For those of you divorced dads who never had to cook yourselves anything more complex than ramen noodles or ravioli from a can, it’s time to buck up. It’s time to square your jaw, roll up your sleeves and cook for your kids. Don’t be scared, you can do this! It’s a lot easier than you think, and after a while, you’re gonna find yourself binge-watching cooking shows just as much as anything on your Netflix watch list.
Takeout Gets Tiresome Fast
Pizza. Again. That fast food place that shall remain nameless. Again. Sure, there’s enough variety in takeout these days that you, as one of the divorced dads, can change it up when the kids come over, but how many permutations of “burger” or “pizza” can you feed them before they stop cheering mindlessly when you tell them they’ll be eating out?
Why Chicken Is Your Food Fallback
The most important skill you can learn as a homemaker/divorced dad is to cook for your kids, and that’s what you are now, gender stereotypes be damned. By far the most versatile and simple thing to prepare is going to be chicken.
The sheer variety of things you can do with it will surprise you if all you’ve experienced is FRIED! or BARBEQUE!, but I assure you that chicken is the be-all-do-all of the proteins. You can do anything with it. Let’s start simply.
My go-to recipe for chicken is simple, it’s quick, and it tastes amazing. Before you know it, you’ll be able to cook this with your eyes closed while riding a bicycle (for obvious legal reasons however, I must advise you NOT to do this). This recipe is the easiest thing I know to do with chicken, and it can be the basis of a limitless array of meals.
What you’ll need: 1 oven-safe frying pan
- 2 boneless/skinless chicken breasts
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 bottle extra-light olive oil
- kosher salt
- black pepper
- oven mitt
First, preheat your oven to 375°F, and get your pan onto a burner set to medium and let it heat up. Once the pan is hot, pour just enough oil into the pan to coat the bottom after a little swirling. While you’re letting the oil heat up, salt both sides of each chicken breast (don’t need to go crazy with it, just so you know it’s there) and pepper the top side only. Lay the chicken, top side down, into the pan.
Wait at the other side of the kitchen for at least two minutes. Do nothing to that chicken until those two minutes are up. Good things are happening there, and poking, prodding or peeking will only screw it up.
When you see the chicken start to go white at the bottom edge, it’s time to check it. Gently shake the chicken loose from the bottom of the pan, lift up with the tongs and check for browning. If you see golden brown, flip them both and slice the garlic. Lay thin slices of the garlic cloves over the tops of the chicken breasts and, once they’re all on, put the pan in the oven. Wait.
Waiting sucks, but it’s going to take at least 7-8 minutes for the chicken to even be ready to check, so use this time to make sure any accompaniments you’re preparing are on track.
Pasta Is Great to Cook For Your Kids
Pasta’s good, and you can use one of the many cloves of garlic you have now to spice up spaghetti noodles, bow-tie pasta (kids love that stuff), rotini, angel hair, whatever you want really.
Either finely chop a clove or use a garlic press if you have one and add some butter, olive oil, pepper, parsley flakes (or fresh if you’re feeling like a badass), maybe some basil. Just toss the pasta back in the cook pot after draining (DO NOT RINSE!) and throw all that stuff in. Stir to coat, and by now the chicken should be ready. Let’s check.
Pro Tip on Checking Meat for Doneness
Checking doneness on a piece of meat you don’t want to cut yet can be intimidating, until you learn how to do it. Make a tight fist. Go ahead, just do it. Now poke the skin between your thumb and index finger. That’s well done for a steak. Loosen it a little, so there’s some amount of give. That’s medium well. Loosen it some more, that’s medium rare. Loosen it all the way, and that’s “Moo”. Tighten it back up again. Remember how that feels, because that’s how the chicken should feel when it’s done.
If you’re paranoid like I was when I first started doing this, feel free to check the meat with a thermometer, but only after it reaches the “It feels done, but I’m not quite sure” level of springy. If you have to put it back in after poking it, you’re going to lose some juice. Not the end of the world, but not the best case either.
Let It Rest
Once you feel like there’s some serious push-back from your chicken (or it reads as done at 165 F or more) take the chicken out of the pan and let it rest on a cutting board. Do NOT cut it yet. If you do, you’ll be grinding your teeth through dry rubber the whole meal. When meat cooks, the juices go kind of crazy, looking for the most expedient way out so they can quickly evaporate, just like any liquid would do under similar circumstances, so you need to trap it inside the meat until it settles the hell down. This is called resting, and it’s the most important step in the preparation of good meat, no matter what you’re cooking. So don’t touch it for a few minutes. At least five, if not more. Better to have a warm piece of juicy perfection than a piping hot piece of shoe leather. But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?
Now that your chicken is rested, it’s time to cut. The way you slice the meat will change the texture and tenderness, so getting it right, believe it or not, can be the difference between “melts in your mouth” and “is it supposed to be crunchy?”. The best way I’ve found is to start at the smaller end and slice at an angle (about 45 degrees) and do about a quarter to a half inch cut, depending on how thick you want it. If you have young kids who can’t use knives or cut their own food with a fork, you can cut the pieces down smaller from here to a nice bite size, no harm done. Plate up and serve how you want. Mixing the chicken in is best for short pastas, or you can just lay it on top if you like.
Getting Dinner On The Table
Good pairings with this chicken are: the pasta described above, potatoes (we’ll get into those in another installment), rice (the possibilities are endless there), in wraps with some lettuce and cheese (kids love putting those things together) or even quesadillas if you slice it thin. Use your imagination. Go crazy with it. You can use this recipe as a step in preparing a larger dish, maybe douse it in teriyaki sauce and stir fry some vegetables, maybe cook it before bed and take it to work as a chicken salad. You could add spices you like to completely transform this dish. Trust your taste buds.
You can only hit a wall with this one to cook for your kids if you stop thinking of new ways to use it. This is the basis of a new world in cooking not just for your kids, but for yourself, your friends, or (ahem) anybody else you might want to cook for (eh? EH?). Just get in that kitchen and try it. Divorced dads: you can do this!