Friday, March 16, 2018

Inner worlds, outer worlds

A couple of nights ago at the family table, we paid tribute the great Stephen Hawking, who had left this world in the wee hours of the morning, and whose magnitude we wanted to make sure the kids appreciated. We parents and the big girls got appropriately science-nerdy and then a bit existential as the discussion flowed from black holes to cosmic energy, to the notion of a holographic universe, and then on to Elon Musk’s assertion that we are living inside a computer simulation and that A.I. is really in control of us all.

The five-year-old, who would rather be building Legos than pretty much anything else, normally stages a complete shutdown during such discussions; talk about meerkats, dino trucks, and Captain Underpants is more his speed. But on this occasion he got a thoughtful look on his face and waited politely to slip into the next gap in conversation.

“I used to live in the outer world,” he said. “And now I live in the inner world.”

We all fell silent, kind of spooked, waiting for him to throw open some goosebump-raising window onto a previous life—perhaps even provide a clue to an unknown realm. We urged him to dig deeper.

“I was in the outer world and then…and then you bought me from the monkey store and I’m in the inner world now.”

I’m not sure what the takeaway was from the conversation, but we all fell silent and resumed enjoying the no-brainer chicken dish I’d put together on the fly moments before. It's a one-dish meal that will by no means solve the riddles of the universe, but it's kind of everything in our inner world, on a weeknight, when we don't feel like scrubbing more than one pan but we do feel like something warm, tangy, saucy, and restorative. It's amenable to infinite variations and can be prepped ahead, refrigerated in the pan, and pulled out when you're ready to roast. It's genius in its own right.


“It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”
—Stephen Hawking

One Pan Chicken with Lemons, Caperberries, Potatoes
Serves a family of 4-5
  • 1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 leeks, including whites and all but the very toughest green parts, chopped fine
  • ½ lemon, cut into slices then quarters
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 8-10 whole giant caperberries, drained (you can substitute green olives)
  • 4-6 medium potatoes, cut into quarters or sixths (leave skins on if organic)
  • Splash of water
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 400°. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a baking dish (or huge skillet) large enough to fit the chicken without crowding, spread out the leeks, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil. Next, add the lemons, potatoes, tomatoes, and caperberries. Splash a small amount of water (a few tablespoons) in the pan. Put the chicken pieces on top of everything so that none of the pieces are touching, and drizzle on some olive oil—a fairly generous amount. 
  2. Bake the chicken, basting every 15 minutes or so with the cooking liquids that are generated, until the pieces are done and the top surfaces are nicely browned—about 40-50 minutes, but everyone's oven is different. (If you're not sure, cut into one of the thighs along the bone; if there's still blood the chicken could use some more time)
  3. Serve hot, with the pan juices and a little of everything else, including the lemons.