Thursday, February 25, 2010

Still life: roasted chicken with lemons

This is something I feel strongly about: everyone should be able to cook at least one reasonably impressive (or at least presentable) dish, that they are confident and comfortable making. This dish should not be stressful- you should be able to putter away at it while entertaining guests, without feeling crazy about them distracting you from your cooking. I think this is particularly true for folks who are not generally comfortable in the kitchen, or who are not passionate about cooking. They're still going to have to one day cook for a date, or a partner's parents, and it's nice to have something decent to serve that isn't a lot of work, mental or otherwise.

A shockingly simple dish to have up your sleeve is chicken roasted whole, with lemons. It's so juicy and flavourful, and best of all, requires almost no effort.

This one's for you, Meredith.

Set your oven to 375F.

Get a whole chicken, and wash it well in cold water, inside and out. If the thing is trussed with string, you can get rid of it (unless you don't have toothpicks. In that case, take a look at how the string is tying the bird together, and remember it for later). Try not to puncture the skin. If there are giblets, and especially a neck, inside, save them for later.

Drain the bird well, and let it sit tipped in the sink for 10 minutes or so, so the inside dries out. Pat the outside with paper towels.

Put a fair bit of salt and pepper all over the chicken, and use your fingers to rub it into the skin, and into the cavity. Remember that raw chicken can carry bacteria, and you want to make sure you don't cross contaminate raw chicken into any other foods, so be aware of the surfaces you're touching with chicken hands, and clean up well afterwards.

Wash 2 whole lemons well in cold water, then roll them around on your counter, applying downward pressure, to burst some of the internal membranes, releasing the juice. Using a toothpick, knife, or similar, poke at least 20 holes in each lemon. Shove them into the cavity. Then, seal the cavity shut, either with toothpicks spearing the flap closed, or reapply the trussing string to hold the legs closed. You don't want to make an absolutely air-tight job of it, otherwise the chicken may explode in the oven.

Put the chicken in a roasting pan, BREAST SIDE DOWN, and into the upper third of the oven. No need to add any extra fat; the bird is self-basting, and won't stick to the pan. If the skin is unpunctured, it will balloon out, which looks awesome, but is actually hard to achieve, so if it happens, you win, and if it doesn't, you win a delicious chicken anyway. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over, to have the breast face up. Roast another 30 minutes.

At this point, turn the oven up to 400F, and cook for another 20 minutes or so. The chicken should be done at this point. Here's how to check: the leg and wing joints should be loose at their point of connection to the body. When you puncture the flesh of the thigh, close to the body, the juice should run clear. If it's not there yet, throw her back in the oven.

Here's how to dismantle the chicken for eating: Let your chicken rest for 5-10 minutes. Make sure your knife is good and sharp. Remove the wings and thighs/legs by slitting the skin, to better see the meat, then cut through the joint closest to the body. Remove the lemons from the cavity of the beast, being very careful because they will a) be scalding hot, and b) squirt. Save them to drizzle any remaining juice into the pan gravy that you're about to make, or over the meat itself. Examine the body of the chicken You'll see that there is a backbone right in the middle of the back. Run your knife along either side of this bone, and around the belly side, to release the breasts. These can then be sliced for a party, or left whole for a smaller group. Great Success!

Now: what of all the delicious juices left in the pan? They're awesome as is, but are improved with added fat and thickening agents. Here's a basic (and delicious) pan gravy to serve alongside your confident, accomplished chicken:

If there were giblets or a neck inside the chicken, set them in a small pot, and cover them with water or chicken stock by an inch. About when you flip the bird, set this pot to boil, and then lower it to a simmer. Turn it off when the water seems brothy and flavourful. This will be awesome for your gravy. If you don't have any giblets, you can use straight chicken stock, and even a bouillon cube (diluted to half-strength).

While your chicken is resting, in a saucepan, make a roux, by combining equal parts fat and flour. You want your fat to be hot, before adding the flour. Butter is better, but vegetable oil is ok. Melt 2 tbsp butter, and then add 2 tbsp flour. Stir constantly over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes, until the roux is golden in colour, and it has lost its raw flour taste. Slowly add the giblet juice, stirring, until you have a gravy that is slightly thicker then what you want to end up with. Pour off most of the fat from your roasting pan, and then put the juice from the pan into your gravy. You can further let it out with more giblet juice, if you want. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and juice from the chicken lemons, and thyme, if you want.
You're done!

Serve this beauty with roasted or mashed potatoes, some veggies and a salad.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Short and Sweet

Last night, some of my very favorite people were over to dinner. This is what we ate:

Cheese! We had the Juliet again, from Salt Spring Island, in B.C. It's finally back in stock at Cook's, and well worth every cent. Also on deck, Le Douanier, a semi-soft cheese from Quebec, with a thread of ash (the burnt stuff, not the tree) running through it; Mona Lisa, an extra-aged Gouda from Holland; Wishing Tree, a hard sheep's milk cheese from Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, in Prince Edward County; and finally, one of my favorites, Figaro, a soft, bloomy rind cheese from Glengarry Fine Cheese near Cornwall. This cheese is delightful - soft and creamy, with a distinct horseradish aftertaste. This nutty spiciness doesn't appear in any of the tasting notes I've read about this cheese, so it may well be just me, but worth a try anyhow.

Also, a pomegranate/blood orange/spinach salad, with a lemon-shallot dressing.
Then, duck confit with parsnips and brussels sprouts sautéed in duck fat.
And a poached pear and frangipane tart with brown sugar ice cream.

But enough about food for now: the Knitting Olympics have started, and I'm competing. With a cardigan that likely will shorten my life.

Citius, Altius, Fortius, yo.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wednesday Night Dinner & Associated Technical Problems.

I'm usually really clear about where I leave my things, and consequently, I'm usually really clear on where they are. I don't generally lose, or even misplace, my belongings, and I'm also usually in charge of locating Mike's keys, wallet etc.

It is driving me around the bend that I can't find the cable to connect my camera to my computer to make the pictures of last night's glorious dinner visible to all. However, our apartment is not enormous, and it must be here somewhere. I have looked in all the likely spots, and will root around some more, later.

Anyhow, dinner! Mike and I now have diametrically opposite schedules, and really are only able to see each other for any length of time on Wednesday and Friday nights, and considering the fact that there are other people in the world that I would like to see sometimes, too, we've reserved Wednesday nights as our 'date' night. Which, last night, amounted to a glorious dinner eaten as a picnic on the floor, watching the recap and season premiere of 'Lost' (a television programme that totally rewards commitment. It started to suck at the beginning of season 3, but if you muscle through, as I did, you'll rediscover how rad it really is.)

Glorious dinner (sadly, with no visual aides) was:
P.E.I mussels steamed in white wine, with a garlic, thyme, fresh tomato and butter sauce.
Prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with arugula and chèvre, with lemon asparagus and potato cake.
2 kinds of gelato, coconut and lemon, with starfruit. The gelato was purchased, expensive, and kind of crappy. Homemade is much better, and that'll teach me to be lazy.

Mussels are awesome. They are inexpensive, fun to eat, and when perfectly fresh, are sweet, tender and slightly briny. Plan on purchasing only as much as you want to eat immediately, and pick through them, discarding ones that have broken shells. You want to cook only those mussels that are still alive in their tightly closed shells, as mussels become toxic very soon after they die. If any shells are open, whack them against your counter. A living mussel will draw its shell closed when disturbed, which a) is pretty neat to watch, and b) makes me feel a bit bad for disturbing the thing in its home.

Splitting a kilo of mussels among 2 people for an appetizer is plenty, but given how delicious they were, I kind of would have preferred to have had more, and maybe a smaller main course.

Get a pot large enough to accommodate all of your mussels, with a tightly fitting lit. Get the empty pot good and hot on the stove top, and then pour in 1 cup of dry white wine and throw in 2 sprigs of fresh thyme.

When the wine comes to a boil, dump in your mussels, and put on the lid. Mussels steam in a matter of minutes, and while you don't want to overcook them (they get rubbery), some of the shells are stubborn. You'll want to discard steamed mussels that don't open their shells, yet you don't want to have to throw out mussels that are perfectly good, but slow to open.

When the mussels are open, scoop them out with a slotted spoon, and to the cooking liquid and mussel liquor, add 4 cloves chopped garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomato. I used quartered grape tomatoes, but anything will do. Cook until the wine reduces, the garlic gets tender, and the tomatoes start to disintegrate. Remove from heat, swirl in 1/4 cup of salted butter, and ladle the taste explosion over the steamed mussels.

You'll want to have acquired a nice baguette for sopping up the sauce, which is wicked tasty.

Mytilus edulis, I love you.