Recently someone very dear to me challenged me to make an effort to do only one thing at a time. (I say "dear to me" because people who know me well know that the shortest distance between me and an idea I'm not particularly fond of is a challenge.) The idea is this:
When you're watching TV, watch TV (no computer, no phone, no hopping up every five seconds to wash a dish or get a snack or examine your eyebrows in the bathroom).
When you're driving the car, drive the car (no listening to the radio, no checking your text messages at red lights).
When you're writing, write.
When you're talking, talk.
When you're cooking, cook.
No. This is tough stuff, friends! I make my living, as I suspect most people do, through a great deal of multitasking. So multitasking begins to mean productivity, and then productivity begins to determine just which column your day can fall into: How many things did I do today? 36 things! Good day. 32 things! Tsk, tsk. Do more!
It requires real effort to do less, I find. It is contradictory but true that there can be comfort in a restless mind. (And I miss my NPR, I do.)
But a person can learn a lot about herself in the ensuing quiet, and in the attempts—however futile—at stillness. Even if that thing is namely that she is not very good at being quiet and still.
It stands to reason that doing one thing at a time will mean that you genuinely do that thing—writing, driving, cooking—better than you would otherwise do it. There is no question that quality suffers at the hand of quantity.
And yet this dinner, prepared in the peaceful calm of just me, just my kitchen, no distractions, was a complete failure of most of the things that would normally fall under the heading of success, where recipes are concerned: I had none of the proper ingredients, I did everything in the wrong order, and I wound up with something altogether foreign to what this is supposed to be ... at 9 p.m.
LOOSELY* speaking (*so, so loosely), this was an attempt to re-create this.
I've never eaten at a New York halal cart, but I'd read enough about it on the World Wide Web to hope that it would approximate the late-night food of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin that I loved so much in college.
I was in trouble almost from the word go. Or from the word halal. For one thing, here's what halal means, according to Wikipedia:
Halal foods are foods that Muslims are allowed to eat or drink under Islamic Shariʻah. The criteria specify both what foods are allowed, and how the food must be prepared. The food must come from a supplier that uses halal practices. Specifically, the slaughter must be performed by a Muslim.
Yeah, I'm fairly certain that's not happening at my Winn-Dixie. So I'm loath to put the word halal anywhere near this dish, lest I offend people who genuinely eat according to religious strictures. This is not that, is what I'm saying.
Winn-Dixie caused further problems by selling no boneless, skinless chicken thighs. And the bony, skinny chicken thighs they had looked ... suspect. Sigh. Boness, skinless breasts it would have to be.
For the sauce, white vinegar! I have that at home.
No I don't. White wine vinegar it would have to be.
Iceberg lettuce? All I have is Romaine. Harissa? Nowhere to be found in my market. Pocketless pita bread? Oops, forgot that entirely.
Once I got home with my rag-tag bunch of ingredients-that-were-not-quite-the-right-ingredients, I embarked on a completely flawed effort to do things according to the recipe. It turns out that a) I am really very rusty when it comes to following instructions, and b) my reading comprehension needs work.
The finished product though, is a revelation. I may never cook another chicken breast without marinating it in this intoxicating (and so simple!) mixture. Lemon, coriander, garlic, oregano—this is piquant business.
The sauce? The sauce is so weird, y'all. I was absolutely convinced that it was inedible when I first stirred it together. I left out the sugar, because I really wasn't sure about stirring an entire tablespoon of the stuff into my mayo/yogurt mixture. But with those 2 aggressive teaspoons of black pepper, I actually sneezed when I tasted it. So I decided to give the sugar a try, and the whole thing tasted ... well, still odd. Still, as a last-ditch snatch at authenticity, I topped my chicken and rice with a few dollops. And guess what? Balance. It turns out that sometimes the route may be circuitous, but it still gets you to the finish line, which in my mind is deliciousness.
Full disclosure: I still think a little bit goes a long way with the white sauce, but it truly is the element here that elevates this to something beyond your typical (albeit yummy) chicken and rice dinner.
According to those in the know, halal cart chicken is always served with a lettuce-and-tomato salad, which pairs really nicely here—it adds both crunch and coolness against the spiciness of all that black pepper and the hot hot heat of what in my case turned out to be sriracha (the only hot sauce I had on hand).
In short, you should make this. Because it is wonderful. And because it is easy. And because I'm going to show you how to make it wonderful and easy in the recipe below. Which is to say, do as I say, not as I do.
In the stillness and quiet, I am still a cautionary tale.
Not-At-All-Halal Chicken and Rice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
½ teaspoon ground coriander
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1½ cups basmati rice
2½ cups chicken broth
½ cup lowfat mayonnaise
½ cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 Romaine lettuce heart, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
1. Combine first 5 ingredients in a blender; blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place chicken and half the lemon juice mixture, reserving remaining lemon juice mixture, in a large zip-top plastic bag; seal bag, turning to coat chicken in marinade. Marinate in refrigerator 1 hour, turning bag occasionally.
2. Remove chicken from marinade, and season with salt and (liberally) with pepper. Heat canola oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until lightly smoking. Place chicken in pan, in a single layer, and cook without disturbing 4 minutes or until lightly browned. Turn chicken, and cook undisturbed 6 more minutes. Remove to a cutting board and let cool 5 minutes.
3. Chop chicken into roughly ¼- to ½-inch pieces. Transfer to a bowl, and toss with reserved marinade; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
4. Melt butter over medium heat in a large saucepan; add turmeric and cumin, and cook 1 minute. Stir in rice and cook, stirring often, 4 minutes. Stir in chicken broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat; cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and let rest 15 minutes.
5. Whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, next 4 ingredients, and 2 teaspoons pepper in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.
6. Return same large, heavy-bottomed skillet to stovetop over medium-high heat; add chicken and marinade and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and heated through. Top rice with chicken; serve with lettuce, tomato, hot sauce, white sauce, and naan, if desired. Makes 6 servings.