. Then add the apricot preserves, the water, the salt and the black and cayenne peppers.
- Remove the skillet from the heat and add the ½ cup of bourbon (reserve the remaining 1 tablespoon for later). We are doing this off the heat to prevent an accidental flame-up; alcohol can and will catch on fire!
- Stir all ingredients together, bring to a simmer, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 20 minutes (but 30 is better).
- When sauce is thick and shiny, remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Puree if desired for a smooth consistency, then stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of bourbon.
- To use, season your chicken thighs to your liking (maybe just salt and pepper, maybe a fancy spice rub). Preheat your grill to high heat and oil the grates.
- Add the chicken thighs to the grill, spreading them out for faster, more even cooking, and brush the exposed side with the sauce. Close the grill lid and cook, undisturbed, for 5 minutes.
- After 5 minutes, flip the chicken over, brush with more of the sauce, and close the lid to cook for another 5 minutes.
- With a clean brush, slick the chicken one more time with the sauce and cook for a final 1 minute, just to get the surface really sticky and glazed and good. Serve hot, with whatever you deem best for a barbecue. For us, that meant potato salad and corn on the cob.