Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Roast Chicken (by Jillian)

I mused long and hard over what my first real post should be. A dissertation of why this is so important to me? A description of the lasagne blitz this summer (the five gained pounds is gone, by the way)? A favorite recipe? What Meredith and I made this week?

Then I decided to tell a story that embodies what cooking is all about: Going with the Flow in the Kitchen! Except no part of the story actually takes part in a kitchen....

There are several people who constantly entertain my food obsession. One of them is Eric. Not only does he entertain, he's usually already holding a spatula and saying "when do we start?" This spring, Eric and I were hell-bent on going on a hunt to find morels in the woods and cooking with them. I was slightly fearful: how would we be able to tell if they were edible? Where would we find them? What would we actually do with them if we found them? (If you don't know what a morel is, it is a wild mushroom prized for its woodsy taste mostly in french cuisine. It's not as pungent as a truffle. Not that I've ever had a truffle. Note to self: "must try truffle").

Part of the going-morel-hunting-in-the-woods gig was camping, including dinner over a campfire. AHA! Open flame! What could we char? Beans would just not do. We decided on chicken, with the caveat that it had to be cooked on a spit that we would rig over the open flame.

As we pulled out of the driveway in Indiana, I thought to myself at the last second "why don't we throw the tagine in the car, just in case?" It kind of felt like cheating, but I wasn't sure how our open flame rig would hold up. (Tagine: a ceramic Moroccan cooking vessel shaped with sloped sides).

We arrived in Hoosier National Forest. We chose a spot. Eric began building the fire while I looked for the perfect sized log with which to spear our chicken already marinated in fresh herbs and olive oil. The fire grew, it reduced to hot coals. Now was the time....

It took quite awhile for us to figure out how to lean over the fire long enough to position the chicken atop the flames. I made Eric do it. At first it looked pretty good. I was smug with our brilliance.

Then we watched the fire spit and sputter with the dripping fat and oils. it supposed to do that? How do we stop the flames from engulfing the chicken?? Moment of panic: the outside will burn before the inside cooks!!! It's supposed to be ROASTING!! SLOWLY! And gently. Why didn't we bring something to help rotate it, like a handle of sorts? Like bike handlebars? Like a LONGER stick!! Holy Crap its going to fall off the stick into the flame!!

The above photo chronicles the moment that we realized true defeat. The Chicken would not survive the Stick. The wilderness of Hoosier Forest and open flame had overcome us. It was time for the tagine, lest we lose our dinner. The transfering of the flaming hot chicken off the stick into the tagine took two sets of hands, otherwise I would have photographed our folly.

The tagine is already a fired ceramic, so we took our chances by nestling it between two logs over the fire and dumped a generous glug of champagne into the vessel to keep it moist. Actually, the point of a tagine is to allow for coninual basting. As juices rise to the top and condense, the sloped shape allow fluids to drip evenly over your food, keeping it evenly moistened. Then we took a walk with the rest of the champagne to watch the sunset (and to drink champagne, you know, in case there would be no dinner upon return).

But Voila! This was the BEST. CHICKEN. EVER. The outside was charred so that the skin caramelized gorgeously. The inside, from being in the moist tagine, was tender and juicy. It tasted like fresh herbs and campfire. We paired it with asparagus and potatoes that were wrapped in foil and thrown into the fire.

I supposed you are wondering about the morels. After an entire day of hiking up and down hills, throughout the Hoosier hinterlands, one tiny sad morel was all we found.
No less than a week later when Eric was at work, he found almost a pound of morels growing in the yard near his office. Go figure. (I cannot tell you exactly where. True morel hunters never reveal their special places, lest they be poached).

If you are without the combination of an open flame and a tagine, fear not! you can still roast a succulent chicken at home. Good roast chicken is at the backbone of anyone's recipe repetoire.

Note that chickens that you buy at the supermarket should be around 4 pounds or less. Anything at 5 pounds or more you can be sure received extensive growth hormones. Look for a chicken that has been labeled 'hormone free' to get the best meat, or check out your local farmers markets and co-ops.

Pre-heat your oven to 350.

A traditional roast chicken is laid in an open roasting pan on a bed of the royal trilogy of veggies: celery, onion and carrot (called the "aromatics" together because the blending of their scents is heavenly). Parsley is also a traditional roasting accompaniment (and a nice garnish at the end too). Wash your chicken and be sure to remove anything in the cavity. Reserve any giblets and put them at the bottom of the roasting pan if you intend on making gravy. Leave the veggies in large chuncks but layer them so they are high enough to keep the chicken out of its own juices.

You need not put anything in the cavity but a bunch of fresh rosemary and/or parsley will make things smell and taste fabulous! With your fingers covered in a bit of butter or olive oil, give the chicken a little massage. Sprinkle him with salt and fresh ground pepper. You may also add any other dry seasonings that you like.

For variations, add Herbs de Provence, lavender or curry powder or imaginitive! Stuff it with lemons and limes! Comment with your favorite preparations!

Stick him in the pre-heated oven. As a general rule, calculate a cooking time of 20 minutes per pound of meat plus an additional 10 - 20 minutes at a temperature of 350ºF Honestly, the best way to do this is to under-time yourself and then check every 10 minutes after the primary period of time with a meat thermometer. You will then ensure that the meat is fully cooked, but not overdone. A thermometer stuck into the leg/cavity intersection needs to read at least 165 according to the USDA.

When you take it out, let it rest for awhile. I'll add a posting a different day on gravies and carvings. Essentially at this point you should just serve and eat it while you bask in the praise and compliments of your guests!

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