For the past few months I have had the incredible good fortune to have taken a writing class co-taught by one of my favorite writers and another gentleman who has become one of my favorite professors, one Professor David Craig, a gently intelligent teacher with one of the most lovely speaking voices I have ever heard. The fact that Tim Cahill is considered a travel writer is incidental; if he wrote the phone book, it would be fascinating. We would know how R. Pecarina and L. Pecinovsky found their way to our neck of the woods, how E. Sister Kugi came by her lovely name, and if any of the 15 Helgesons are related to each other. He would likely travel to Norway to track down the common ancestor of the Nelsons who occupy most of page 125. And I know he would have some fun with R. Nixon.
At one point during a conversation, I mentioned that I wrote a food blog and gave its title. He said that he is also a solitary cook, and that he can roast a chicken and grill a steak. “Nothing wrong with that,” I replied.
A roast chicken is one of life’s deeply gentle pleasures. I remember during the recent seriously lean financial years, at least once a year every single damn cooking magazine, including the late great Gourmet, featured not only roast chicken, but made it the cover story. And to a one, it was as though they had invented it themselves. It drove me crazy. At one point, I yelled out loud, “Roast effing chicken isn’t exactly Nobel-quality thinking!” and I began to boycott every issue that mentioned chicken in any form. I also didn’t exactly say “effing.”
If one can roast a chicken, one can eat well for many days in many ways. I always tell classes that it takes as long to roast two chickens as it does one. With two, the goodness is that much greater, and it’s a lovely way to bring a weekend to a close. The first, of course becomes dinner that night. The rest of it, and all of the meat from the second are pulled off, packaged in ziplock bags, and nestled in the freezer. Burritos, tacos, sandwiches and salads, are just a few of the lunches and dinners waiting in the wings. Soup, ah soup!
The skin and all the bones go into a stockpot along with some onions, carrots, celery. I add in the contents of the stock bag I’ve collected in the refrigerator during the week: mushroom stems, thyme and rosemary stems, tomato ends, clean onion skins, garlic peels. I cook it down slowly overnight and by morning the scent rouses me before my alarm clock goes off.
Never read anything by anyone who thinks you’re stupid.
I’m going to tell you how I like to roast a chicken. It is far from the only way; it may not even be the best way, but it is my favorite way. It’s also how Marcella Hazan roasts a chicken, and that’s all I need to know.
YOU WILL NEED:
2 whole chickens, about 4 to 5 pounds each (I prefer organic because I have a good idea of what they haven’t been fed)
2 large or 4 small lemons (I used the last of the season’s Meyer lemons, and they tend to the small side)
1 full head of garlic broken into individual cloves
Sea or kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
2. I don’t use giblets in stock because the liver, especially, gives it an off flavor. I do put the neck in the roasting pan and add it to the stock. I cook the giblets in a skillet and divide them among the very happy dogs and cats.
3. Set the chickens in a roasting pan, preferably one that can transfer to the stovetop. Divide the garlic cloves (you don’t need to peel them) between the two, and place them in the cavities. Next, pierce the lemons all the way around with a fork so that they release their oils and juices. Place them in the cavities. To truss or not to truss? Many recipes will tell you to truss the legs together, also wrapping the string around the wings to secure everything together so that all parts roast evenly. Well, I consider the wings as stock material. And frankly, I hate to truss. I don’t do it well, it annoys me, and the plump organic chickens I buy hold their shape so well that I find trussing is unnecessary. So there. Truss or not, as you please.
4. If you like crispy skin, don’t oil the chickens. I don’t like chicken skin at all, save for its flavorful contribution to stock, so I pour olive oil over the breasts and massage it all over the birds. Then I liberally salt and pepper them. My favorite salt is a coarse, grey French sea salt from the Camargue. I am capable of being unbelievably stupid: on my most recent return flight from France a couple of years ago, I had to pay 50 euros for the extra weight of all the sea salt I brought home; I discovered I can buy the exact same salt here in town at World Market for $4.95! Good grief.
5. Set the roasting pan in the oven. Within a half hour, wonderful aromas will begin to perfume your kitchen. Think about what you want to serve with your chicken. Potatoes? Rice? Asparagus is just coming into season. Perhaps light the grill, trim the spears of their tough ends (and save them for the stock pot!), toss them in some olive oil, sea salt and pepper, grill them for just a few minutes, and serve them with some lemon juice squeezed over them.
6. Roast your chickens until a thermometer reads 165 degrees. It will probably take about an hour and a half. The USDA governs food safety laws in this country, and while they pertain to restaurants and the like, their guidelines are excellent for any home cook to know. Salmonella rears its ugly head now and then, and in order to guard against it, all poultry (basically if it has wings, it’s poultry) should be cooked to 165 degrees. Where to take the temperature? Would you believe that I’ve actually seen recipes that instruct taking it at the breast? The thinnest, least dense area. The area that is exposed most directly to heat. No, don’t do that. Find that meaty secluded spot to the inside of the thigh where it verges toward the back and insert your thermometer there. Don’t let it touch the bone. When that spot registers 165 degrees, your chickens are done.
7. Remove your bronzed beauties from the oven and cover them with a sheet of foil followed by a nice, heavy bath towel. Let them rest for 15 minutes. Have you ever cut into a turkey and had fluid gush out of it? You didn’t let it rest. The rest period allows water that was squeezed out of the cells during the roasting process, because the stress of heat causes cell walls to contract, squeezing water to the outside. You can’t eat the thing raw, right? So you have no choice but to cook it. But by allowing it to rest while still retaining its warmth, the cell walls relax, they wipe their brows and say, “Whew! That’s over!” Water roaming around on the outside reinflates the cells, and you have a tender, more juicy piece of meat.
And you look like a brilliant cook.