As long as you are with me as I walk down memory lane like I did last week with Dimitri’s rice pudding, let’s head to the other side of town, East Lansing, where I spent two years at Michigan State studying literature for a master’s degree. My stately red brick classroom building, Morrill Hall, was conveniently located on Grand River Avenue, the main strip right off campus. From the classrooms there I had a view across the street to one of the greatest old-school department stores of all time, Jacobson’s. I can’t be the only daughter among us who has blessedly savored an afternoon of lunch and shopping with her mother. For us these special shopping days included lunch in Jacobson’s East Room, where my mother, my sister and I sat near a treetop window eating cheddar cheese soup with croutons. I like to think back over the years of us sitting at the same table there, the scene always the same but with the characters, us, changing and growing older with each snapshot.
Our discussions over lunch spanned a broad array of subjects extending far beyond the day’s shopping agenda. By the time I was in graduate school our lunches were often just that—no time for shopping for the afternoon—and our lunch-talk included me lamenting the challenges of my coursework. One time that lament included me crying, literally, over having selected the most difficult, bizarre book to write about for one of my classes. I chose it simply because our professor had warned us against taking on that book for our term paper; there were many others on the syllabus to choose from. Ego can be such a dangerous and ugly thing….
The novel was called At Swim Two Birds, but the bird book I really needed at that moment was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, since the one paper on which our entire grade for the term was based was due the next day and I had not yet written a word (why I was out for lunch in the midst of the crisis is a question I don’t even want to try to answer). The title of Lamott’s book, which is about the writing process, refers to a story she tells about her brother when he was in middle school and had had three months to write a term paper about birds. The day before it was due, he still had not yet written a word. He sat at the kitchen table with stacks of books about birds all around him, paralyzed by the enormity of his task. His father came in and patted him on the shoulder and said, “just take it bird by bird son, bird by bird.” Never mind that this kid was 12, a more understandable age for such extreme procrastination. I was 24.
My mother and sister, after their jaws dropped in disbelief over my predicament, shifted gears swiftly from shame-on-you to here’s-the-plan. The plan included food, of course: making a quick dinner that would get me through the all-nighter ahead of me, and might even help my brain kick into overdrive. “You have chicken?” Mom asked. I did. “And cracked wheat #3?” Check. “Give me a pen,” she said, as though she was in the Pentagon mapping a serious plan of attack on the enemy. Moving aside her empty soup bowl, she wrote out, on the Jacobson’s paper placemat, her recipe for chicken and smeed, or toasted bulghur with poached chicken, fragrant with cinnamon. I was instructed that it would cook up quickly, and Mom warned me that if I skipped dinner, she was going to have something, plenty, to say about it.
I don’t remember a word I wrote about At Swim Two Birds. The paper has no doubt been pitched amid one of the many moves that I’ve made since then. But I do keep my Jacobson’s placemat recipe handy, even if I don’t need the instruction anymore. It reminds me of the toasty cracked wheat and tender poached chicken that filled my apartment that night, and my kitchen now whenever I make it, with the scent of everything-will-be-ok.
This recipe calls for coarse cracked wheat (also known as bulghur or smeed), which is typically referred to as #3 grade. Finer grade, #1, is used for tabbouleh and kibbe. The key to this dish is not to overcook the chicken, or over-toast the cracked wheat. Adjust quantities easily by simply increasing the amount of cracked wheat as you would rice; the ratio is 2:1, broth to wheat. Use high-quality chicken if you can—that means it’s farmed on a small scale, ideally not too far from where you live. Mine came from Fleming Feirms in Bliss (yes), Michigan. This pastured chicken is sold at Toski Sands, a little local grocery store up north here that packs a big punch (i.e., a small sign near the cash register reads: Italian truffles available. Order yours today.).
2 chicken breasts, bone-in and skin-on
2 cups coarse cracked wheat (#3)–bulghur (smeed)
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cinnamon stick, or ¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
In a large saucepan, cover the chicken by 1 inch with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim off any scum, and reduce heat to medium low. Poach the chicken for 20 minutes, skimming as needed.
Remove chicken from broth and reserve 4 cups of broth for making the cracked wheat. When chicken has cooled enough to handle, tear off bite-size pieces. Discard skin and bone. Don’t worry if the chicken is not fully cooked; it’s going to poach further with the cracked wheat.
Add butter to the empty saucepan and melt over medium heat. Butter should foam up as it gets hot. Add the cracked wheat and stir, coating with the butter. Stir constantly until the wheat turns golden brown. Do not take the wheat to deep golden brown, or it will taste bitter.
Add the chicken, 4 cups of broth, salt, pepper and cinnamon stick or ground cinnamon. Stir, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until all of the broth is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove cinnamon stick and serve immediately with a romaine salad dressed with lemon and oil, thin pita bread, and labne.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.