Sauteed chicken thighs over cranberry beans and kale pesto

Ten days back from vacation, and I am still feeling the positive effects. Which is remarkable. Because I returned to a Chicago that lived up to its status as a cold, windy city. It could not be less like Florida. Yet the city has its own beauty. The bare trees that line my street are outlined in snow, slow dancing stick figures clothed in white. Ethereal. They are no less mysterious and wonderful than the  beaches, the pine forests, and the cypress swamps of Tallahassee that I love so deeply. Just different. And colder.

Thankfully I have a warm coat. And a home. Where I enjoy cooking hearty, long-cooked food. Like this  recipe, which  is very similar to my beloved cranberry beans with garlic, sage, and olive oil (http://bit.ly/1bEQWT9), and, like that recipe, is adapted from a recipe in Skye Gyngell’s My Favorite Ingredients.

The chief differences between this version and the original are that I substituted chicken thighs for Gyngell’s squab, and, as in the other cranberry bean recipe I stole from her, cooked the beans in a crock pot. cranberry beans with sage, garlic, and tomato If you make this, use the best, most high-quality chicken you can find. It makes a difference.Oh, and I just realized that I accidentally used twice as much kale as I was supposed to. Happy accident that was facilitated by kale being on sale that day. Next time I will probably use less and will likely try it with frozen beans, as I did for the cranberry beans in tomato-fennel sauce over polenta. (http://bit.ly/1cIRZ9s) This time the beans were mushy and not very pretty. But the flavor was terrific. So good that  as she took her first bite, one of the two friends I was cooking for, a serious foodie,  pretty much melted into flavor ecstasy. Which I totally agreed with. Even if it wasn’t humble.

This recipe is also nice in that it’s gluten-free, affordable, nourishing, and, while not the most simple dish ever, quick enough to make for a week-night dinner. Here’s the recipe, which will serve six. Or, if folks are really big eaters, three.

6 chicken thighs, bone-in
olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cranberry Beans
2-1/2 cups dried cranberry beans
1 (12-oz) can whole tomatoes, chopped
1 small bunch of sage
1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
1 dried red chili pepper
1 1″ piece Kombu (for digestion–check out this recipe for a fuller explanation (http://bit.ly/1cIRZ9))
1/4 cup olive oil

Kale and kale pesto
4 pounds Tuscan Kale (or less if you wish)
3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 T unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 good-quality canned anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained
1 dried red chili pepper
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. To cook the beans, pick over to remove any that are discolored or broken, rinse, and place in the insert of a slow cooker. Add the tomatoes, sage, garlic, olive oil, and kombu. Crumble the chili pepper over the top then pour cold filtered water to cover by 2 or 3 inches. Cover and cook on low for 8 – 10 hours. When tender, salt generously and allow to cool in the cooking liquid while you prepare the chicken and kale.

2. For the chicken, wash if you like (despite the warnings about spreading bacteria all over your kitchen, I still wash my chicken) and pat dry with paper towels. Trim the fat, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and set aside while you prepare the chicken. The short time at room temperature will season the chicken and make it cook a bit faster. (Note that this is my completely untrained opinion. Also note that so far as I know, my food has never poisoned anyone. That said, if you’re concerned, please keep the chicken in the fridge. You’re better off avoiding anxiety.)

3. For the kale, bring a large pan of well-salted water to a boil. (When I think ahead, as I did this time, I fill the pot with tap water in the morning and let it sit all day. My theory is that this will allow the chlorine to slowly rise out of the water instead of all at once. I do this because of some talk I heard a million years ago while visiting a friend in Bolinas, CA. I don’t know if it’s true. But it made sense at the time. So I do this as one of my small ways to ameliorate guilt about being a human and living a modern life here on earth.) Wash the kale leaves and strip them off the stalk. I do this by holding the end of the stalk with one hand, while grabbing on with the other and sliding it down the stalk. When the water is boiling, transfer the kale to the water and cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain and dress the leaves with the olive oil while they’re still warm.

kale pesto3. To make the pesto, transfer half the kale to the bowl of a food processor. Or, if you decided to go for 2 pounds of kale, transfer all of the kale to the food processor. Add the butter, garlic, anchovy fillets, and chili. Process until smooth, using a spatula as necessary to push down the sides. Season to taste with salt and a little pepper.

4. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid if you like (I like to freeze and use it as a substitute for broth) and discarding the garlic, sage, and kombu. Place the beans in the cooking pot and stir in the pesto. Add the whole kale as well if you decided to go for the full amount. Cover and set aside.

5. Heat the olive oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat. When hot, place the chicken thighs in the skillet, skin side down. Saute for 7-10 minutes, until the skin is crispy and brown. Turn and saute for another 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and let the thighs sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Cut into the thickest part of the largest thigh to make sure they’re cooked. (I didn’t do this. My thighs weren’t all the way cooked. It is a testament to the graciousness of my two friends, and probably the past year of intensive yoga, therapy, and over-the-top fixation on good self-care, that I did not freak out even a little bit. We cooked them longer. It was fine. But if possible, I’d like to spare you–and your guests–that experience.)

chicken with cranberry beans and kale pestoTo serve, spoon about a cup and a half of the bean kale mixture into a shallow bowl or a plate with a decent lip, and top with a chicken thigh. We also had an arugula salad and fennel. Originally I planned on two thighs apiece. But we were all completely full with just one thigh. Beans are hearty! If you try this, I hope you enjoy. And that you are doing everything you can to take care of yourself during the holiday season. xo

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Many bean soup with a heap of kale

heap of kale 2Traditionally, summer is not the height of soup season. But I love soup. Plus I had an emergency situation. A friend invited me to raid her garden while she was out of town. So I came home with what seemed like a modest amount of kale.  At least, it seemed like a modest amount in comparison to what I left untouched. She has a lot of kale. So, when I was next to the plants, the single bagful seemed like maybe enough for a couple of salads. When I got home, however, my scale slid back to reality. The bag full of kale I’d picked, thinking I was being so moderate, was probably the equivalent of 5 or 6 bundles from the grocery store. And I’m one person. What was I going to do with it all?

Suddenly I was overwhelmed.  It was Friday evening and I was home relatively early, looking forward to a rare night at home. I still had enchiladas in the fridge and didn’t feel like cooking. And yet. I had picked the kale. I had a responsibility to eat it. But my next seven days loomed as a series of full days followed by full nights, with no time to cook. Whatever I was going to do, I had to do it now. I settled on kale chips.

Exhausted, but determined, I dutifully washed the dirt off, removed a couple of slugs, and stripped the leaves from the stems. So far, so good. Then, suddenly, I stopped. What was I doing? I was not having a good time. I didn’t want kale chips. And not only that, but I didn’t want to turn on the oven. It was going to make the perfectly temperate kitchen hot. Plus I didn’t want to cook. I didn’t want to do anything. What did I want?

As I stood in the kitchen, surrounded by kale, it hit me. I’m a single person with no children or anyone at all relying on me. Sometimes it is heartbreakingly lonely. I’m often terrified by the future, so different from what I expected, what I used to have. There’s so much loss. But there’s also an amazing freedom in this life I’m building for myself. I have no one to please except myself. Which means, if I’m so inclined on a Friday evening at home, I am free to do nothing. I just forgot for a minute. Which is pretty funny given the amount of time I spend doing yoga, trying to breathe and focus on being present. I love yoga. It makes me happy. But all that yoga is meaningless if my happiness is limited to the time I spend on the mat.

Bemused, I forced myself to put the washed, stripped kale away, stuffing it all into a gallon-sized ziplock bag, feeling good about taming the mass into such a neat package. Then I retreated from the world for the next few hours. I laid on the couch, went through Netflix, and wound up watching the very funny romantic comedy, Kissing Jessica Stein. Purged by laughter, I went to sleep at peace.

The next morning I woke up super early. I planned to go to yoga before putting in a full day at the office. So I went to grab some food from the fridge, for lunch. And I noticed that the kale looked a little too green, wetter than it should be. In my eagerness to package it up the night before, I’d not thought about longevity. It was already starting to decompose. If I didn’t do something, all the kale would be wasted. I checked the clock. I had a half hour. That was enough time to throw something in the slow cooker. But what? I looked up kale in Not Your Mother’s Slowcooker Cookbook (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1558322450) and found a recipe for many bean soup with kale. I didn’t have the prepackaged soup mix. But I had something better: an entire cabinet full of beans. Problem solved! And so it was.

The downside was that of course it took more than a half hour. Which made me late for yoga. Late enough that although I went to the studio, I couldn’t force myself to interrupt the class by walking in so late. But it all worked out. Just not the way I’d planned. A lesson that maybe I’ll learn one of these days. Maybe. For now, here’s the recipe for the soup. It turned out well. many bean kale soup

2-4 bunches of kale, curly or lacinato 1/4 c. olive oil (use less if you like)
1 onion, diced
2 T. tomato paste
1 c. white beans
1/2 c. brown lentils
1/2 c. Scarlet Runner beans 1 1″ piece Kombu, broken into pieces
4 c. chicken broth
4 c. water

1.  Wash, destem, and slice the kale thinly.

2. Heat the olive oil in a medium cast-iron (or other) skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion. Saute for 5 minutes or so, until the onion is browning, then add the tomato paste. Saute for another 2-3 minutes, stirring, then turn off the heat.

3. Pick out any discolored or broken beans, rinse, and place in the slow cooker insert.  Nestle the kombu pieces down in the beans then add the kale. It will seem like a lot, possibly coming up out of the slow cooker. Scrape the warm onion mixture over the top of the kale and use tongs to gently mix the onion into the top of the kale. The heat should help it shrink down a little. Cover with the chicken broth and water, and, using the tongs (or a big spoon), mix things around a bit so the kale is coated with the cooking liquid and beans are under liquid. Cover and cook on low for 10+ hours.

The final dish is pretty kale intensive, so that the broth tastes almost like pot liquor from collard greens. I think it’s delicious. But a little goes a long way. Happily, it’s pretty filling…