I spent the last week of 2015 in Mexico City, blissfully gorging myself on meat, cheese, and gloriously simple carbohydrates. I ate red mole and black mole and guacamole, corn fungus (surprisingly delicious) and goat-milk caramel (ditto) and grasshoppers (not… great), barbacoa and chilaquiles and weird Mexican convenience store snacks, sandwich cookies and pastries and a pink drink called a Lulu that I absolutely would have been embarrassed to order at home, but whatever, we were on vacation, and if you can’t have pink drinks on vacation, when can you have them?
Naturally, I returned to New York with a heavy sigh and a mild case of scurvy. I was more than ready for January, when we atone for the excesses of the holidays with whole grains and hot water with lemon and diets disguised as “cleanses.”
Unfortunately for January, there’s a real deficit of “healthy” recipes in Nonnie’s cookbook.Sure, it’s got plenty of meaty mains and pastries; the vegetables, on the other hand, tend to be either canned or laced with animal fat. A quick scan at the collection will leave you marveling at the Greatest Generation’s lifespan — and shuddering when you picture the collective state of their arteries.
Not even a simple cucumber salad is safe. Nonnie’s version — which nonetheless may be the cookbook’s least gut-busting recipe — is sweetened with a healthy amount of sugar and topped with full-fat sour cream, although she’s careful to note that the latter is optional. It tastes pretty good, if you can deal with pickles that might be as comfortable on a dessert buffet as they are on a dinner plate.
But because cucumber salad alone does not a dinner make, I decided I had to leaf through the cookbook again for a suitable main course. And when I couldn’t seem to find one that a) seemed like it’d go with cucumber salad and b) was vaguely “healthy,” I decided to throw caution to the wind and just make some barbecue chicken instead. So much for January.
Cucumber Salad; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
2-4 cucumbers [I went with two, because the ginormous specimens Mikey got from Trader Joe’s are almost certainly twice the size of a ’70s-era cucumber]
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt [plus extra for sprinkling on the cucumbers]
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon chopped dill (fresh)
Dairy sour cream (optional)
Peel cucumbers and slice paper-thin. [Use a mandoline, if you have one — I did.] Place slices on paper towel, sprinkle with salt, and let stand for 15-30 minutes. [The longer they stand, the more liquid they’ll lose — and the more brine they’ll drink up.]
Meanwhile, combine water, sugar, salt, and pepper in a small saucepan, over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, so that the sugar will dissolve. Remove from heat. Set aside to cool.
Add vinegar to cooled liquid and mix well. Squeeze cucumbers gently to remove liquid. [Try not to have latke flashbacks.] Place in a shallow bowl and pour liquid over slices of cucumber. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. [I did the former, and they had plenty of flavor; I imagine they’d be even more intense if left to soak overnight.]
Just before serving, drain cucumbers, sprinkle with dill and parsley. If desired, mix in sour cream at this time. [You probably won’t desire any sour cream, but more on that later.]
Barbecued (or Broiled) Chicken; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 frying chicken (quartered)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup salad oil [a.k.a. whatever neutral oil you have, canola/vegetable/peanut/etc.]
1/4 cup tomato juice [Did you know there’s a scientific rationale for why tomato juice tastes better on airplanes than it does at sea level? Because there is!]
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and pepper
1 finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon sugar [Again with the sugar! Here, though, it’s actually not enough — but again, more on that later]
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1-2 drops Tabasco sauce
Wash chicken [DON’T WASH YOUR CHICKEN] and pat dry. Combine all other ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Mix well, reduce heat; cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. [Nonnie and I disagree here — I’d leave the sauce uncovered so that it can reduce and concentrate in flavor.]
Place chicken pieces, skin side up, in a broiling pan; brush with sauce and broil. Turn and baste often until done (about 10 minutes on each side). [Don’t take that last part to mean “oh, you can wait 10 minutes before turning it to the second side,” unless you want this to happen:]
The verdict: The cucumber salad was refreshing, but definitely too one-note sweet; I’m also not a huge fan of white vinegar, and I don’t think there were enough other flavors to keep it from overpowering the cukes even after they were drained. Adding sour cream made the salad taste sort of like a vegetable-based dessert — which wasn’t unpleasant, but I also couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.
If I had it to do over again, I’d cut down on the sugar and use white wine or rice vinegar instead — and I’d also consider adding dill and/or garlic during the soaking step, rather than just adding the herbs in at the end. And I’d probably just leave out the sour cream altogether, because I think I just decided that I didn’t like it after all.
As for the chicken: The meat itself was phenomenally cooked and exceptionally juicy, at least after I figured out the best way to do it under the broiler — flip and brush more sauce onto each piece every five minutes, until about 20 minutes have elapsed. That way, you’ll make sure it’s cooked through without drying out the chicken or burning (too much of) the sauce.
Speaking of: I wasn’t a huge fan of Nonnie’s sauce as written. It’s more like a thin, vinegar-onion glaze than barbecue sauce, and a trip under the broiler doesn’t really do much to transform its taste (maybe because there’s not enough sugar in it to really caramelize).
So I took the liberty of doctoring it, adding tomato paste and extra soy sauce (to counteract the vinegar with savory notes), ketchup (for more tomato-y flavor and sweetness), and smoked paprika (because all barbecue sauce needs a touch of smoke), then putting it back on the stove to reduce for a few minutes. I ended up with a sauce tasty enough to eat straight from a spoon, even when it was burned onto the baking pan beneath the chicken; the only trouble was that there wasn’t enough of it.
Given the demands of January, though, maybe that’s actually a good thing.