Chef Adam Evans, executive chef of the Optimist
Backstory A native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Evans moved to Atlanta to helm the kitchen at Buckhead’s now-defunct Craftbar. His focus at the Optimist is seafood, but he still craves the earthier Southern comfort foods of home: his mom’s biscuits and gravy, his grandmother’s chicken and dumplings, and most of all, North Alabama chicken stew. The regional specialty is a source of local pride that ranks alongside the tiny river town’s FAME Studios, where artists like Aretha Franklin and Lynyrd Skynyrd have recorded. “Just about every cook I knew back home made chicken stew,” says Evans. “At school and community fundraisers, it was sold by the gallon.” While his Alabama family members will throw everything in a pot to cook all at once, Evans simmers his in stages, layering the flavors and continually adjusting the seasoning. Evans likes to eat the stew with saltine crackers and cheddar cheese or, better yet, a grilled cheese sandwich.
1 whole chicken, preferably free-range
1 ½ gallons of water
12–15 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and black pepper
2 quarts ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1 quart canned crushed tomatoes
2 white Spanish onions, cut in medium dice
6 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut in medium dice
2–3 stalks celery, cut in small dice, about 1 cup
2–3 carrots, cut in small dice, about 1 cup
1 cup lima beans, fresh or frozen
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1 cup green beans, fresh or frozen, cut in half-inch pieces
In a large stockpot, place chicken, water, thyme, and bay leaves. Over high heat, season chicken and stock with 1 tablespoon of salt and ½ tablespoon of fresh ground black pepper. When the stock comes to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer and let cook for about 1 ½ hours. Once the chicken is fully cooked and starts to pull away from the bone easily, transfer it onto a plate and let cool in the refrigerator.
Next, add the tomatoes, onions, and potatoes to the broth and bring to a slow boil. Continue to stir to break up the potatoes; this will naturally thicken the stew. Meanwhile, chop the remaining vegetables and put them aside. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator, remove all the meat from the bones in large pieces, and remove the skin.
Add the chopped vegetables and the chicken to the stew and season to taste with more salt and freshly ground black pepper. Leave on medium-low heat and cook for 45 minutes, stirring frequently. The stew is ready when the chicken looks shredded and the broth has reduced a bit. Serves 6 to 8.
This article orignally appeared in our March 2014 issue.