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Say yes to real food

(article, Sarah Gilbert)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] "Poultry skin is a no-no!" trumpets AOL's welcome screen, under the heading "10 foods you shouldn't eat." The first food on the list is chicken pot pie, "whether it's homemade, fast food, or store-bought."

I work for AOL, and part of my job is angling to get stories promoted on the welcome screen. I know the drill: The typical reader is highly self-conscious, worried about (among a huge list of other things) her weight. This is making it easy for her, putting it in a list. Best of all, she can feel good that she's avoiding these "diet dangers." I also know that, by and large, the writers who create this content are not scientists; in fact, even a scientist could not say for certain whether poultry skin, or butter-and-chicken-fat-laden chicken pot pie, is truly a danger to your diet.

But I know better. It is not science or well-promoted lists that inform my diet choices. I look elsewhere for my health advice, peering past the (as Michael Pollan calls it) "nutritionism" and "light" culinary magazines. I look into my soul. I look into the past, from whence cometh the real truth. 

I believe in the leaf, and the products of those who eat the leaf. I believe in free-range chicken, fed dandelions and slugs instead of corn and soybeans and cow parts. I believe in butter, whole milk, cream, all of the wonderful dairy gifts bestowed by cows who eat grass. I believe in collard greens. I believe in ham.

Most of all, I believe in chicken pot pie, with a side of crispy skin.

[%image "reference-image" float=left width=400 caption="Don't be afraid of butter from pastured cows."] Here is how I cook a chicken. I take a cube of butter and a large iron skillet. I mean a cube as in "four ounces." Yes. I take a lot of salt; the better the salt, the better the skin. And some pepper, if I'm in the mood.

In the skillet, I melt the butter, as hot as I can get it without burning. I rinse my chicken, I pat it dry, and I pour salt all over it and smack it into that pan. Every few minutes, I turn the chicken, using a carving fork to get it to stand on its head or lie on its wing, until the skin is as brown as polished wood. I heat the oven to 350 degrees or so, and I return the chicken to a respectable position and stick the whole thing in the oven.

When the juices run clear and the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, I remove the chicken. I do not let it rest. I engage in what my husband calls the "ceremonial stripping of the skin." I stand over the oven, scalding my fingers as I peel off chicken skin.

I eat my chicken with whole foods I've cooked myself. Potatoes, perhaps made into a salad with onions and (sweetener-free) mayonnaise, perhaps mashed with a little butter and cream, perhaps gratinéed. (Please see Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking for more good ideas about potatoes.) Roasted beets sprinkled with goat cheese. Garlic-and-butter-braised greens. There I go, adding butter again.

Here is how I cook vegetables, each in its own season. Green beans. Swiss chard. Broccoli. Cauliflower. Kale. Collard greens. Snap peas. I wash them in cold water; I trim whatever I'd rather not eat; I cut them into relatively uniform pieces. I blanch them, just until barely tender, in the littlest possible bit of boiling salted water. I pour out the water, and in its place I throw a very large chunk of butter. More salt. Pepper. Paprika or chipotle if I'm in the mood. And I cook over medium-high heat, stirring and flipping until the vegetables start to get caramel sweetness on the edges.

Here is how I make a chicken pot pie. I take my leftover chicken and my leftover chicken fat (scooped gloppily out of the cast-iron pan). I put the chicken fat in yet another skillet, and I heat it up. I chop up onions, maybe yellow onions or sweet Walla Wallas or red onions or shallots, and maybe some garlic — whatever I've found local and fresh. I look for a big, chunky carrot; I prefer the yellow ones for pot pies. The uglier the better. (Gene Thiel grows a fabulously ugly yellow carrot.) I peel and chop it, and into the fat it goes. I mix, I stir, I cook, until the onions begin to become translucent. Into the mess I sprinkle a quarter cup or so of flour. I whisk that madly for two or three minutes, until it starts to smell amazing. Into the mix I pour milk. Whole milk. A couple of cups. More whisking, more cooking, until it starts to bubble and get thick.

Do you like mushrooms? I do, so much so that I sauté them separately, sliced, in butter with lots of chopped garlic. I throw all this together — the onion-and-carrot roux I've made (Did you know you could make a roux? You just did!), the mushrooms, the chicken (a cup or so of chopped chicken, whatever makes you happy), and sometimes cumin or paprika or sage or marjoram or thyme. Whatever I'm in the mood for. Sage is especially good in the winter. Into a casserole dish it all goes.

[%image chicken float=right width=400 caption="Roasted chicken."] If you like potatoes in your pot pie, you should chop them small, as small as your carrots, and add them to the sauté a minute or two after you add the carrots. They'll have cooked enough by the time you get to the end.

Now. There should be a crust, and in your crust should be three ingredients: butter, good organic flour, and salt. If you do not feel up to a pie crust tonight, you may find house-made puff pastry at many markets, like my own local fave, Pastaworks. That's just perfect! Cut a piece that fits your casserole dish, lay it gently on top of your mixture, and bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until the puff pastry is the golden color of the flesh of butternut squash. We'll do the pie crust another day. If you know how to make biscuits, you can use biscuit dough as a crust.

There we are, two diet dangers, lickety-fingers-split. And now that we have sung the hymns and gotten through the prayers, it is time for the sermon.

Hear what I am saying to you this day! Fat will not make you fat. Eating butter and chicken fat has not been proven to increase your chances of heart attack, obesity, diabetes, or failing to get a date for the prom. No! Listen to my words! The medical establishment has NOT proven that fat is bad for you.

In fact, quite the contrary. Many scientists now agree that the reason our modern society suffers from so-called dietary diseases — some even include all forms of cancer on the list — is because we eat so much cheaply-wrought processed foods. As Michael Pollan says, seeds instead of leaves. Corn, chemically altered until it becomes sweet and almost (or actually?) poisonous. Soybeans, made into a substance that no longer resembles food. Colorings and preservatives. Artificial flavor. Beef fed entirely on corn and barely able to stand in its own excrement; turkeys so top-heavy they cannot mate on their own. Just because we are only now seeing the terrible videos of so-called "downer" cattle being prodded onto the chopping block does not mean that this has just now happened. No. These cows, despite what the marketers tell you, are not happy.

Instead, these scientists believe that you should eat leaves and the products of leaves. Cows who eat grass. Chickens who eat dandelions and maggots. Milk from cows and goats who eat more grass. Turkeys who know the meaning of a good frolic.

I cannot guarantee to you that you will not die from a heart attack if you eat a diet rich in leafy fats and almost entirely devoid of sugar, white flour, trans fats, chemical substances that you cannot (or do not wish to) pronounce, and sweet things that come in packaging wrapped in packaging and can last virtually forever. But I refuse to believe that something so delicious and irresistible as the crispy buttery skin peeled off a chicken, the harmony of pot pie, the vegetables cooked until richly sweet with butter, should ever be associated with a "No!" unless it is "No, don't eat it all, honey. I haven't had enough!"

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