a little something extra

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Straight to the limbic system

Scientific literature has it that the human sense of smell is the sense most closely tied to the individual's emotional life. Doubt my word on this? You must have guessed that I'd have references... try here. Or here. Or here.

When I was living in Austin and going to grad school, I lived in a student co-op with roughly 50 other grad students. Each member of the co-op agreed to put in 5 hours of labor per week, which helped keep costs and therefore rent, low.

My school schedule was not conducive to 5 hours a week of anything except classes, teaching, meetings and rehearsals. But I did find a couple of labor assignments that I could commit to, the best of which was making Sunday brunch. Yes, brunch for 50. You can imagine how strange it felt to start cooking for one when I moved out of the co-op after graduation.

I usually made vegetarian menus, since I had been vegetarian for about three years when I moved into the co-op. I had ulterior motives for my menu planning -- I wanted to make sure there would be vegetarian leftovers available when my fellow cooks chose meat-based dishes for other meals during the week.

Cooking brunch was actually pretty peaceful. Menus had to be composed and submitted at the beginning of the semester, so the kitchen chief could organize them such that we didn't have six people making six different versions of the same dish in a week, and the food buyer (another labor assignment) could make sure that the ingredients for a given menu were on hand when they were needed.

With all that taken care of ahead of time, I would go into the kitchen at about 8 a.m. I'd turn on the radio to Austin's KUT radio station and listen to volunteers read articles from newspapers and magazines, in a program intended for KUT listeners who were blind or reading-impaired. Prep work usually took the lion's share of the time, but at 11 a.m. two minions would appear to spend an hour helping me get the meal ready to serve. I don't think I ever hit noon without the food ready to go.

Though I had my vegetarian habit going, I usually created one or two meat-bearing menus per semester. One spring, I decided to include my mother's very simple Spicy Rubbed Chicken recipe as the cornerstone of one of my menus. The dish doesn't take long to prepare (a plus when you're cooking for 50), so the first time that menu came up I didn't actually start making it till the last hour, while the minions were around. I had a big bowl of the mixed spices and about 5 million little bite-sized pieces of chicken to work with. I heated up the oil and got started....

WOW. The entire kitchen smelled like HOME with a capital H. I didn't even eat meat at that point, but somehow that spicy rubbed chicken had assumed the ability to signal Home to my limbic system.

I'm still a vegetarian. I haven't made this dish since 1994 at the absolute most recent. But here, for you, is the recipe. Enjoy!

Spicy Rubbed Chicken

1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp allspice
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 chicken breast halves
1 tsp olive oil

Heat the oil in an oven-safe skillet, and the oven to 450 degrees.

Mingle all the spices on a plate or in a wide, shallow bowl.

Coat the chicken in the spice mixture, pressing it in well.

Brown the chicken breasts on both sides over high heat.

Put the skillet with the chicken in the oven to finish it. It should take about 10 minutes.

Serve hot. Think of home.


At 5:14 PM , Blogger Kate Monaghan said...

This recipe is achieving mythic status - it has reentered my life twice in the past ten days. First, as Shannon's birthday-dinner gift to Colleen, then as part of Megan's olfactory nostalgia (what a great combination of sounds! And how often in my life will I get the chance to combine them?)

Accepting this recurring theme as a Sign, I resurrected the recipe in its original, stained newsprint form and made it for dinner tonight. You women are right - it's good. Tnanks for bringing it back to active duty.

At 5:42 PM , Blogger meeegan said...

My pleasure, and I'm sure it was my sisters' pleasure too! I'm glad to see the comment mojo is working for you now.

At 5:44 PM , Blogger Sam Brady said...

You likely don't remember me--I was Ben's next door neighbor in Hopkins our Freshman year and met you several times. I found your blog via the link at his and Wanda's, and saw this recipe. I'm not much of a chef, but I thought it sounded good so I had a go at it--wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing it.

At 8:16 PM , Blogger meeegan said...

Hey, Sam! You're welcome. I'm glad you liked it.

At 12:42 PM , Blogger Benjamin said...

It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of Sam's posting - Sam is "not much of a chef" in much the way that W is "not much of a president". I lived with the man for 2 years (Sam, not W - had I lived with W for two years you can bet there'd be some changes around here) and not once did I ever see him cook anything more complicated than a can of spaghetti-o's.

He's improved since then, but for him to successfully manage this recipe represents a tectonic shift in the underpinnings of the societal fabric that makes up my universe.

Or, anyway, it's very surprising.

Good on ya', mate! You can come to my house and cook it for me next time! 87)

At 5:49 PM , Blogger Sam Brady said...

Pot, meet kettle. Or in this case, the amazing Thomson Hall rice cooker, Benjamin--the man who once fed an entire floor of our dorm rice beause he got hungry and didn't know rice expanded when it cooked.


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