Chicken with Mustard Seed and Fennel

The summer after Grandma Annie died, I assigned myself the bittersweet task of sifting through her recipes.

They were mostly in the old back kitchen, filling a deep cheese box and several other vessels (including the casserole dish pictured above) to the brim. The recipes were clipped from the backs of rice boxes and soup cans, from the pages of McCall's and Woman's Day and Family Circle magazines. They were written on scraps of paper in Annie's scrawl and they were torn from the pages of spiral notebooks.

Annie's prodigious taste for sweets was evident, for many of the recipes were for layer cakes and cookies or bars and coffee cakes. I smiled when I saw certain types of recipes over and over again.

Lemon cakes, orange cakes, sugar cookies and apple strudel; date bars, brownies, cutout cookies and cinnamon rolls — these were the things Annie loved. She made them regularly, not just for special occasions like birthdays and funerals and the days she worked at the polls at the neighborhood schoolhouse a block away.

Also among the recipes were casseroles and soups and stews and sandwiches. There were fancy finger foods and chip dips and even her recipes for "beer junk," better known today as Chex mix. Jello salads, too, and yeast breads — recipes by the hundreds, many dating back to the 1930s.

Some were written in French, others in English. Many I am sure she never made. But they appealed to her, perhaps to her notion of a proper Sunday dinner or a tea for the ladies or a child's birthday party.

There were recipe books, too, the kind that grocery stores sometimes give away or the ones you could send away for, as long as you provided a box top or two. Annie had tons of those, and all over her house were little scraps of addresses she'd get from some TV program advertising a cookbook.

Annie could never resist a new recipe or cookbook. Fanny Farmer was one of her bibles. You can tell a lot about a person from their cookbooks. Look for the heavily-stained and dog-eared pages and you will know their tastes. Look for margin notes and recipes scribbled on back pages. Recipes are an important part of cultural and family history.

Recipes hold promise for us. When we see a something appealing in a magazine or on the back of a box of noodles or on someone else's blog, we see a dream, too — a sense of how meals ought to be served, how snacks ought to be eaten.

We see ourselves in a different way. Maybe we see ourselves as we wish we could be. Those of us who are hamburger may wish to be Chateaubriand. Or vice versa.

We imagine preparing a certain dish at a certain time. Perhaps we imagine apricot-stuffed French toast on a sunny Saturday or chocolate-mocha brownies on a blustery afternoon. When I think of sun slanting through a kitchen window in the late afternoon, I often think of butterscotch bars. Whether this is some sort of culinary memory that sticks to my brain or the result of a Joni Mitchell song, I cannot say.

When I stuffed a package of rice from the Camargue into my suitcase as we left France two years ago, I saw myself preparing it on a sunny day, a day that reminded me how the feel and look of France changes as the SNCF train whizzes southward.

A few days ago, when I started thinking about taste pairings, my imagination was fired up. I saw myself making certain dishes at certain times and I created a set of expectations for the mouth feel of new taste pairings.

Last night, I made another recipe from McCormick Spices' flavor forecast, this time pairing mustard seed with fennel.

Chicken with Mustard Seed and Fennel
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 8 chicken thighs (I used breasts)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped onion
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon parsley flakes

Toast the mustard and fennel seeds in a skillet for about two minutes. The fragrance will be exquisite. Remove them from the pan after about two minutes or crush with a mortar and pestle.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and brown in in olive oil until golden an all sides. Remove it from the pan. Brown the chopped onion in the pan, then add the tomatoes, wine, parsley and crushed seeds. Return the chicken to the pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the pan and cook over low heat for 14 minutes, stirring frequently. Uncover and simmer for another 15 minutes.

I served this with garlicky, oven-roasted potato wedges and olives. We liked it, but preferred Wednesday night's pistachio-ginger chicken. The tomatoes seemed to overwhelm the fennel and mustard seed. Perhaps next time — a bit more seed and a bit less tomato. I didn't have enough chicken so I cut the recipe in half — perhaps my "eyeballing" of some of the ingredients was not a good idea.


Tanna said…
For years I couldn't write in my cookbooks because of the past school book rules you know. Now I write all over them but I left so much history behind not writing in them before. I manage to keep my books fairly clean now by copying the pages and not having the book around all the cooking. Technology changes things. Now, there are still all kinds of thing tucked away in my cookbooks but more and more things are tucked onto/into my computer. Will my boys ever see it like you went through Annie's things? ...
Tanna said…
Love the casserole dish pictured
and the Chicken looks divine.
Mimi said…
Oh, Tanna I do the same thing — I copy the pages. My computer is in what was meant to be a breakfast room, and it's just feet away from my cookbook bookcase.

But, as a result, my house is now cluttered with copy paper. Because of course, I print things from the Internet, too.

The recipe worked because it was from a food vendor. Annie would have loved it.
Kalyn said…
I print recipes from everywhere and save them in notebooks, although now that I have a cookbook I'm getting a little better at saving them online! This recipe sounds great, and it's going right in the cookbook!
Mimi said…
Thanks, Kalyn. I've got to get savvy about saving them online.
Terri said…
What a lovely memory of your special "Annie". Like my Aunt Marie, I feel all these notes in margins and recipes are the legacy that always keeps them close to us.
That casserole dish is stunning! The chicken recipe sounds delicious and I've copied it.
How fortunate we are to have something tangible from a family member and everytime we touch it or look at it, it's like stepping back in time....with them right beside us.
cityfarmer said…
I guess I'd call myself a cookbookaholic, too...usually drawn to the wonderful book jackets and photos...mostly purchased for just one or two recipes...I LOVE all the Susan Branch cookbooks (I'm actually selling some on Amazon right now)
I found a vintage Cordon Bleu (1947)cookbook at a flea market this summer and lately purchased "Modern French Culinart Art" by Henri-Paul Pellaprat...copyright 1966...

I adore the little frenchy sketches and the photos are those old colors kinda know.

My Mom has a wonderful mixed bag of great recipes and her family SIL's and all put together a family cookbook of everyone's favorites and all of my grandma's best...soo I have them all in one spiral bound book with an old black and white photo of my grandparents on the humble cover.

What a SWEET photo of the tureen.
It could win a contest.
Mimi said…
You know, Terri, I think because food is a "living thing," or at least from a living thing — plant or animal — it is a part of someone in a way that say, a necklace or locket is not. So recipes are more than words on paper, aren't they? Nothing like a cookbook that a family member has used — it's almost genetic code.

I like Susan Branch, too, CF. Sometimes sketches are more enticing than photos. And I've made a family cookbook, too, with anecdotes and a family tree in it. A topic for another post — maybe a joint post?

Thanks — I love that old dish — I guess it is more of a tureen than casserole dish as it is pretty deep.
Terry B said…
What a beautiful, thoughtful post! Listing funerals as one of the special occasions for cooking brought back a poignant moment for me. I have family in Mississippi. When an uncle died, I traveled there for the funeral and stayed in his home with my aunt and their grown kids. As we were leaving the house for the funeral, someone asked if the door had been left unlocked. Being a northern city boy, I assumed it was a safety precaution. Instead, they were making sure the door had been left unlocked.

When we returned from the services, the dining table was covered with food--chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and other side dishes, cakes, pies... It was all brought by friends, neighbors and even people in the community who didn't know my uncle, other than to nod and wave. In this small town, everyone nods and waves to everyone else, whenever they see them.

I in no way crave small town life--I'm a city boy through and through. But what a wonderful, touching moment.
Mimi said…
People are so kind and so thoughtful when you need them. That's the way it is here, in my little northern Wisconsin town, too. Some people even have special things they may for funerals; usually it's something comforting like a creamy noodle casserole or pumpking bars with cream cheese frosting.

Tuna salad is one of my favorite comfort foods. Some kind soul made that when my father died.

I don't especially craver small-town life either, but it does have its advantages, as you point out Terry.

Thanks for visiting.
FarmgirlCyn said…
Sadly, my mom was a minimalist in the kitchen. She was a single parent from the time I was 5, and her menus mostly consisted of goulosh, chili, meatloaf, and on Sunday, a roast chicken or pot roast with carrots and potatoes. So the legacy must begin with me! Having been married nearly 36 years, I have had my share of failures...but as the years pass, I have less and less of them. And I see my grown children taking great delight in conjuring up something they found on the internet, or from the cookbook gifting from Christmas! My daughter Gina bought me "America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook" and I bought the same one for her! (I kept borrowing it from the library, until finally I asked for my own copy)And our oldest has a boyfriend, which has made for some very interesting recipes, as she is a vegetarian and he is not! So, I do what I can to pass on the love for cooking, and creating a comfortable haven for all who stop by.
And I am always learning something new!
Mimi said…
I think minimalists in the kitchen are great, Cyn. I was just having a conversation with an accomplished cook I know who just returned from Portugal. We spoke of restaurants where the menu is limited but the food is superior. Far better than being a kitchen dilletante who tries a lot of things.

Do one (or two or three) things and do it (them) well.

Kitchen disasters — now there's a topc.
Lydia said…
What a beautiful casserole (and beautifully photographed)! I love reading about your explorations of flavor pairings. Mustard seed and fennel, eh? Will have to try it. Thanks for the inspiration.
Lu said…
I'm just so redundant. But, Mimi, this is just a wonderful post and a beautiful photo. You really help others evoke food memories and not just about eating, of course.
Mimi said…
Lydia, you shold have seen me out in the side yard with a flashlight last night, trying to salvage some real bittersweet for that photo. It was too late, so I had to use some fake stuff I had around. The mustard seed and fennel smells heavenly while it it toasting.

Thanks, Lu. I really do believe recieps are about dreams, not just eating. When I look at my own stash of clipped recipes, which go back to when I was a teenager, I see myself at various stages of life. I see a pattern, too, but that is for another post.
Anonymous said…
I am a collector of recipes, too. Unfortunately, that is all I do with them. Your stories and photos are so inspiring that I just know one day, I will print them off and use them, unlike the poor recipes on my bookcase. I've shared your blog with my kiddos and already have a special request for the salad with blue cheese.
Mimi said…
F2B, I have tons of recipes I have never made — been saving them since I was a teenager.

They are cultural artifacts, in a way. . .
Jann said…
I really enjoyed reading this post tonight-the notes in the margins of my books ,made by mother,are the ingredients of days gone by-
Mimi said…
This topic is endless, Jann! Those notes are clues to our ancestors, aren't they.

I recall reading a little article in one of the women's magazines in the late 80s. The writer had inherited her mother's cookbooks and found clues to her mother's exuberent personality there. One 1930s-era meal was fruit salad, green beans and bran muffins. Not a bad meal!

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