Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chicken, au naturel

My favorite meal in the world is roast chicken--I used to ask for it every year on my birthday (I know, who would ask for that, right? My mom is that good.) It is so easy to make, and yields such great results that I don't know why people don't make it more often.

Well I do know why. Here are some of the reasons I've gotten.

One, it is gross to touch, and you have to pull out all the organs. Rebuttal: not true. I have never once bought a roast chicken that didn't have all the organs in a nice neat sack for you to pull right out of the cavity and drop into the trash. And you're going to have to get over touching raw meat if you want to learn to cook. Also, it can be fun--try making it dance around and you'll see how fast you get over the gross factor.

Two, it looks hard. Rebuttal: It is not. See recipe below.

seems too fancy for an everyday meal. Rebuttal: again, untrue. You could make this for a weeknight dinner if you get home at five and want to eat around 7:30. Or if one of your older kids/significant other is willing to turn on the oven and put in the pan for you.

I won't say that roast chicken is without its challenges. I think its biggest problem is that sometimes, even when it looks delicious on the outside, the meat is actually pretty bland. This has definitely happened to me before, and it took me a few tries (and sometimes extra time) to beat this. However, an excellent gravy, also covered in this entry, always saves the day.

Gravy, too, you say! No problem. If I can do it, you can do it. No lumps, no flour taste, and no jar--just deliciousness you made yourself.

For the chicken (serves 4, or a very hungry husband and yourself):

Roast Chicken

1 whole roasting chicken (3.5-4.5 pounds is good)
1 small onion
1-2 cloves of garlic, depending on how much you like garlic
1 tsp of dried rosemary, fresh is even better (use a bit more)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or not, if that's not your thing)
2 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
olive oil (about 3 Tbsp)
and a little bit of butter if you aren't watching your calories
a roasting pan and rack (or inverted ovenproof saucer if you don't have a rack)

Preheat oven to 375. Cut the ends off of the onion, and peel it, but leave it whole. Set aside. Take out chicken, take off plastic, and remove any other padding/packaging that might be sticking to it. Reach into cavity, grab sack of organs, toss. Rinse the chicken under sink both outside and in the cavity. Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Let rest while preparing the rub.

In a small bowl combine garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Stir so that all the ingredients are incorporated. Then slowly add olive oil to the bowl while stirring until you make a thick spreadable paste consistency. (You will want to use your hands for this next part). Take the chicken and rub a little bit of the mix onto the bottom, and place it in the roasting pan, on the rack if you have one. (The bottom is the opposite side from the part where the leg joints are. The wing tip should be the furthest from the pan, not the furthest into the pan. Don't scoff, this can be confusing.)

Then take the rest of the rub and rub all over the skin of the chicken, putting a little bit inside the cavity. You want to leave those good tasting chunks of garlic on the chicken--they crisp up and taste delicious! Then, if you are adding the butter, cut it into thin pats. At the top of the breast, you will see that the skin can be separated from the meat--slide the butter pats under the skin, spacing them out evenly over the breast meat. This step is not necessary, but everyone knows butter makes things taste better. [Stop here if making it the night before--refridgerate, and complete the next steps 2 hours before you want to eat.]

Next, in order to ensure a moist and flavorful chicken (learned this trick from my mom) put the onion into the cavity (push it as far back as it will go). If your onion is too big, cut it in half. It will work fine just the same. Put in the oven for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours depending on the size. (If the juices from the meat are running pink, it's not ready.)

And you're done! (well aside from occasionally basting after the first hour, and basting often in the last 20 minutes--be sure to get all of it, meaning the legs and wings too!). You will want to let the chicken rest, covered with foil, for 10 minutes after it is finished. Don't put it on its platter to rest, or it will look like your chicken is taking a bath by the time you serve it. P.S. You can eat the onion after the chicken is cooked--I love it!

When the chicken is about 10 minutes from finished, you'll want to start your gravy. Gravy needs to be on the stovetop for at least 10 minutes in order to cook the flour completely.

And now for the roux--and a little science. For gravy you need three things 1) a fat, 2) a thickening agent, and 3) a flavoring agent. Though the fat makes things taste good, the fat's most important purpose is to incorporate the thickener into the liquid flavor (ie. chicken broth in this case), and do the job of thickening the liquid. The roux incorporates the fat and the thickener on its own, before the liquid gets any attention, because they need to become blended in order for the gravy to really work (similar concept to creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs in my chocolate chip cookies post).

Chicken Gravy (makes one cup)

1 cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp fat (either pan drippings, or butter)
2 Tbsp flour (your thickening agent)
Salt and Pepper to taste (Be SURE to taste your gravy. Why serve something that's under-seasoned when it could have been great if you had just tasted it?!)

The first 1-2 minutes of making gravy will need your rapt attention, so make sure you can devote yourself to it the whole time, and that you have your liquid measured out ahead of time. Get out a sauce pan that you can use a whisk in (if it is non-stick, use a coated whisk, if it's stainless steel, whisk type doesn't matter). Put in your fat and then your flour, and turn on the heat to medium high. Whisk the ingredients rapidly--they should form a paste. Make sure that the fat and flour are incorporated, and that you keep mixing as the paste heats so that part of it doesn't burn. Continue mixing and heating for 1 minute. The flour needs to cook a little here, but don't be afraid; you can control it.

After one minute, pour in the chicken broth slowly, but in a steady stream, while continuing to whisk the roux. After all the liquid is in there, keep whisking to ensure there are no chunks of roux, and then, turn the heat to med-low, and just wait. It will magically thicken. I promise. If it doesn't write me a comment and we'll figure it out. Stir the gravy every now and then, and once it has come into a consistency that looks like normal gravy, add your salt and pepper to your taste. Leave the gravy on low heat for at least 10 minutes. It's ok if a skin forms. Once you stir it in it will disappear.

So there you have it folks! A dinner to impress, and a dinner with--well a lot less stress than you thought right?

Let's review the things to remember:
1. A whole chicken is not gross!
2. Add the onion inside to make it moist.
3. Put the chicken right-side up! This is imperative, or all the juices will flow the wrong way. See the photo below if you're still confused.
4. Once the chicken is cooked, let it rest in it's pan--not on the presentation platter.
5. Don't be afraid of the gravy! But make sure that for 2 minutes your attention is devoted completely to it.
6. Be sure to full incorporate the flour and butter, and to cook the roux for a minute before adding your liquid.

Hope you enjoy it. Be on the look out for a little higher maintenance "Chicken under a brick"-- for when you have a little bit more time, and have gotten this guy under your belt.