As we settle in to our home in the foothills of Virginia, one thing that has become apparent over the last month is that we may have left the marsh-laced lowcountry, but my cooking hasn't. After four decades (almost my entire adult life) in a Savannah kitchen, the patterns and flavors of that unique coastal cuisine have become an indelible part of my cooking.
No matter how one looks at it, moving and resettling in another place, even a beloved one, is daunting and stressful. So it's no surprise that, once the kitchen was settled, our meals have been a steady stream of comfort food favorites. It was also no surprise that many of those comforting dishes go back to our childhood—steaming bowls of cheese grits, country-style steak, macaroni pie, my mother's baked chicken.
What did surprise me—and shouldn't have—is how many of them came from those four decades in the lowcountry. One in particular is a simple, homey dish that was once a staple in virtually every kitchen regardless of the social, economic, or racial roots of the cook: Chicken and Rice.
Old Fashioned Lowcountry Chicken and Rice
This is really a pilau, alternately known as pilaw, perlow, or perloo in the Carolina/Georgia Lowcountry. The name and defining technique derive from the pilafs of ancient Turkish cookery, and most likely came to our shores by way of enslaved West African cooks. But no matter what you call it, comforts both body and soul like nothing else.
The recipe looks long, but it's really quite simple. The chicken and broth can be made up to four days ahead. In fact, I usually make a larger batch, so that I have extra meat and broth for other things. Of course, you can always skip that part and make it with leftover rotisserie chicken and packaged broth, but it won't be nearly as flavorful.
For the chicken and broth:
1 medium onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large ribs celery, including the leafy tops, scrubbed under cold running water, tops left whole and stalks sliced
2 medium carrots, scrubbed under cold running water, trimmed, and sliced
2 healthy sprigs each parsley, sage, and thyme, or a teaspoon each dried sage and thyme tied up in cheesecloth or a tea ball
3 quarter-sized slices ginger
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2-2½ pounds whole, skin-on chicken breasts or a combination of breast and thigh
For the rice:
1 cup white long grain rice
1 small onion or ½ medium onion, trimmed, split, peeled, and diced small
2 medium ribs celery, washed as above, trimmed, strung, and diced small
2 medium or 1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled, and diced small
2 teaspoons each chopped fresh sage and thyme or 1 teaspoon each if dried
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley, optional
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. The chicken and broth can be made up to four days ahead. Make sure everything is cooled before storing it, well-covered, in the refrigerator. Put the onion, celery, carrots, herbs, ginger and whole peppercorns in a heavy-bottomed lidded 4-to-5-quart pot. Lay the chicken on top, skin-up, and season liberally with salt.
2. Add enough water to completely cover the chicken and turn on the heat to medium. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow but steady simmer, cover, and cook until the chicken is cooked through and tender, at least 1 hour. Turn off the heat, uncover, and let it cool. Remove the chicken and strain the broth, discarding the solids. If you're not using it right away, put the chicken in a larger storage container, cover it with the broth, cover tightly, and refrigerate until needed. If all the broth doesn't fit into the container, store the remainder in a separate jar or tub.
3. At least half an hour before you're ready to make the rice, remove the chicken and broth from the refrigerator. Skin, bone, and pick off the cartilage from the chicken and dice the meat. Warm the broth in a pot over medium heat or in the microwave. Wash the rice in 3-4 changes of water until the water is mostly clear and drain well.
4. Put the butter and onion in a heavy-bottomed pot (the one in which the chicken cooked is fine or use a smaller 3-quart pot) and turn on the heat to medium. Sauté, stirring often, until the onion is translucent but not colored, about 3 minutes, then add the carrot and celery. Sauté until the vegetables are softened but not colored, about 3 minutes longer, then add the rice and a large pinch of salt. Stir until the grains are coated with fat and warmed through.
5. Stir in 2 cups of broth, bring it to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the broth is mostly absorbed, about 12 minutes. Gently fold in the chicken, herbs, and peas, if using. Cover tightly, lower the heat, and cook until the rice is fluffy and tender, about 10-12 minutes more. Fluff the rice with a fork. Before serving, sprinkle it with freshly-milled black pepper and, if you have it, parsley.