A Delicious Farm-to-Fork Recipe From Vermont’s Cedar Circle Farm: Spinach and Smoked Chicken Gratin

Beginning the process to smoke two boneless chicken breasts in a Weber charcoal grill that can be covered over

Slicing up the smoked chicken breasts before mixing into the recipe’s other ingredients of onions, garlic, thawed frozen spinach, sour cream, salt and pepper before baking uncovered

Golden brown, bubbly & delicious: spinach and smoked chicken gratin

[Editor’s Note (FWB): We previously posted an appreciative review of cookbook writer Tracey Medeiros’s The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook, 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State (The Countryman Press, Woodstock, VT, Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2013), which our reviewer noted was a collection of 150 carefully curated recipes, featuring a wide range of styles, ingredients, and influences, from some of the best farmers, restauranteurs, chefs, and purveyors in Vermont. So we were pleased to receive a copy of Medeiros’s just published follow-up cookbook, The Vermont Non-GMO Cookbook, 125 Organic and Farm-to-Fork Recipes from the Green Mountain State (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY 2017). And she generously gave us permission to share a recipe from her latest cookbook.

Our graphic designer, Ed Stevens of Brownstone Graphics, who is a fine home-cook, had the pleasure of choosing a recipe to share with our readers. He chose a recipe that proved somewhat challenging, since Ed decided to learn how to smoke chicken, an ingredient needed to prepare Cedar Cicle Farm’s Spinach and Smoked Chicken Gratin, one of the 125 recipes featured in the new cookbook from Tracey. Below, Ed describes the process of smoking chicken in his write-up of the meal he prepared for his family. Other than the smoking process (which took Ed 2.5 hours), Alison Baker, former kitchen manager and chef at Cedar Circle Farm & Education Center, notes that it is an easy and delicious recipe that can be mixed in a single dish and baked up hot to serve alongside tangy winter greens for an easy supper.]

While thumbing through the hefty just published cookbook, The Vermont Non-GMO Cookbook, 125 Organic and Farm-to-Fork Recipes from the Green Mountain State (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY 2017), I was resolved to find something hearty and interesting to make for my entire family, a teenage boy and his younger brother included. The cookbook is expansive and hits all the marks from breakfast recipes to sandwiches, soups, vegetables, entrees, drinks, desserts and more. Eighty-four Vermont farms, producers and eateries are the sources for the appealing recipes. The photography in the book is very well done (mostly by Oliver Parini, but also from ten other photographers) and motivates the home cook to test his culinary skills and match the depicted dishes.

It wasn’t long before I decided to prepare the recipe for Spinach and Smoked Chicken Gratin from the Cedar Circle Farm & Education Center, which sits along the Connecticut River in East Thetford (Orange County), Vermont despite my prior lack of experience in smoking poultry. But enduring frigid, single digit temperatures in the final week of December 2017 in the Albany area of upstate New York, a dinner for my family with smoked chicken prepared over a hot charcoal grill, spinach and melted cheddar cheese seemed perfect.

Ingredients
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
5 cups loosely packed baby spinach
1 cup sliced smoked chicken
1 cup sour cream or creme fraiche
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/8 inch-thick circles
2/3 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease an 8-by-11-inch baking dish. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute. Transfer to a large bowl and mix in the spinach and smoked chicken until well combined. Stir in the sour cream, salt and pepper, mixing until well combined.

Arrange a layer of the potatoes evenly on the bottom of the greased baking dish, overlapping the slices. Spread some of the spinach mixture over the top. Continue layering the potatoes and spinach mixture, ending with the spinach mixture. Carefully pour the half-and-half over the spinach mixture; it should just rise up the sides but not cover the potatoes. Sprinkle the cheese over the top. Bake, uncovered, until golden brown and bubbly, about 35 minutes. Remove the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

I shopped for the necessary ingredients in the produce, dairy and meat departments of the Honest Weight Food Co-Op in Albany. With fresh spinach unavailable in the deep freeze of winter, I opted for frozen organic spinach from Earthbound Farms, sour cream and half and half from Byrne Dairy in Lafayette (Onondaga County), NY, and cheddar cheese from Maple Hill Creamery in Kinderhook (Columbia County), NY. I used organic Smart Chicken chicken breast.

I had to learn how to smoke the chicken in my Weber charcoal grill. This meant going into the back of my shed to uncover the grill, packed up for the winter. Thankfully, I still had an unused bag of charcoal briquettes in late December and prepared the grill for indirect heating/cooking (not cooking directly over the briquettes) and fired it up. Although chilly outside, the smell of the charcoal smoke made it feel a bit warmer out. Then I soaked some mesquite hickory wood chips in some water for about 20 minutes. Before adding the chicken, I added the water soaked chips to the hot coals and began the smoking process. I added the chicken breast to the indirect heat section of the grill, covered it, and in 2.5 hours the internal temperature of the chicken reached 165 degrees. I set aside the chicken and began to assemble the other ingredients.

The onion cooked up nice in a cast iron skillet as did the garlic. I added that to the frozen spinach, sour cream and salt and pepper. The chicken was sliced and added to the mixture. The potatoes were cut uniformly at 1/8″ and I layered as instructed with the potato slices on the bottom, the mixture and repeat. I was able to create 3 layers in my cooking dish. I finished off the top with the half and half and then the cheddar cheese.

After 35 minutes at 375 degrees I took out the dish, but found that the upper layer of potatoes hadn’t completely cooked. I put the dish back in for another 20 minutes, let it stand for 10 minutes and served it. Overall, we found that it was a unique dish with awesome flavors. The flavor of the smoked chicken gave the dish a very rustic, outdoorsy feel, and the sharp cheddar cheese blended nicely with the spinach and potatoes. But when I make this again, I will cut the potatoes a bit thinner for a crisper texture. A delicious dish that prompted second servings, and leftovers will be thoroughly enjoyed for lunch.

The process of preparing this meal took some time given the smoking of the chicken, but it was rewarding and also educational. It will be a fun decision to select another farm-to-fork recipe to prepare for a home-cooked family dinner from Tracey Medeiros’s new cookbook.

(Ed Stevens, 1/3/18)

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