I am watching the Bon Appétit test kitchen Youtube videos. As I cook, as I clean, as I get ready for my shift at the bar. Every time I try to coax myself into spending my media-consumption time learning about the ways in which the bad-faith concept of fetal personhood is being used to abolish the human rights of actual living women, I watch Rick gloriously strut into the test kitchen. Slow Motion. Blue nail polish and patent shoes. I watch as he makes a brick red and glossy stewed pork in chili sauce. Every time I try to persuade myself that I should be paying attention to the emerging details of the concentration camps presently confining desperate refugees, many of them children who have been separated from their families, I watch Chris jog around the Bon Appétit offices pushing a cart of lightly-glazed sour-cream style yogurt donuts, fresh out of the frier. I watch as he delivers them to colleagues who, seated far from the test kitchen, rarely have the opportunity to taste its scraps and cast-offs. Whenever I am visited by a nagging sense that I should read that article, the one written by E. Jean Carroll. The one that unveils what is, sadly, merely the most recent example of the American president’s hatred, disrespect and abuse of women, I watch a series of videos in which the test-kitchen gang team up in pairs to create the perfect pizza, component-by-component.
Last night I dreamed that the Bon Appétit test kitchen was housed on the second-story of an unassuming building in my neighbourhood. I walked by it, feigning nonchalance the way one might approach a celebrity sighting - attempting to get a closer look without appearing too eager or being intrusive. From the ground below I could see inside through the vast wall of windows. The open-concept floor plan. The rows of long kitchen benches. The succulents and bric-a-brac adorning the sill. I caught no glimpse of Rick or Chris or Carla or Molly. But I kept walking, content in the knowledge that they were all in there, somewhere, in my neighbourhood, attempting to determine the appropriate thickness of the caramel layer in a homemade gourmet twix bar. Giving Andy a good-natured ribbing for spending too much money on a t-shirt deliberately made with holes. Using words and phrases like “noods” (noodles), “fingies” (fingers) and “celebration station” with inexplicable effortless charm. The Bon Appétit test kitchen is a balm for a mind that is weary of the cavalcade of socio-political calamities that keep coming. Relentlessly. It has invaded my subconscious, set up shop as a magical place of solace where everyone is delightful, and everything is delicious.
I have watched Molly Makes a Grilled Chicken Sandwich the most. The recipe is simple and unfussy. The ingredients and flavour profile are simple and classic - like a chicken caesar salad in a bun. Molly’s sandwich is the sort of quintessentially white Anglo-North-American food I often pass over, but with this sandwich I was enamoured. I decided I needed to make it, bought a family-pack of boneless chicken thighs (not a cut I often use), and tried my hand. The chicken was moist, the dressing was creamy with a briny tang from the cornichons, the lettuce and fennel slaw added a necessary crunch. Eating sandwiches for supper felt like a wonderful way to simplify, to take a break from filling my meal plans with restaurant-style dishes that contain multiple sub-recipes and take forever to cook, as I have a tendency to do. Molly’s sandwich was perfect, but I was inspired to create my own version. Sort of.
These Jerk Chicken Sandwiches take from Molly’s recipe the simple, unfussy, spirit of a chicken sandwich, the cut of chicken and, sort of, the cooking method (Molly used a grill for her sandwiches, I use a cast iron pan, but the steps remain the same). As it turns out, though sandwiches are easy to make, they are not quick to develop. You need to perfect the flavour combinations, making sure that all of the elements work well on their own and are well balanced together: the marinade, the sauce, the slaw, the toppings. This recipe has that balance. The scotch bonnets in the marinade make the chicken fiery hot (use fewer if you don’t love heat), but the heat is balanced by the warming sweetness of the allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, the fresh crunch of the cabbage slaw, the creaminess in both the slaw dressing and the avocado slices, and the tang of the barbecue sauce. You could smash the avocado with some lime, but slicing it makes the sandwich infinitely easier to eat.
I know that I cannot reside in the test-kitchen-world of pleasant, noncontentious, food media forever. I have been hiding there for some time - turning away from the unthinkable political realities that have been unfolding since that fateful 2016 election night in a way that only the relatively unaffected really can. It is enough to make anyone recoil. But part of my desire to look away stems from having recently left my PhD behind. It is what I am playfully calling “my transition period.” One that is characterized by the uncertainty of what I will do next, and of how to go about leading an intellectual life outside of and without the structures and credentials of academia. As confident as I am that my decision to leave was the right one, paying attention sometimes feels like a painful reminder of a kind of life that will not, as it turns out, be mine.
As I made the final edits to this post, I decided it was time to catch up on some of the reading that I have been avoiding; take a baby step towards resuming engagement with current events and food media - not only the recipes and aesthetics of something like the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, but also the culture and politics. Below are links to some of the best pieces I found, mostly from the month of June. Read one if you like, but when you are finished, balance it out by watching Molly make crispy smashed potatoes with walnut dressing.
Jerk Chicken Sandwiches
- 1 tablespoon allspice berries
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
- spring onions, chopped (use the white part and most of the green)
- 1 1/2 scotch bonnet chillies, finely chopped (use 2-3 if you want them really spicy)
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- Juice of 1 lime
- 4-6 chicken thighs
- ⅔ cup ketchup
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 large head of red cabbage (about 4 cups), sliced to 1/16th of an inch on a mandolin
- 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 3 tb sour cream
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- Juice of 1/2 a lime
- Handful of cilantro, roughly chopped
- 4 Hamburger buns
- 2 Avocados, Flesh removed and sliced into strips
- 6 HOURS TO 1 DAY BEFORE SERVING: Grind the allspice berries and black peppercorns in a spice grinder. Add them to the bowl of a food processor, along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, onions and chilies. Blend into a paste and mix in the sugar, salt, soy sauce and lime juice.
- Pour marinade into a large bowl and add the chicken thighs. Using your hands, work the marinade into the the skin of the chicken. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator from 6 hours to overnight.
- Make the BBQ Sauce: In a small saucepan, wisk together the ketchup, cider vinegar, brown sugar, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 10 minutes. The sauce will continue to thicken as it cools. Sauce can be made ahead - making it right after getting the chicken in the marinade, will save you a step during sandwich assembly - and will keep in the fridge for 1-2 weeks.
- WHEN READY TO SERVE: Make the Slaw. Add the cabbage, red onion, sour cream, sugar, lime juice and cilantro to a medium bowl. Mix together until vegetables are evenly coated with dressing.
- Heat a large cast-iron skillet or pan over medium-high. Brush pan with oil. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the largest chicken thigh. When a drop of water placed into the pan sizzles, place the chicken thighs into the pan (working in batches if necessary), skin side down. Sear, without moving the chicken, until it easily lifts off the pan (about 4-6 minutes). Turn chicken and sear other side for another 4-6 minutes, about 8-12 minutes total, or until the internal temperature of the chicken reads 160-165 degrees. Remove the chicken from the skillet and rest for 5 minutes (the meat will come up to at least 165 as it rests).
- While chicken rests, turn the broiler on high. Place a cooling rack on top of a sheet pan, and spread the buns out onto it. Place sheet pan into oven and broil buns until toasted - about 2-3 minutes. Watch carefully during this step, as buns can very quickly go from browned to burnt.
- ASSEMBLE SANDWICHES: Spread bottom buns with some of the BBQ sauce, arrange avocado slices on top. Then add the chicken (if there are 6 thighs, cut 2 of them and divide the meat amoung the 4 sandwiches), then slaw, drizzle more BBQ sauce on top and add the top buns. Serve.