Big Food by Elissa Altman

Book Review 2009

One problem I don't have is having, say, a dozen boneless skinless chicken breasts in my freezer. That's because, as most of you know, I live in Manhattan with a tiny refrigerator and no Costcos in walking distance (I buy my groceries on foot). However, I am well aware of the fact that much of America, and increasingly the world, shops in bulk.

Elissa Altman, a food writer and essayist, has written a book that addresses everything you ever wanted to know about cooking with and shopping for bulk foods. Six pounds of chicken parts on hand? Elissa recommends a Pan-Braised Chicken with Lemon Thyme and Black Olives (see below for the recipe.) Two pounds of fresh mushrooms? Mushroom and Barley Soup with Fromage Blanc Croutons sounds great.

Title & Publisher: Big Food: Amazing Ways to Cook, Store, Freeze and Serve Everything You Buy in Bulk, by Elissa Altman. Published by Rodale, 2009.

First impressions: A timely volume of recipes and guides for people who buy food in bulk. The recipes are all accessible, the ingredients not too expensive or hard to find (no gold leaf or lardo) but there are little touches of sophistication throughout that indicate Altman isn't only focused on cheap cooking.

Number of recipes: Over 100.

The angle: Recession specials from your freezer and pantry, with recipes plus helpful guides like the Big Food Action Chart which matches recipes by ingredient so you can scan through your choices for getting rid of those two dozen eggs.

Strengths: Totally timely and practical.

Weaknesses: If you like photos with your cookbook, you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for a way to use up that 10-pound bar of chocolate you won or a bushel of peaches, you'll have look elsewhere or eat them straight because there are no dessert recipes in Big Food.

Recommended? If you shop big, definitely.

Pan-Braised Chicken with Lemon, Thyme, and Olives

Nearly every Mediterranean nation lays claim to a version of this delicious one-pot dish. A slow braise that combines the flavors and textures of chicken, lemon, olives, garlic, wine, and herbs, this recipe calls for the addition of two whole lemons, cut into eighths and tossed into the pan with the olives (which, in turn, provide most of the salt in this dish). When the meal is served, the lemons can be sliced and squeezed into the sauce at the last minute.

What You Have On Hand
• 3 (3-4 pound) shrink-wrapped whole chickens, or 6-8 pounds of chicken parts
• Containers of black or green olives, or both
• Fresh thyme
• Chicken Stock

What to Do With It
• Set aside 1 whole chicken for this dish. Keep the other chickens wrapped in their original wrapping, place in a dated freezer bag, and freeze for 6 to 8 months.
• If using chicken parts, set aside 3-4 pounds for this dish. Use the balance within 3 days or double plastic-wrap them, place in a dated freezer bag and freeze for up to 6 to 8 months.

How Long It Will Last • This dish will last in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, double plastic-wrapped and sealed in a heavy-duty dated freezer bag or container.
• This dish will freeze for up to 4 to 6 months, sealed in a labeled, dated, heavy-duty freezer bag or container.

Secondary Dishes
Pappardelle with Chicken Ragu

Pan-Braised Chicken with Lemon, Thyme, and Olives
Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 3-4 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
5 garlic cloves, 2 of them peeled and finely minced, 3 peeled and smashed
8 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 lemons, cut into eighths
3/4 cup pitted green olives
1/2 cup pitted black olives
Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350° F.

In a large, oven proof, straight-sided saute pan, heat the oil until shimmering. Add chicken pieces, skin side down, taking care not to crowd the pan (do this in batches if necessary). Brown well, remove to a platter, and carefully wipe out all but approximately 1-1/2 tablespoons of oil from the pan.

Add minced garlic and saute until softened, about 4 minutes. Lay 4 sprigs thyme, or sprinkle ½ tablespoon of dried thyme, over minced garlic. Return chicken pieces to the pan, skin side up, arranging them on top of the thyme.

Add smashed garlic cloves, scattering them around the chicken, and season lightly with pepper.

Add stock, wine, and lemon juice, and bring to a low boil. Reduce to a simmer, add lemon wedges, and scatter remaining 4 thyme sprigs or 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme over the chicken. Add olives, cover, and place in oven for 45 minutes, basting frequently with the pan sauce.

Remove cover, increase heat to 425° F, and continue to cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 to 8 minutes. Drizzle chicken with pan sauce, and serve hot in shallow soup bowls with a slice of crusty bread.

Variations: Replace lemons with Meyer lemons, if available.

• Buy the book: Big Food by Elissa Altman, $17.05
• Check out Poor Man's Feast is Elissa's wonderful blog.

More 2009 Book Reviews
Edible Schoolyard, by Alice Waters
The River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Milk, by Anne Mendelson
The New Steak, by Cree LeFavour
Cooking For Two, by Jessica Strand
A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg
Fresh Food From Small Places, by R. J. Ruppenthal
Picture Yourself Cooking with Your Kids, by Beth Sheresh
Eat Feed Autumn Winter, by Anne Bramley
The Complete 15-Minute Gourmet, by Paulette Mitchell
Heirloom Beans, by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.