A dramatic rainstorm was rolling through the lower Florida Keys as we tried to decide what to make for breakfast the day after our granddaughter Audrey’s first birthday.
My daughter-in-law Lourdes wisely poured some freshly squeezed orange juice and put some of her homemade banana bread in the toaster to stave off the equally volatile storms of unquenched thirsts or insatiable appetites propelled and honestly worsened by our practice of morning café con leches.
Our family’s meal planning is the center of our conversations the way some families go on about sports, politics or the weather. Luckily, we had her birthday party on a much sunnier day before. Soon we’d be heading back to Miami but first we decided a family lunch would be a fitting finale to the celebratory weekend.
The sound of tires splashing through puddles was a soothing one as we sat in the soft light of the small Cuban breakfast joint called “El Mocho” on this bit of rock called “Stock Island.”
The rained out of a day's work house painters, carpenters and towing service guys surrounded the small tables, set with the barest of essentials to accommodate the home-styled fare the owners of this eatery having been serving the working class people on the island nearest Key West for years.
The neighborhood is more trailer parks than homes. Life in the fishing industry means pouring a lot of money into a boat afterall. The Standard Marine supply company is directly across the street should your boat need some basics. The Hogfish Bar is the busiest place on Stock Island with shrimpers and the wealthier land-based folks residing west of U.S. 1 enjoying the vibe equally.
There is one table out front of the open double doors of El Mocho. It is for the folks who want outdoor service where banana trees are in full flower. No one was sitting there on the morning I ordered Chicken Fricassee.
A skin-on, bone-in meaty bird was served after having been perfectly braised in a rich chicken stock alongside not only rice and caramelized plantains but a full-to-the-brim bowl of perfectly cooked white beans alongside to pour on top of the rice. Ham bits bobbed into view as the beans spread along and down the white, mound of the rice. One cannot complain about a lack of starch in the fare at El Mocho!
A fricassee is defined as a stew, usually chicken, that has been sautéed in butter and served with vegetables. Vegetables were not so much in evidence but I took solace in the plantains. Another defining part of the word and technique is that it is a braise that requires no initial browning. It’s softer and not quite white, a more golden hue if you will.
There are recipes for this dish dating back to a medieval French cookbook from 1300. Historians of the more recent Civil War era inform us that Chicken Fricassee was one of Abraham Lincoln’s most beloved dishes.
When my son Justin and I wrote our cookbook together we included a recipe slightly different than the one I enjoyed at El Mocho. Our love of more pronounced seasonings and flavors required it. We go about making the simple braise but we finish it with the pinch of chilies, olives, a zest of lemon and capers.
Before I paid the bill, I watched with deep satisfaction little Audrey chewing maduro plantains as she sat on her grandmother’s lap. We left El Mocho filled with delicious memories of first birthdays and Chicken Fricassee.
RECIPE FOR YARD BIRD FRICASSEE
Serves 6 to 8
8 Chicken thighs, skin on, quickly rinsed and patted dry
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 Cup bacon fat or blended oil
3 Tablespoons blended olive oil
1 Scotch bonnet or jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
3 Cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 Sweet onion, chopped medium
1 Red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped medium
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
3⁄4 Cup currants
1/4 Cup thinly sliced pitted green olives
1/4 Cup thinly sliced pitted black olives
1/4 Cup brine-packed capers, rinsed
Zest of 1 lemon
1 Tomato, cored and chopped
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1⁄2 Cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and set aside.
Heat the frying fat of your choice in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sear the chicken on all sides. Place in the oven and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 20-30 minutes, or when the juices run clear. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the Scotch bonnet and garlic. Cook 30 seconds. Now add the onion and pepper to the pan and cook until the onions begin to caramelize, 7 to 8 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until it turns rust-like color. Add the currants, olives, capers and lemon zest. Stir again.
Stir in the tomato and chicken stock. Make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan, return the chicken to the pan and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the tomatoes break down, 5 to 8 minutes.
Pull out the chicken and reduce a bit.
Stir the cream into the fricassee, cook for 1 minute to bring the flavors together. Re-submerge the chicken and allow to sit a few minutes before serving.