Classic Edition: Grad School Chicken Creole

A couple of times a year, our department secretary will organize potluck luncheons, and badger the faculty into cooking things and bringing them in for a big gathering in the conference room. We invite all the students, and everybody eats way too much, talks too much, and generally has a good time.

We had another luncheon today, in honor of Valentine's Day, so the stated theme was red food. This did not produce what you might call a heartburn-friendly menu, but that's why I've got a sixpack of Red Seal Ale in the fridge... Hooray, beer!

My contribution was what I think of as Grad School Chicken Creole, because I learned to make it in grad school, and because the students seem to like it. And that's as good an excuse as any to recycle this as a blog post, from March of 2005...

p>Our department secretary is a big lover of social events, and once or twice a term organizes potluck lunches, for which all the faculty members bring in a dish to share (usually with some theme), and the students and faculty come hang out and eat. We've got some pretty good cooks in the department, and it always ends up being a lot of fun, wrapped around a lot of overeating.

I tend to use this as an opportunity to cook things that I like but Kate doesn't, generally dishes involving bell peppers, lots of spice, or a combination thereof (such as Unqualified Offerings Chili). I was really surprised, though, when my contribution to the last luncheon turned out to be a huge hit. Given that tomorrow's potluck is nominally a St. Patrick's Day luncheon, I had been planning to make Mormon funeral potatoes, which struck me as vaguely similar to what people think of as Irish food, and also not that much work. But I was more or less ordered to bring the same thing as last time, and who am I to go against the will of the masses (particularly when the masses include the secretary, who is the only truly indespensible person in any academic department)?

Still, it was a surprise. It's not that I don't think I can cook-- I'm no gourmet chef, but I do all right for myself-- it's that the dish in question was chosen as much for requiring very little effort to slap together as for any culinary virtues it may possess. And yet, it was well-liked enough to be specifically requested for a later luncheon (the only other things I've been asked for were Kate's chocolate chip cookies, and the aforementioned chili). Go figure.

I think of this recipe as "Grad School Chicken Creole" because it was a staple when I was a grad student. I originally got the recipe from the Washington Post Food section, but being the incredibly organized person that I am, I promptly lost the clipping. It was dead simple to make, and reasonably cheap, so I reconstructed the dish, but it's remained a sort of Zen cookery thing ever since. Which accounts for the vagueness in the following:


A package or two of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (more than 1 lb, less than 3 lbs.), cut into small pieces.

One good-sized white onion (or two small ones), chopped into small pieces.

One good-sized green bell pepper (or two small ones), chopped into small pieces.

Some celery, two or three ribs (about the same amount as the pepper), chopped into small pieces.

A bunch of garlic. 4-6 cloves, maybe more. A couple of tablespoons, minced.

A bunch of butter. Half a stick or so.

One or two bottles of chili sauce (I use Heinz most of the time, but I imagine anything would work).

A can of diced tomatoes, or a small can or tomato sauce, or both, or neither. Whatever it takes.


1) Melt the butter over medium-ish heat. Add the garlic and onion, and cook until the onion is sort of translucent.

2) Add the chicken, and cook until the chicken is no longer pink. This takes something like five minutes, stirring constantly.

3) Add the pepper, celery, and chili sauce. I've started adding diced tomatoes recently, and that works well, too. If it doesn't look like there's enough liquid, you can add some tomato sauce. Or another bottle of chili sauce. Whatever you like. Stir this all together, and let it get hot.

4) Reduce the heat to low-ish, and simmer for as long as seems necessary. More than ten minutes, but usually less than 30.

Serving: Serve hot, usually over rice. It makes a good bit of food-- usually about a week's worth of meals (mixed with a lot of rice), when I was in grad school. It's chicken, so how bad for you can it possibly be?

It comes out slightly different each time, because it's such a vague recipe. This time around, it looked awfully thick with just the chili sauce and tomatoes, so I added some tomato sauce as well, and it ended up a little soupier than the last batch. It's hard to really screw up, though, and it's well within the capablities of even a culinarily inept grad student.


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