The Culinary Expression of the Wetland, or, Chickn’n’biscuits
The most striking feature of Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield is the wetland that sits at its center. Even in winter – if you want to call this winter – when the pond is iced over and almost everything is dead, it brings a certain thrill of being an explorer or a pirate to venture out on the center’s causeways between the reed-covered islands, your heart jumping a bit when the floating bridge gives just a little under your weight. Martha and I enjoyed our walk there last Sunday and though I did my best to simply take in the natural beauty, it wasn’t long before my mind shifted to what we’d be eating for dinner.
An experienced forager would probably have been able to find a feast amongst the fallen leaves and icy paths, but since I have trouble distinguishing an elm from an oak, I couldn’t take my dinner inspiration directly from the land. Instead, I took it to a more conceptual level, asking, what really is a wetland? A soupy morass, a muddy stew of plants and animals, dotted here and there with islands of reeds that floating on top.
If there’s one thing my culinary education has prepared me for up to this point, it’s the cooking of soupy morasses. I had in mind a chicken stew – duck would have been too cute, let alone turtle – full of onions, carrots, mushrooms and peas and bound together by sauce velouté – chicken stock thickened with a roux. And those fluffy islands floating on top? Biscuits.
From browning the chicken to plopping the biscuit batter on top of the stew and baking it all together, this can all be done in one pot. I used:
- Olive oil
- 3 chicken leg quarters
- 2 onions, diced
- 4 carrots, peeled and diced
- 1/2# button mushrooms, quartered
- 6 T flour
- 6 T butter
- 4 c chicken stock
- 8 oz frozen peas
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 cups white flour
- 1 T baking powder
- 1 1/2 t sugar
- 1 t salt
- 1/2 t baking soda
- 4 T cold butter, cut into cubes
- 1 1/2 c cold buttermilk
Make the Stew: Heat oven to 350ºF. Sprinkle the chicken legs with salt and pepper. In a dutch oven, or a large cast-iron pan if you’re dextrous, heat a little oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook until well-browned. Turn the chicken over and immediately place the vessel in the oven. Roast until chicken registers 170ºF – about 25 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set on a plate. Drain any accumulated chicken fat and juices to a small bowl.
Place the dutch oven back over medium heat. Pour a few teaspoons of the conserved chicken fat in and add carrots and onions. Cook the vegetables until softened and slightly browned, 10—15 minutes. Remove to a large bowl. Return dutch oven to medium heat and add a few more teaspoons of the chicken fat (if that runs out, olive oil or butter is fine). Add the mushrooms and cook until browned. Add to bowl with the onions and carrots.
When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and discard (or, if nobody’s looking, eat). Remove the chicken from the bones and shred by hand. Add chicken to bowl with onions, carrots and mushrooms.
Heat butter over medium heat in dutch oven. When foaming subsides, whisk in flour. Cook a minute or two, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in chicken stock–keep stirring! Bring to a boil then add reserved vegetables and chicken. Turn off the heat, stir in peas and lemon juice, and adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
Make the Biscuits: Heat the oven to 450ºF. Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Drop in butter cubes and pulse until distributed into flour, about eight 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Fold in buttermilk with a rubber spatula until just mixed.
Using well-floured hands, plop small handfuls of biscuit dough directly on top of stew, starting in the center and working out to the edges.
Bake stew, uncovered, until biscuits are browned, about 25 minutes.