Jun 30, 2020 02:00PM
By Cornelius O'Donnell
After fifty-plus years, memories of my high school days are still with me. I attended a large, somewhat unusual, Catholic school in Albany, New York, staffed by the Brothers of Holy Cross and the Sisters of Mercy—the Brothers for the boys on the two lower floors and the Sisters for the girls on the upper two floors. The façade also featured different entrances for each. Even at lunchtime the girls vacated the cafeteria before the boys entered.
I enjoyed the classes in Latin (shamefully gone in most schools today) and in various English classes, where we’d write essays, learn when to use a semicolon, and diagram sentences at the chalk board. The clergy were our spell-check back then. I hope the Brothers who taught me so well are somehow reading Mountain Home from afar and above.
But another class remains vivid in my memory. When we were seniors, the head of the school brought in a layman, a retired lawyer who was on the Parish Council. J. Emmett Wall was an imposing figure with his three-piece suit, watch chain, and a crisp linen handkerchief in his pocket. His purpose was to lecture us once a month or so (as I recall) on manners—you know, standing when senior folk came into the room, writing thank-you notes, holding the chair for females (though I seem to lose points these days for doing that).
You may ask: what does this have to do with food? Well, for one thing, the table seems to be a place where manners are a key ingredient. Which fork should we use? Should you tilt the soup bowl away from you to enjoy the very last drop? Should you refold napkins? How about conversation? I remember the two things we were told to avoid: politics and religion. Anyway, I soaked up Mr. Wall’s words like mushrooms do a marinade. It was all so Downton Abbey, as much of that series revolved around the table.
Another Memorable Class
This rumination about classes brings on another school memory. The setting was the spacious home economics room in a normally closed-for-the-summer high school in Seaside, Oregon. There was a broad deck overlooking the Pacific.
James Beard, world-renowned cookbook author and teacher, had become Corning’s spokesman for the smooth-top line of appliances. He called me for help, and the west coast distributor made sure to lend the school the three ranges. An Oregon native, Jim chose to do several weeks of classes there, and I went to the first two weeks to lend a hand with the use and care of the units.
Unlike most chefs, Jim was a big fan of electric rather than gas for cooking. The classes were such a pleasure to take, they made an enduring impact on me, and many of the students became friends. Several of us ended up sharing a chateau in the Dordogne region of France. We cooked dinners from the market’s bounty, and enjoyed lunch each day at different one-star or better restaurants. The dollar was strong and good food was affordable. We also managed a cooking class in Périgord.
Anyway, here goes with a recipe I learned from Jim. Thankfully, there’s no worry about forks. You eat it with your impeccably clean hands and lots of napkins. In fact, this is great picnic or tailgate fare. Just make sure the filling is warm and the lettuce icy cold—no need to fire up the grill, just cool the cooler and wrap the container of hot stuff in several layers of newsprint.
James Beard’s Chicken in Lettuce Leaves
Quoting Jim from his The New James Beard Cookbook, “This is a rather Westernized version of an oriental dish that’s simple to make and great fun to eat.” Cool, huh?
You can take your time and prepare the ingredients well ahead. Use the meat from a rotisserie chicken (a cook’s best friend) if you don’t want to cook your own. This serves six to eight and can easily be doubled. It’s a good use for iceberg lettuce, a sometimes maligned green. I have also used Boston or Bibb myself, but they are more fragile and can’t be quite so heaped with filling.
- 3 heads iceberg, Boston, or Bibb lettuce
- 1½ cups finely chopped yellow, white, or red onion
- ¾ cup finely chopped green bell pepper (red is OK also)
- 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 oz. can mild green chilies, drained and chopped
- 1-2 Tbsp. finely chopped jalapeño pepper, seeds and white ribs removed
- 3 c. finely cooked chicken or turkey
- 1½ c. cooked rice (I’ve used plain couscous or bulgur—they work and are a breeze to cook)
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil (plus more for garnish)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1/3 c. cognac (a masterly inclusion and so Beard)
- ½ c. low-sodium chicken broth
- ¼ c. chopped parsley
- ¾ c. toasted shaved almonds
Carefully separate the lettuce leaves from the head, leaving leaves whole. It helps to press on the whole lettuce to loosen it before separating the leaves. Rinse them and pat dry with paper or cotton kitchen towels. Arrange in your nicest glass bowl and chill in the refrigerator. I use a small sheet pan or large dinner plate as a cover.
In a large skillet, sauté the onion and green pepper in the butter. Cook just until wilted. Add chilies, jalapeños, chicken, and rice. Toss well, cover and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Then add the basil, salt, pepper, cognac, and broth. The mixture should not be dry, but you don’t want it sloppy either. Heat through and taste for seasoning.
Arrange on your nicest shallow platter/serving dish. Garnish with the parsley and almonds. Place the bowl of lettuce leaves next to it. Each person spoons some of the chicken mixture onto a lettuce leaf and rolls it up, to be eaten with the fingers. It’s hands-on and hands-in dining, and, for the dish washer in the family, that’s a wonderful thing.
I’d plan a centerpiece of Parmesan bread sticks swirled and served in your best vase, and a Finger Lakes dry or semi-dry Riesling.