Ordinarily, when one has spent some time planning, cooking and serving a meal, the question most likely to trigger an episode of Postal Mom is “what’s wrong with this _____?” Presumably, there is nothing wrong with it. It may be unappealing to the critic (usually, in my experience, a person who is under the age of 18 and/or male) and it may be slightly different than the way it is served at Applebee’s, but there is probably nothing actually wrong with it.
On the night I served the Chicken with Rice Skillet, however, I was feeling a bit suspicious myself, even before the battle cry heard round the dining room. The chicken pieces looked like nothing so much as flaccid, prosthetic knees poking up from a sea of tan slime. It was as if, perhaps, there were two entire white, rubber people lying on their backs in my big skillet, submerged except for their protruding knees, or maybe snorkelers floating face-down as they searched for coral among the grains of white rice. It was not an appetizing vision, and as soon as I tasted it, I remembered a rule that we would all do well to follow: don’t ever let a recipe trump your common sense about cooking just because it’s in print.
The cook book was a gift, and it is beautiful to look at. On a busy night I thought that Chicken with Rice Skillet sounded like a sort of healthier, spicier version of that awful Campbell’s Soup, Chicken and Rice stuff that I will not make no matter who lies prostrate and begs. The recipe called for few ingredients, and was simple: put (real) rice in a skillet, top with boneless chicken breasts or thighs, 1-2 cans of chopped green chiles (I used fresh, chopped jalapenos), a can of chicken broth and a can of evaporated milk. It cooks on top of the stove for about 20 minutes and then…rubber knees in tan slime. I can assure you, they tasted exactly as one might expect rubber knees to taste, if they were briefly simmered in bland sauce punctuated by partially cooked bits of jalapeno and served over somewhat resistant rice.
If you cook, you will already have figured out what was wrong with the recipe. Aside from feeding invalids, tiny children, or people you wish to punish, boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are served in their plain, white, entirety are just not very appealing. If you are poaching with intent to turn the chicken into salad, or to shred it into enchiladas or cube it into casserole, its really fine to leave it in its pale and naked state. If, however, you are expecting people to be able to eat the chicken in whole pieces, sauced or otherwise, it is always best to brown it. It is possible that the writer of this particular cook book felt that browning, even in a bit of olive oil, would compromise the healthiness of the dish, but our health was probably compromised to a much greater extent by the Chinese take-out we ate after dumping the rubber chicken in the Dispos-all.
I could fix this recipe. I would brown the chicken in some olive oil, use a mix of fresh red and green peppers for color and sautee them with the chicken, and use homemade chicken stock instead of canned broth. Would I fix this recipe? In a world full of recipes waiting to be tried (hundreds of which are good, authentic, flavorful Mexican and Southwestern specimens), I would probably never waste another minute on that particular Campbell’s-esque underachiever. Sometimes, the complaining kid is right.