Okay, okay, so maybe there was some Italic hyperbole in my saying that my Gentile friends are not worthy of my most delicious chicken braises. As a matter of fact, I often make them the most delicious one of all, chicken braised with sausage and mushrooms. I make it for select Gentiles as often as I get Italian sausage from Brooklyn—Bensonhurst being the only place I know to get fatty Italian sausage without fennel—and when I make a big fuss over the honor I do them by sharing my Brooklyn sausage with them, they get that. Then when they taste how delicious those mushrooms are soused with all the savors of the braise, they get that too. And they even know without instruction to sop up that pan sauce with crusty bread. Yes, they get all that, on their own, and are enjoying themselves too well to think up any condescending compliments. Their joy is pure and so my joy complete.
I don’t have a charming name or story for this dish because my mother sort of made it up. She ate something like it at a wedding once, liked it, improvised her own version at home, tweaked it over time, taught it to me, who tweaked it some more, and the story of all this offers insight into the spirit of our cooking. We like our food tasty rather than fancy; friendly rather than sophisticated; light rather than complex; effusive rather than concentrated; pure rather than distilled. This braise is a paradigmatic example, in that it goes against many rules of the gourmet for enhancing and concentrating flavor, in favor of lightness, cleanness, and harmony.
For one thing, it uses white rather than dark mushrooms. I’d go so far as to say its genius is in its use of plain white mushrooms. You might well figure that a braise would be all the more delicious with dark Baby Bella, or fancier yet, Crimini mushrooms—no doubt the choice of a Tuscan or Frenchman, who will wryly remark with a confidential tone and bemused frown on the ingenuousness of our using white button mushrooms. Ah, proud mushrooms for proud men, overweening, overbearing, prepossessing, bent on infiltrating and dominating. Might as well just call it a mushroom braise, because that’s all it will taste like with those dark ones.
But we know that it is the meek that shall inherit the earth. It is precisely the self-abnegation of the white mushroom that gives it another sort of power, an unprepossessing power of assimilation. It gets its glory from another, as does the moon from the sun, reflecting and refracting the other’s light with a beauty all its own. All that its spongy flesh absorbs this mushroom mingles in its womb—the savoriness of chicken and sausage gilded in olive oil and butter, the redolence of much garlic, tangy sprites of tomato, the fresh perfumes of green parsley and white wine—each savor shining more glorious in spectral array than ever in proud isolation. It is its very translucency that gives the white mushroom this its power of transfiguration, and it arises arrayed glorious by its service.
I once heard a gourmet on television say that you must never wash mushrooms, but only wipe them clean with a damp cloth, lest you wash away their flavor. What will he say to our boiling our white mushrooms in lemon water? Yes, Italian ladies think mushrooms are dirty, and whenever they think something is dirty but can’t use soap to wash it, they use lemon water instead. I feel sure this impulse to cleanliness was their first motive, but then they discovered that boiling white mushrooms in lemon water also keeps them white throughout cooking (they otherwise turn dark and, well, dirty looking). That sealed the deal: clean, and they look it! Who but a gourmet could object to that?
But then there’s the oil too. Once you’ve gilded your sausage and chicken parts in it, with a brownable wad of butter thrown in, it looks, well, dirty. No, no! Don’t be absurd! It is rich with flavor, and you must use wine to deglaze the pan and reduce all those lovely browned bits to a luscious sauce! No, sorry, but it looks dirty to Mom, and she strains out all those browned bits, to keep her oil bright and rosy and her pan sauce light and clean. We want pan juices strained rather than reduced, purified rather than concentrated, mingled rather than merged.
In fact, here’s where the tweaking came into play. In my mother’s first iteration of this dish, the braised chicken, sausage, and mushrooms ended up in a savory pool of rosy oil that beckoned to sopping morsels of bread in an age innocent of multiplicative species of “carbs” and “fats”. Those were the days, my friend. Then one time when I made this dish for a couple of Gentile A.B.D.s, instead of the rosy oil that I knew the woman‑Gentile would never dare sop up, there was instead a sort of creamy blonde pan sauce. I was as perturbed as perplexed. Before I could say it should not be that way, the man-Gentile, a real gourmand, raved about it. His compliment, as it were, was to say it tasted like some sort of sophisticated French sauce. I was perturbed the more, but kept it to myself. The other, the woman-Gentile, intrigued, sopped it up and loved it. She seemed not to recognize it for fat. Now I was intrigued.
Next day I called my mother, and she confessed to having the same “problem” sometimes, and wondered how to avoid it. I opined that perhaps it need not be avoided, since it was as tasty as the oil, and my friends loved it, even that nurse who “can’t” eat fat. Well, over time, my mother and I came around to liking it better too, and we became interested in how to achieve it rather than avoid it. On reflection, perhaps the French association is apposite after all, insofar as the sophistry of thus inflating the braising oil into a pan “sauce” beguiles the scruples of a dietary conscience. Sopping somehow seems apropos even to the scrupulous, if only it’s a creamy “sauce.”
There was another feature of my mother’s first iteration of this dish from which I’ve departed. She wants all the various parts of the braise small, so she chooses small chicken thighs, and chops off the handles of small drumsticks so that they end up little drumbballs, and cuts her sausages in half, and uses white button mushrooms. She thinks the very idea of the dish is this mingling of the elements, that a mouthful be a medley. But I don’t have my mother’s patience for all that smallness, and I know that my Gentile friends are afraid to open their mouths wide (the other night I had to admonish a big lug of a Gentile with a mug plenty big for it not to cut his rigatoni in half with his fork, but to eat one at a time whole, as clearly intended; he obeyed, albeit under murmuring protest and watchful disdain). I like to leave my sausages and chicken parts whole, and even opt for large stuffing mushrooms, to create more of a mounding casserole than a meat medley. My expectation is that each diner will take to their plate at least one chicken part and one sausage, to be eaten in alteration with one another and with the mushrooms, as pleases.
Despite its simplicity of spirit, this braise is not simple to make. It is labor‑intensive, though well worth it, but if you read this blog for the diatribes and not the recipes, you best be on your way, because we’re cooking serious today, and I’ll have no patience for loiterers yakking irrelevancies in the kitchen—go chirp over antipasto in the living room with the others, and we’ll call you when it’s ready. [I used to say stuff like this only in my head, but now I quote myself saying it in the Blog, and it’s socially acceptable that way, amusing even, charming. It’s become my poetic license to insult the unserious.]
As for you serious-minded sous-chefs, you can stay. Start prepping the mushrooms. There’ll be a lot: for a half-dozen big fat Italian sausage links, I’d use two 6-packs of chicken parts—one of thighs and one of drumsticks—and at least 3 pints of white button mushrooms (4 pints, even better), or else 2 quarts of large stuffing mushrooms.
First off, put a big pot half filled with water on high heat to come to a rolling boil, with a palmful of salt and the juice of a lemon. Meanwhile, to wash the mushrooms, dump a package at a time into a colander and shake it under running cold water, letting friction do the job. When the mushrooms look soil-free, dump them out on paper towels to drip-dry and do the next pack. When all are cleaned, grab a chef’s knife and start trimming: cut away the discolored base, and halve each mushroom—unless it’s huge, in which case quarter it; or unless it’s small, in which case leave it alone. Sizing is, needless to say, relative—as I’ve said, my mother likes everything smaller, and I larger.
Once the water comes to a rolling boil, add in the trimmed mushrooms and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep them under water, count out 60 seconds, then drain immediately. The water will likely not even have had a chance to come back to a boil, but if you go longer, your mushrooms will shrink considerably and discouragingly. One minute does the job. Those mushrooms are clean and will stay more or less white from here on in. However, to help them shed water, scoop them out of the colander and lay them out on paper towels again. Alternatively, you can spin them in a salad spinner, which is most effective, but gives you one more thing to wash.
Now prep the chicken parts, which have been soaking in salty water while you were prepping the mushrooms. Trim the parts of all skin and most fat; rub them free of sliminess in the salty water; then rinse them well in fresh water, and dry them well with paper towels. Salt and pepper them evenly all over on both sides. As for the sausage, separate the links, cutting away string, and pierce each link a couple of times with a fork, to forestall exploding during frying. Any liquid seeping or dripping into the hot oil will make it splatter, and hot splattering oil burns, so beware. I love those screens you can place over a skillet to contain popping hot oil. Before I had one, I used to duck and cuss a lot. I also laid newspaper out on the floor in front of the stove to limit collateral mess. I advise you to get a screen instead, one that will go into the dishwasher.
Okay, time to brown the meats. I like to brown everything in a skillet and transfer to a high braising pan as I go. Pour out into the skillet a pond of oil (either regular olive oil or a vegetable oil), and put it over medium/medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers with heat and smells like itself, add the sausage links, which should sizzle a bit. Let them work up into a cheerful sizzle (but not searing), and brown them lightly on two or three sides.
Once the gilded sausage links are all collected in the braising pan, put a big wad of butter at the center of the pond of oil, to melt, foam, and then sizzle. Once the butter sizzles, add in chicken parts, leaving them breathing room. When their edges curl and gild, check to see their bottoms are rosy too, then turn them over to gild on the other side. Pile the gilded chicken parts in the braising pan along with the sausage links. For each new batch of chicken parts, add another fresh little half-wad of butter into the sizzling oil.
Once all the meat is gilded, the oil will be littered with brown sediment cherished by gourmets but not by Italian ladies. So pour the oil through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl. Then run some hot water over the pan, and use paper towels to wipe it clean and dry it off well (remember the splattering oil!). Now gently pour out the oil from the bowl into the pan, leaving sediment behind; but not all the oil, just enough for an expansive pool, reserving the rest in case you need more later. For frying, you wanted the oil pond‑high to brown the sides of the meat; but now you want just enough of a pool to sauté and season the mushrooms in.
Put the skillet of strained oil back on medium heat and add in the mushrooms with a shower of salt (and maybe even another little half-wad of butter). The lowish heat will draw liquid out of the mushrooms as they heat up; when that liquid works up to simmer, raise the heat to high to cook it off fast.
Meanwhile, you’re chopping much garlic, at least a large clove per pack of meat. Crush each clove lightly with your knife handle and palm, just until cracking; cut away the ends and pull away the peel; halve each and, with flat-side down, slice lengthwise once or twice, then crosswise closely, to produce a hill of garlic bits. Once the mushrooms start sizzling in the oil because their shed liquid has boiled off, reduce the heat to medium, and scrape in your hill of garlic bits and fold them in, to sizzle gently along with the mushrooms over medium heat. Grind black pepper over all, to perfume the rising billows, and flip and fold all regularly, to gild the garlic evenly.
Meanwhile, seed several pelati (whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy—never not whole, never not imported), by halving them and squeezing the seeds out of each half; then chop them roughly. These tomato sprites are not an integral element of the dish; they’re only for rosy color, so one large pelato per pack of meat will be plenty.
Now, at the very first sign of any gilding of the gently sizzling garlic, no doubt heralded by a sweetening of its aroma, fold in the tomato bits along with their strained liquid, which should forestall the garlic’s browning. At this point, optionally, you could add in some pinches of gentle dried spice, such as marjoram or thyme. Not optional is much freshly chopped Italian parsley. Once you’ve chopped and folded in that aroma, taste for tastiness. More salt or pepper? Another tablespoon of that oil, or fresh sliver of butter? A little more sautéing, for more garlicky flavor?
When the mushrooms taste delicious, time for a light white wine (preferably Italian, needless to say) and the final transfer to the braising pan. First turn the heat under the braiser on to medium, to ready it to receive the mushrooms. Then raise the heat under the skillet to high, to raise its cheerful sizzle to a spirited pitch. Now pour a stream of wine all along the circumference of the sizzling skillet to puddle in the middle, like a pond the mushrooms peer over. Let the wine come to a lively simmer before flipping the mushrooms around in it. Now, with flair, pour the whole sizzling kit and caboodle all over the gilded meats in the by now sizzling braiser.
At this point, the braising liquid will look like a broth. You’ll want it to simmer gently but steadily, like urgent whispering, with the cover on the pan slightly ajar, to cook down to a sort of bubbly blonde sauce. You’ll of course need to turn over the meats and mushrooms from time to time, for even cooking and marrying. But the thing most to monitor is the thickening of the sauce. Figuring on 25-45 minutes of braising (faster with cover more ajar for firmer meat, and slower and mostly covered for tenderer), you should raise or lower the heat and uncover or cover the pan the more, to either slow thickening down or speed it up.
How much wine? How much cooking? How much thickening? I know but I can’t say. What I both know and can say is that it’s a matter of achieving a certain equipoise between juices and fats. The equipoise is threefold: a material balancing in amount of fat to liquid; a balancing of the fat in the liquid, by way of dispersion and suspension; and a syncing of evaporation and cooking, so that the sauce is achieved just when the meat is cooked.
Now, do you need to be thinking all this when cooking? Certainly not. It may well throw you off balance if you do. Words are ineffectual in actu flagrante. What you need to figure out is what this balance looks, smells, feels, and sounds like. Telling you how to get a pan sauce just right is like telling you how to ride a bike—I know I know how to get my balance, but I don’t know how to tell you how to get yours. You need to figure that out for yourself on your own bike.
Cross, you might carp and retort, then you don’t really know, do you? I’ll reply, Then you don’t know the first thing about cooking, do you? Cooking is about singulars. You’re not cooking tomatoes; you’re cooking this tomato here, the one in front of you. And though this tomato has a nature in common with every other tomato that has been or ever will be, it has decisive features all its own as well. In the first place, accidents of time, space, matter, and motion have limited how well this here tomato has realized tomato‑nature. No tomato is perfect, nor any other singular in matter and in motion, yourself not excepted. What’s more, there are all sorts of features this here tomato (and cook) have picked up from their own individual matter and motions that other tomatoes (and cooks) haven’t. And fact is, what is true of tomatoes generally is not more important to cooking one than what’s true of this one here in particular. So you need to take the time to acquaint yourself with this tomato of yours, cook.
One holiday I was talking with a doctor over dinner, who took issue with my use of the word “fact”. I was complaining that whatever the skepticism of the medical establishment (and consequently health insurance industry) about alternatives to physical therapy, the fact is that chiropractry and massage have helped my back much more. He said that’s not a fact. I looked at him perplexed. He explained it’s not a fact if it’s not proven.
Well, he’s right that “proven” isn’t what I meant by a fact. I thought facts were things that happen in the world, not the lab. I thought they were facts even before we know they are, let alone prove them. When I think of something as a fact, I’m thinking of some thing in the world, or some feature of some such thing, or a relation it has to another such thing, or their actions, reactions, and effects. I know of no way to know such singular facts except through an immediate perception of one, or at least its effect. So I really did think, for example, that I knew for a fact what makes my back hurt or not, at least proximately. As a matter of fact, I even thought, who else but me?
If some science-guy wants to conduct a study of what might or might not help other backs, can he even get started without my kind of knowledge of my own felt pain? Whatever other sort of second‑order knowledge he wants to work up about such pain—generalizations about common features, correlations, causes, calculations—won’t his basis always have to be my first order knowing of this here pain-in-my-ass right now? [No, that was not ad hominem.]
Science’s second-order generalizations so amass over time, they begin to seem more real to it than the actual beings. But science’s laws of nature can be precise only by prescinding from things in Nature, strangely enough. Precisely because Nature’s things are always individual, and what’s individual about them defies submergence in a concept or law, such singulars are only available to immediate perception. Forgetting its own first grounding in the immediate perception of things, a methodical skepticism about ordinary knowing pulls its own ground out from under itself. Trust me, Doc, until you know a back attack by having one, you don’t know the first thing about it. Let’s talk again when you can’t get up off the bathroom floor. I know a good chiropractor.
Science-guy not only has us all convinced that he’s the only one with knowledge and facts, he’s even got us convinced that the fact that his experiments keep changing his mind in no way keeps his knowledge from being knowledge or his facts from being facts. You see, because experimental method is self-correcting—able to uncover its own errors over time—there’s no reason to be troubled when it reverses itself and asserts as a fact the logical contradictory of what it had called a fact before. The idea is that because you know that what you know by experiment is revisable, you know your knowing is provisional, and this self-assured third-order knowing somehow saves your second-order knowing from not being knowing, and even makes it superior to any first-order knowing. As a matter of fact, nothing gets science-guy more excited than his finding a new proof of a new fact that completely overturns all heretofore accepted science on the matter. What’s up with that? You might think him even more interested in acquiring a reputation than knowledge.
I for one liked it better when facts were truths and knowledge knew it when it knew them. But thankfully you don’t need to know the laws of nature to cook. (By the way, what exactly is a natural “law,” anyway, and what’s “natural” about it? Is it a thing found in Nature? A feature of a thing found in Nature? An observable effect of such a thing? A relation to another such thing? Or are science’s laws of nature not actually found in Nature, just in your head, Science-Guy? [Okay, okay, so I did have a diatribe in me after all. As for those lovers of diatribe who left when I told them to, it’s like when a Rabbi turns away an aspiring convert three times, to see if he comes back, before taking him seriously.]
What you need to know to cook is what this thing in front of you looks, smells, tastes, and acts like. There are incalculably numerous determining variables at play that defy rule or measure, so the real cook skips the rules and measures and goes straight to the thing itself, relying on his immediate perception of it, and his experience of other immediate perceptions of others like it, to make the call about what this thing here needs here and now to become delicious. The commercial production of a good gourmet tomato sauce, guided by precisions of scientific design, is likely to produce more consistent results than homemade, but far less likely to produce homemade’s best result, because live cooking is alive to the present moment and to the tomato before it. Like the humble mushroom, if you put yourself at its service, it will deliver over to you its singular graces.
Contemplate your food. Look at it. Touch it. Smell it. Listen to it cooking. Track its transformations. Keep tasting and discerning. Definite measures of time and quantity are noble lies. The precision of such measures belies their approximation. Being averages, they yield but average results. Such measures can’t take precise measure of the being before you. Only you and your soul can. Real cooks know that you only really know how much is right, and when it’s right, from discerning how it looks, smells, feels, and tastes. You’ll know that that fish is cooked on one side and ready to turn when it looks it. Only you and your soul can know what that looks like. Only you can get it just right.
So stop complaining that I don’t give you measures, and start cooking. Learn from your food what your food alone can teach you. I can only point to what you must look for. I think ratios and analogies are better pointers for you than measures and minutes because at stake in cooking are the real relations between irreplicably individual beings in unrepeatable times and conditions. You must look at the things themselves to know them, not my recipes. My recipes are training wheels meant to be cast off when you learn to get your balance by yourself.
Now, if after all that’s been said, you still want recipes with quantities to follow faithfully, like some dutiful slave or poor excuse for a machine, then you’re loitering in the wrong electronic kitchen. If you’re intent on being a slave to a recipe rather than a servant to your food, then you need to depart this kitchen’s company of contemplative cooks, this band of culinary existentialists, and join the fooderyakkers aplenty in this wide world of the Web who will gladly give you the call of the kitchen timer to answer to, like cattle the cattle bell.
Okay, by now our braise should be ready: chicken fork‑tender, sausage succulent, mushrooms satiny, pan sauce tawny. Serve it up in this its finest moment, the grace of the present moment, singular because incarnate. But if you’ll need to reheat your braise for serving later, your pulpy sauce might collapse into a puddle of rosy oil, for loss of moisture and poise. That rosy oil will be delicious nonetheless, but troubling to weak consciences, so if you can’t re-inflate it by sizzling some wine, water, or broth back into it, use a slotted spoon to transfer your meat and mushrooms from pan to platter so as to have only enough oil to baste everything, but not so much as to form a pool at the bottom of the platter. For the strong conscience, you can’t go wrong, because the pan sauce tastes as good oily as creamy, even if in different ways. Sop it up with crusty bread, and see for yourself.
Chicken Braised with Sausage & Mushrooms
* Prepare white mushrooms (at least a pint per six‑pack of meat) by washing, trimming, and halving them, and then blanching them in boiling salted lemon-water for only one minute. Drain on paper towels (or else spin-dry).
* In a broad skillet, heat a pond of regular olive oil over medium heat and then gently brown Italian sausage links (perhaps cut into little halves). Remove to a braising pan.
* Trim, wash, dry well, and then salt and pepper small skinless chicken thighs & drumsticks (sticks perhaps cut off). Melt a wad of butter into the pond of oil, and gild the chicken parts on both sides. Pile in the braising pan with the sausage.
* Strain the oil through a fine sieve. Run hot water over the skillet and wipe it out with paper towels. Return an abundant half of the strained oil to the skillet, return the skillet to medium heat, and add another wad of butter to melt into it. Also add the mushrooms with a shower of salt.
* As the butter melts in and the mushrooms shed liquid that heats to a lively simmer, chop a lot of garlic—a fat clove per pint of mushrooms. When the garlic is all chopped, raise the heat high under the skillet to quickly cook off the shed liquid and bring the mushrooms to a lively sizzle in the oil (add more of the strained oil, if needed, to keep the mushrooms slick and slippery). Now fold in the chopped garlic, and lower the heat to medium. Let the garlic sizzle to golden, flipping frequently. At some point, grind black pepper all over.
* Meanwhile, halve several pelati (whole plum tomatoes—perhaps a fat one per pint of mushrooms), squeeze out their seeds, and chop roughly. When the garlic has blushed golden and sweet, fold in the chopped tomato. Then chop a little mound of fresh parsley, and fold that in.
* When the mushrooms look pretty and smell stirring, turn on the heat under the braising pan to medium-high, and turn the heat up to high under the skillet. When the skillet comes to a lively sizzle, pour a stream of light white wine all along the edge of the pan to puddle in the middle. When the pond of wine comes to a lively simmer, toss the mushrooms in it and then pour all out over the meat in the braising pan.
* Bring the braising pan to a lively simmer, and then lower the heat and cover the pan. For faster cooking and firmer flesh, leave the cover ajar; for meat falling tender from the bone, cook covered, longer, and slower. Either way, keep the simmer gentle but steady, and flip everything over now and again. Add more oil or liquid, as instinct prompts. By the time the meat cooks, the pan sauce should be luscious.