Debbie Matthews: Petey’s annual birthday feast
For some reason, Petey doesn’t want me to sing “Happy Birthday” to him on his birthday. He does, however want me to cook for him.
Every year I make him a simple, yet complicated dish: Chicken San Francisco.
Simple because it’s basically a chicken and rice casserole. Complicated because I make all the components from scratch, and there are quite a few elements in this meal.
Back in the 20th century, I worked at Crabtree Valley Mall (4325 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh). I would often lunch at Belk.
I didn’t hang out in the shoe department and eat a sandwich. Hudson Belk used to have a cafeteria in the store.
It was a regulation drag-your-tray-down-the-line cafeteria. Their food was good; it was classic Southern cooking with fresh ingredients, made from scratch.
Petey would occasionally make the trip from Durham to eat with me. Many days he would pick the fish offering at Belk, but they had one item that he would choose every time it was on the menu.
It was something called Chicken Frisco. Consisting of rice, chicken, broccoli and bacon, it was topped with almonds and roasted red peppers.
To my untrained eye, it looked like a simple fix. I resolved to reproduce this beloved dish at home for my sweet spouse.
The first thing I did was to dump the peppers and almonds. I wanted to concentrate on the flavors that Petey loved in the dish: cheese and bacon.
Then I worked on making it into a casserole dish. Belk’s version kept the rice and chicken separate, ladling on the cheese sauce at service.
I decided to put the ingredients on a bed of cheesy rice, then bake everything together.
Very quickly I decided to mix the broccoli into the rice, so it didn’t get burned and dry while cooking. I also did different things with the bacon.
Sprinkling bacon bits was OK, but it got lost in everything else, and didn’t contribute to the flavor as much as it could.
Next up, cheese sauce.
For a while, I used jarred whizzy cheese. Too gloppy, and the flavor was faint with cheese, and heavy with plastic.
Then I tried cream of cheddar cheese soup. But it has a very mild school lunchroom taste.
I decided just to make homemade cheese sauce; a very simple thing to do, and flavored my way.
Even after I perfected the recipe to our tastes, the chicken strips came out overcooked and dry. It was my final hurdle, and I’ve just recently licked it.
There are quite a few steps to this recipe, but once it is put together, you can refrigerate it for a few days before baking off, or even freeze it for weeks. It’s a terrific dinner to take new parents, or any other family where there’s a need for yummy homemade food, but no time or ability to produce it.
So here is Petey’s favorite dish, after about 20 years of tinkering (and I changed the name a little, since I changed the dish a lot).
Chicken San Francisco
8-10 boneless, skinless chicken breast strips
8-10 pieces of thin-cut bacon
Wrap each chicken strip with bacon (you can secure it with a toothpick or tie up with butcher’s twine, but I don’t bother).
Wind the bacon down the length of the strip in a single layer, covering as much of the chicken as possible.
Place in a heated pot or Dutch oven. This is the pot in which you will make the rice and mix the dish, so make sure it’s big.
Cook the chicken on medium high heat turning so the bacon is browned on all sides. This step only browns the bacon, so you don’t want to cook it for so long the chicken cooks through.
Remove chicken, cover and refrigerate.
Pour half the bacon fat into another pot for cheese sauce.
2½ cups white rice
1 large shallot, diced
½ cup white wine
3½ cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 large head broccoli, cut into florets
Steam broccoli for 6 minutes, rinse with cold water to stop cooking, and set aside.
Heat bacon fat in Dutch oven, and in put rice and shallots, salt and pepper, and stir to coat. Sautee together until shallots have started to color and rice gives off a nutty fragrance.
Turn up pot, deglaze with wine, and cook until wine is gone.
Pour stock into pan and bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for 15-17 minutes, or until liquid is gone. Leave covered and let rest for at least 20 minutes.
Reserved bacon fat
½ cup butter
2/3 cups flour
½ teaspoon dry mustard
7-10 gratings of fresh nutmeg
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cracked pepper
3 cups whole milk
1/3 cup skim milk
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3½ cups grated cheddar cheese, divided
Melt butter in the another large, heavy pot along with the bacon fat. Add flour and seasoning. When the roux you’ve created is smooth, slowly pour in dairy, while continuously whisking. When the white sauce has come together, slowly stir in Parmesan cheese and 2½ cups cheddar cheese until melted. Taste for seasoning, and if necessary thin with a little milk. You’re looking for pancake batter viscosity.
Mix cheese sauce into rice, reserving 1 cup of sauce. Gently fold in broccoli.
Pour rice mixture into a 9x13 buttered casserole dish. Smooth with spatula and drizzle remaining sauce over the top. Cover dish first with parchment paper, then foil, sealing tightly. This is where you can stop and store for later.
Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, uncover, and nestle bacon wrapped chicken into rice in evenly spaced rows.
Sprinkle with reserved cup of grated cheddar cheese and return to oven.
Bake on low broiler for 15-20 minutes. If you don’t have a low broiler option, bake at 350 for 15 minutes and then brown the top using regular broiler for a few minutes, watching carefully so it doesn’t burn.
Remove from oven. Let rest for 10 minutes, then serve.
When I make this for Petey, I use a smaller casserole dish, and make a couple of individual servings in gratin dishes to freeze so he can take it to work for dinner (I pull out these babies when Petey’s had a rough week, or I’ve a purchased an unusually expensive pair of shoes). Put the meat on top before freezing, because it only takes 20 minutes to bake the smaller amount. But don’t put the grated cheese on until ready to cook, or it won’t melt and brown correctly.
I know this dish seems like a lot of effort, but none of the steps are difficult. I love putting on some music, and puttering around the kitchen for a while. Especially when it results in something that reminds my handsome husband how wise he was to marry me.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is email@example.com.