The Urban Gastronome


Polenta!
March 30, 2010, 9:23 pm
Filed under: Nutritious and Healthful, Side Dish

“Why so excited about polenta?” you might ask. And I will answer you with a question of my own: “Have you ever had polenta? I mean delicious, from-scratch amazing polenta?” If you have, then you probably didn’t wonder why I’m so excited. If you haven’t, well, walk with me, talk with me.

Polenta is truly delicious and versatile. It can be prepared and served so many different ways. It is a perfect complement to simple, fresh Italian flavors as well as spicy, savory Latin cuisine. It can be served soft, like a porridge, or fried up into cakes (just wait, I’m about to you).

Assembling the Parts

I know it doesn’t look like much. Just a bit of cornmeal, garlic, onion, salt and pepper. Oh yes, and some of that trusty chicken broth.

Adding Them Together

You can probably guess the first step. Add some olive oil and the onions and salt to an oven-safe pan. Keep the heat around medium and let the onions soften but not brown. If you’re feeling luxurious, you can always use olive oil and butter because nothing matches the aroma of onion cooking in butter and olive oil.

By the way, the pan must be oven-safe; we’ll be using that trusty hot box a little bit later.

Lower the heat and add the garlic. Let it saute for just a minute or so, but don’t let it burn.

Turn up the heat, toss in the chicken stock, and let it boil.

Finally, the ubiquitous whisk comes into play. While you’re slowly adding that cornmeal, keep the whisk working. You will have some clumps. Don’t fret! We’ll work those out later.

This is not a cauldron of boiling potion! It’s a pot of simmering perfection. Yum!

After the cornmeal is mixed through, cover it and put in the middle of a 350 degree oven.

Now, don’t get rid of that whisk yet. The polenta’s going to bake for a good 40 minutes, but you can’t just set the timer to 40 and forget it. Instead, you need to whisk it well every 10 minutes. I like to set my timer for 10 minutes, whisk, and reset. Also, maybe leave the oven mitts handy because that pot handle I’m so used to gripping gets hot!

40 minutes later . . .

We have a thick and luscious polenta. Take a bit of unsalted butter, salt, and pepper and mix until melted.

Oh my goodness! Cheese! Would you expect any less from me? Fold it in and watch the polenta become creamier before your eyes.

Now you could stop here. Spoon a bit on a plate, top it with some chunky marinara sauce and maybe a bit of grilled chicken or portabello mushroom. Or maybe try an Italian take on shrimp and grits (a favorite for us Southerners): grill or saute some shrimp in butter and top it with a bit of fried bacon. If I don’t beat you to it, please, please! tell me how it tastes.

But . . . this is not where I’m going to stop.

Try a Little Algebra

Pour the polenta in a parchment-lined dish and refrigerate until completely cool.

How will you know when it’s ready to take out of the fridge?

When it looks like this.

Or like this, when it’s turned upside down on a cutting board next to a knife. The flash’s gleam on the knife makes me feel dangerous. But I’m not.

Pick your favorite geometric shape and slice it up. Some like circles. I choose triangles. Maybe someday I’ll try a star or a square or something really thrilling like an trapezoid.

Heat up olive oil in a nonstick pan and carefully place the polenta in the oil. Brown it on one side and flip it, if only so you can look at the golden beauty.

Ta-da!!

A note about the pan: I admit, I was a slow recruit to nonstick. I grew up using stainless steel, and most chefs will agree that it is the best material for most cooking jobs (unless you have the patience and time to maintain copper). But in my experience, stainless steel and polenta cakes don’t like each other.  I’ve tried repeatedly to fry these tasty little cakes up in my stainless skillet, and the crispy layer is, sadly, left behind. Tragedy!

The Sum (Greater Than Its Parts)

Just one more picture of the crusty, savory goodness. It’s buttery, crispy, corny, and creamy. Now I’m hungry!

Polenta!

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for grilling or sauteing if desired
3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 quart chicken stock or broth
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat olive oil in a large, oven-safe saucepan over medium heat. Cook onion and salt until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the garlic. Saute for about 1-2 minutes.

Turn the heat up to high. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in cornmeal.

After cornmeal is incorporated, cover and place in middle rack of oven. Set the timer at 10 minutes and stir every time it sounds. Cook for a total of 30-40 minutes.

Once polenta is creamy, take out of the oven. Add butter, salt, and pepper. Slowly fold in Parmesan. Polenta is now ready to serve.

OR

Pour polenta into a parchment-lined pan. Refrigerate until completely chilled.

Cut chilled polenta into your favorite shape and cook in olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Serve.

Adapted from Savory Polenta recipe by Alton Brown.

Music Pairing: The Best of Paolo Conte by Paolo Conte.

Cheers!



Spicy Chicken Tortilla Soup
March 16, 2010, 5:46 pm
Filed under: Main Course, Nutritious and Healthful

As much as I enjoy cooking, I can’t overstate my love of easy, pre-made dinners, also known as “leftovers.” They’re even better when I can dial them up in the slow cooker and leave them to themselves to cook all day. Honestly, the aromas themselves can be enough to sate my appetite.

I discovered this chicken tortilla soup recipe when my husband and I, just married, moved in to our new apartment. I had a shiny new slow cooker and a need for an affordable recipe that would feed us for a couple of days. After some searching, I found this soup, which was full of potential, and now I’ve made it my own. Try it out and make it your own, too!

The Hard Part

Assembling the goods is (almost) all you have to do for this soup. The prepackaged ingredients include chopped tomato, enchilada sauce, and corn. Chop up onion, jalapeno, garlic, and cilantro. Measure out cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and bay. Oh, and that chicken is left over from my Basic Roasted Chicken.

If you don’t have leftover chicken on hand, you’ll need to cook up some of your own. I like to season a mix-and-match of chicken breasts and thighs with salt, pepper, and a bit of cumin and chili powder and grill them nice and quickly.

And then there’s the liquid: chicken broth and water. I substitute chicken broth for the water when I have enough around.

If you’re pressed for time or not in the mood, you can keep the onion and garlic raw. I saute mine in a bit of olive oil and butter just until their fragrant.

This is a picture of the wonderful smell of onions and garlic in butter and olive oil. Unfortunately, it’s not scratch ‘n’ sniff.

The Easy Part

Crank up your slow cooker and throw in the shredded chicken.

Toss in onion, garlic, and chopped (or crushed) tomatoes . . .

And your spices, cilantro, jalapeno, and bay.

Finally, stir in the broth, enchilada sauce, water, and frozen corn.

Put a lid on its rich and spicy goodness and let it stew and smell up the air for about 8 hours on low.

The Tasty Part

Ladle a bowl for yourself and a friend. The rest will freeze and defrost beautifully some other day.

I want my soups to be rich, velvety, and hearty. Most of the brothy soups I’ve had are, I’m sad to say, too light (and lite) for my liking. But this chicken tortilla goodness is rich and hearty (and fairly lite) which is just about perfect for me. All I have to do is mix in a touch of cheese and sour cream to make it velvety.

Of course, it wouldn’t be chicken tortilla soup without tortilla chips. I like to add a little bit at a time so they don’t get soggy. Each rich, velvety bite has a bit of salty, delicious crunch.

Spicy Chicken Tortilla Soup

About 1 pound cooked, shredded chicken, breasts and/or thighs
15 ounces crushed or chopped tomatoes
1 10-ounce can red enchilada sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 fresh jalapeno, minced with seeds (for a milder soup, leave out the seeds)
2 cups water and 15 ounces chicken broth OR 4 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons cumin (adjust to taste)
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons chili powder (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bay leaves, dried
10 ounces frozen corn kernels
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

Toppings: sour cream, cheese (Monterey Jack, cheddar, etc.), hot sauce, tortilla corn chips

Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Saute onions and garlic until soft.

Mix onion, garlic, and remaining ingredients in slow cooker. Cover and cook for about 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high.

Once soup is done, taste and adjust seasonings.

Top with cheese and sour cream. Serve with tortilla corn chips.

Music pairing: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Cheers!



Basic Homemade Chicken Broth
March 9, 2010, 2:20 pm
Filed under: Nutritious and Healthful

I can’t begin to list how many of my favorite recipes call for chicken broth. I used to stock up on boxes of low-sodium broth when it was on sale at the grocery store until I realized that the homemade variety involved little effort and delicious results. And Chef Michael Ruhlman‘s recommendation to use water if store-bought broth is your only other option clinched my conversion.

Homemade broth is also a great way to get the most out of my Basic Roasted Chicken. So we’ll start where I finished up with the chicken, picked free of meat.

Getting Things Going

After you’ve cleaned the bones of meat, throw them in a pot and cover them with water. I like to use my stock pot with the pasta insert. It just makes everything easier later on.

Turn the stove on low heat. Now pay close attention; this is important. Cover the pot and heat just shy of a simmer. You want the water hot enough for you to see swirling movement in the water but not anywhere near a boil. This keeps the broth nice and clear because it never gets hot enough to breakdown the collagen.

Let the chicken cook covered for several hours, as long as you have. I let this one cook for around 6 hours. It’s a good idea to skim the surface of fat and other debris once or twice. Since I’m a stickler for the wanting not, I try to waste not by ladling my skimmings into a bowl and refrigerating it until the fat separates and can easily be removed from the top. Then I pour the remaining liquid back into the broth. But you don’t have to do this just because I do, I guess.

Other than the skimming, you really don’t need to mind it at all. Just let it do its thing.

Smelling Things Up

When you have about an hour of cooking left, toss in whatever aromatics you have around. I have here garlic, onion, cracked pepper, carrots, thyme, bay, and there’s some rosemary in there as well. You can add as much as you like and whatever you like. Some folks like celery; leeks might be tasty, too. Use whatever you have on hand, make your broth your own.

And don’t bother to chop anything much. I just quartered the onions, smashed the garlic, and peeled and quartered the carrots.

Keep the heat where it is and let the broth cook for just one hour more. You might wonder why you would wait to add the veggies until the end. Well, I’ll tell you. The veggies will give off their flavor into the broth for a while but then they’ll start to soak that flavor right back up. But you don’t want that to happen because you’re just going to throw those veggies away. So keep their meeting with the chicken short and sweet.

Cleaning Things Up

The finished broth.

The flavor givers. Just throw ’em away.

Let the broth cool before you handle it. It’ll be too hot to handle at first. And then drain it.

I like to line my colander with a paper towel to catch all of the bits and and get a nice clear broth.

Ta-da!

Okay, so now you have your broth. You can refrigerate it for a few days or use it right away in some fantastic recipe. Or you can freeze it for future use. I like to freeze mine in my cupcake pan.

Ladle broth into each compartment. It’s helpful to know the volume of each compartment (mine is about 1/3 cup). This way, if you keep everything about even, you can easily estimate how much broth a cupcake will yield.

Pry each disk out and put it in a freezer bag. (If you have a silicone cupcake pan, this part will be much easier for you.) Label and date the bag and throw it in the freezer for a rainy day.

Basic Chicken Broth

Bones of one 3-4lb chicken
Water
Aromatics including carrots, onions, garlic, cracked peppercorns, dried bay leaves, rosemary (fresh), thyme (fresh), etc.

Place the chicken bones in a large soup or stock pot and pour in just enough water to cover. Cover and cook over low heat. Be careful to not bring the water to a boil. Cook for several hours, preferably a minimum of 6 hours. Skim fat and other debris from the surface a few times while it cooks.

While the broth is working, quarter an onion and about 3 small carrots. Smash garlic cloves (2 or 3) and remove paper. Set aside.

In the last hour of cooking, add veggies to the pan and let continue to cook on low. Be careful to not let the stock cook much past an hour after you’ve added the vegetables and herbs.

Remove broth from heat and cool. Strain to separate out debris. You can strain through a cheesecloth or paper towel to ensure a pure broth.

Use broth or freeze for later use.

Music pairing: Time (the Revelator) by Gillian Welch.

Cheers!



To Tide You Over . . .
March 2, 2010, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Nutritious and Healthful

I know I haven’t posted in a while. I’m sorry. But I have a few special things in the works. Until they’re ready to go, though, take a moment to enjoy these wonderful videos from TED.

If you’re not familiar with TED, you should be. It’s a community of some of the who do or will shape our world. They’re smart, creative, and controversial. And they absolutely inspire.

So I’ve posted here one of my favorite food-related talks from one of my favorite TED speakers.

I love Peter Reinhart. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice empowers me in my bread baking journey. And his perspective on bread here is simple and rich. I hope you found it worthwhile. And I hope you are sated until I post another recipe!

Cheers!



Bone Garden Cantina, Atlanta, GA
February 21, 2010, 3:14 pm
Filed under: Restaurants

I don’t think my husband and I knew how much we really enjoy Bone Garden Cantina until we realized that we’ve shown it off to folks more than any other restaurant. I suppose the way it quietly became one of our favorites is apropos for a small restaurant tucked away in an industrial park.

The owners of Bone Garden Cantina have already enjoyed quite a bit of success with their other Atlanta restaurant, The Vortex. The Vortex is known for its clever take on American bar food (particularly when it comes to the delicious burgers), great beer selection, and rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere and attitude. They managed to create a concept authentic enough to draw the biker crowd and approachable enough to excite the yuppies.

But this isn’t a review of The Vortex (I’ll post one later). It’s a review of their Mexican take on the winning formula of rich atmosphere and solid food. Let’s take Bone Garden’s atmosphere first. The music is usually something from The Cure (fitting, no?) and their New Wave 80s friends. In addition to this huge Day of the Dead skeleton mural, there are skeleton bikers and a skeleton band hanging from the ceiling. They make the most of the small space with bright paint, festive lights, and a staff that believes in what they serve.

And the menu! Oh, the menu has to be one of my favorite parts. Bone Garden’s food and beer menus also list some very important and helpful house rules on diner’s etiquette. My favorite is the “Idiot-free Zone” policy, which reminds us that restaurants are not public property and customers don’t have a right to act however they like and still be served. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m refreshed when businesses expect we whiny customers to behave like adults. [Rant over.]

Course One

Lights on . . .

Lights off.

It’s hard to see either way, I know. But com’on! What’s there to see? It’s just chips and salsa, really. Oh wait, and amazing queso dip.

I’m not entirely certain how much of this dip is “real” or “processed” cheese product. Maybe it’s cheddar. Maybe it’s Velveeta. I don’t really care because it’s delightful and addictive. I dream about it at night. I crave it at odd hours. If I were pregnant, I’m sure I’d order it by the barrel. For me, it’s a must. Yes, the guacamole is also wonderful, but if you’re going to play it safe and choose just one, go with the queso.

Mexican A La Carte

For him: The Esquite and Stuffed Pambazo.

We’ve heard raves about the Esquite, so we had to give it a try. It’s grilled corn with mayo, queso, chili powder, and lime. It was a perfect balance of cream and corn. The corn kernels were perfectly cooked, not too mushy and not too crunchy. The creamy part, while tasty, wasn’t what I was looking for. (My favorite creamed corn, incidentally, is at Kevin Rathbun Steak. I honestly didn’t know creamed corn could be so amazing.)

The Stuffed Pambazo is a pressed chorizo sandwich with potatoes, onion, avocado, sour cream, lettuce, and cheese. It was surprisingly flavorful and balanced for a sandwich. There wasn’t too much of any one thing, even the bread, which I can often do without. In spite of the chorizo and pepper, the sandwich had the right balance of spice and cool creaminess. I suppose, if I’m being honest, I could’ve used a little more cheese, but I don’t know if that’s ever not true. I can always use a little more cheese.

For her: Barbacoa de Chivo and Puerco Sazonado.

What you’ve heard is true. I can’t resist a flour tortilla. So, of course, I had to have at least one soft taco. This time, it was the marinated goat with avocado, cilantro, onion, and salsa verde. Yes, goat. I’m not sure if I’ve had goat before–maybe once or twice when I was a kid–so I didn’t know what to expect. The taco was delicious. The meat was very rich and flavorful. The marinade brought a smoky, savory flavor that was countered by the bright, light cilantro. The avocado brought a richness that balanced everything.

Puerco Sazonado is an old favorite for me. It’s quite an unassuming dish really, just marinated pork, sour cream, cheese, and tomatillo salsa. The pork holds its own and plays well with the earthy tartness of the salsa. The sour cream and melted cheese . . . well, the whole package is simple and perfect.

The Finale

I have a thing about food and textures, and normally flan-like dishes fall outside of what I prefer. I’ll pass on the custard and panna cotta. I’ll take creme brulee only because of the crunchy sugar crust on top. But I care about giving you a full and true report of what Bone Garden has to offer, so we ordered the almond flan.

It. Was. Wonderful. Yes, it’s super sweet. Yes, it had that custard texture I don’t like. But crispy nutty bits of almond broke it up enough for me. The syrupy sauce was just as good with the whipped cream as it was with the flan.

The banana empanada is what we always order for dessert at Bone Garden. First, please note the wonderful crust of cinnamon sugar over the rich, buttery pastry. Next, please observe the “dollop” of whipped cream the size of the empanada itself. Finally, please imagine the sweet, warm banana filling. The dainty portion of this rich, tasty goodness was perfect to split for two, especially when it followed the almond flan.

A new episode of Lost finished off our evening. I don’t really remember (or understand, I’m sure) what happened in the episode, so I’ll save you from that review.

Music Pairing: Voices Carry by ‘Til Tuesday.

Cheers!



A Winter Salad
February 16, 2010, 9:52 pm
Filed under: Main Course, Nutritious and Healthful

Salads are tricky business. Often, the tastiest salads are so full iceberg, croutons, bacon, cheddar cheese, and creamy dressing that the healthy part goes right out the window. Trimmer salads are rarely satisfying or flavorful, especially when dressed with just oil and vinegar. I mean, sure, that’s lighter in calories and full of good fat, but how does it really celebrate what food can be?

There are some middle-way tricks I use that can produce a salad that is both tasty and healthy. My perfect salad has just a few elements I can’t resist: nuts, fruit, and rich, dark greens. I also enjoy a nice protein like marinated steak or roasted chicken.

This salad brings together some of the most lovely fall and winter flavors like deep cranberry, crispy apple, and spicy, rich nuts. It is flavorful and light and altogether satisfying.

Spicing Your Pecans

Spicing and toasting pecans really bring out the best in them. Start with butter, pepper, salt, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. Oh, and of course, pecans. That’s a bit of sugar up top, but we’ll get back to it later.

Melt that butter (unsalted!) over med/low heat. Both butter and pecans can go from golden to burnt quite quickly, so be patient and keep the heat low.

Stir in all of the seasonings except for the sugar. If you were candying the pecans, you’d add the sugar here, too. But you’re not, so just keep that sugar on the side.

Add the pecans and let them simmer and get all delicious in the buttery, spicy mix.

Make sure you toss or stir the pecans a few times to coat them nicely. They’ll toast to a golden, crispy brown.

Move the pecans to a bowl. I am using my trusty 9″ cake pan that I use for everything except for, well, cakes.

Now you can grab the sugar. Pour it all over and toss everything together. I think these two will get along famously.

Your pecans are now officially spiced. The blend of salty, sweet, and spiced are perfect for our salad.

DIY Vinaigrette

I love my red wine vinegar and olive oil, and I love my cranberries. I also love my shallot, garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, and mustard.

To loosen up those cranberries, heat them up with the cranberry juice in the microwave.

I don’t have a blender (I am ashamed), so what you see before you is a Magic Bullet cup. Hey, work with what you have.

Toss in everything but the olive oil. Don’t worry about chopping anything fine. That’s what the Magic Bullet is for.

Here is your luscious, sweet and savory base.

Ideally, if you were working with a blender, you’d keep this blending and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Given the special circumstances, I added the oil in 1/4 cup potions and blended after each addition.

Here’s your rich and tasty vinaigrette!

Be sure to taste it to perfect the seasoning.

Finally . . . The Salad

This is when it all comes together in a nutritious and delicious finale.

You already have your pecans and vinaigrette. Add cubes of creamy, sharp cheddar cheese, a handful of dried cranberries, and slices of sweet, aromatic red onion and tart, crispy Granny Smith apples. And don’t forget your lettuce! I’ve topped leafy green lettuce with shreds of my left over roasted chicken.

Throw everything in a mixing bowl. Aren’t those colors delightful? I love the bright and crisp green and purple and the rich brown. They tell me good things are on the way.

Add a bit of dressing. I’ll be honest, this 1-2 tablespoon helping wasn’t quite enough. You know what they say: you can always add more, but you can’t take any away.

Give everything a good toss.

And arrange everything with loving care in your salad bowl. Now you have a salad that is both flavorful and light. Sure, there’s a touch of butter and a touch of cheese, just enough to add flavor but not so much that it’s no longer a healthy option. So dig in and enjoy!

Spiced Pecans

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups pecan halves

1 tablespoon sugar

Melt butter in large skillet over medium-low heat. Mix salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice in melted butter.

Add pecans and cook until lightly toasted, about 6-8 minutes. Be sure to stir the pecans to prevent burning.

Move pecans to a separate bowl or pan and coat with sugar. Let cool on a plate or in a pan.

Cranberry Vinaigrette

1/4 cup cranberry juice
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup red wine or raspberry vinegar (avoid strong vinegar like balsamic as the intense flavor will dominate)
1 small shallot, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 small garlic clove, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Microwave cranberry juice and cranberries in a covered bowl for 1 minute. In a blender, combine cranberries with all the remaining ingredients except the oil. Blend until chopped.

With blender running, drizzle olive oil into mixture and blend until smooth. If you’re not using a blender, add oil a bit at a time, mixing well after each addition.

Green Salad with Chicken, Fruit, and Nuts
This recipe serves 4. My salad above is for 1.

1 head leafy green or romaine lettuce
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and thinly sliced
1 cup spiced pecans
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup dried cranberries
2 cups shredded/sliced cooked chicken

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients with about 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette until mixed well.* Adjust dressing amount to taste. Divide salad among four bowls.

If you prefer, you can mix the chicken separately with additional dressing and top the individual salad with the dressed chicken.

These recipes were inspired by Cooks Illustrated, Feb. 2008.

Music Pairing: Volume One by She & Him

Cheers!



Basic Roasted Chicken
February 13, 2010, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Main Course, Nutritious and Healthful

I am a huge fan of leftovers. I love to make extra of a dish or more of an ingredient so it can become a second meal later on. Sometimes, I’ll even pre-cook an ingredient so I can have it on hand for a busy weeknight meal or a quick lunch.

One of my favorite recipe building blocks to have on hand is chicken. A roasted whole chicken is so easy and so versatile. For a few dollars and a little bit of time, you’ll have enough meat for a couple of tasty, nutritious meals and delicious, flavorful bones for homemade chicken broth (coming soon!).

It was the broth that inspired to me to roast up a chicken on a Friday night, and I figured I’d show you my process from A to Z.

Will You Be Brine?

If you think of brining as something that only fancy chefs and leisurely cooks should do, I understand. I once thought the same. After all, how much of a difference can a little soaking do?

Well, “A lot” is the answer, and here’s why. When you roast a whole bird, you face the frustrating challenge of cooking two different kinds of meat–the white breast and dark legs–that should be cooked to two different temperatures–155 degrees and 165 degrees. Can’t be done, right? If you bring the legs to 165 degrees, the breast will be overcooked and dry; if you prioritize the juiciness of the breast meat, the legs will be underdone and chewy. What to do? What to do? Brine! That’s what to do. When you soak that whole bird in a bit of salt and sugar, a couple of wonderful things happen: the salt begins to tenderize the meat and break down some of that muscle tissue, and it also begins to work with the proteins to improve the meat’s ability to retain water. In other words, that salt and sugar give you give you a tender, juicy breast at a higher temperature. (This culinary lesson is brought to you by quality time spent with Harold McGee.) Clarification: I don’t mean quality time with McGee the man; I mean quality time with his book On Food and Cooking.

Okay, put your books and notepads away. Let’s get to it.

Pour yourself a gallon of cold water in a nice, big container. It needs to be big enough to hold the water solution plus the chicken but small enough to fit in your fridge.

Pour in a cup of sugar.

And some salt. I was using kosher, so I ended up using two cups. If you’re using table salt, stick to just one.

Whisk it all together until it’s become one. Since it’s a pretty cloudy exercise, I like to listen for the grainy sound to lessen before I stop whisking.

Clear and sunny skies.

I rinsed off this chicken first and removed the giblets, and here we are. Cover it and refrigerate it for about an hour.

1 Hour Later . . .

After the chicken is done soaking but before you start to fix it up in its Sunday clothes, turn on your oven and let your roasting pan pre-heat along with it.

Your neighbors may also want you to set up a fan near your smoke alarm and open some windows. I know my neighbors do. Roasting a chicken can be quite smoky.

Here’s your chicken, brined, rinsed, and patted dry. Don’t be afraid of it. It won’t peck.

With the legs facing you and the breast facing up, gently work your fingers between the breast and the skin.

Keep workin’ it, all the way to the back. You’ll have a little pocket, where you’re going to put . . .

Softened butter!

Can I just say, it’s tricky to take pictures with one clean hand. And things are about to get even messier.

1) Ignore the errant fingers in the shot.

2) Gently press through the skin and spread the butter over the breast.

3) Rub the skin with olive oil.

4) At some point, you need to tuck the wings at the top of the bird behind back. It’s like putting its hands behind its back. Still confused? I’ll show you another angle in a minute.

Finally, grind pepper over the skin.

I’m stopping here with my seasonings. This simple combination results in a rich and flavorful chicken. It’s also nice because it’s a pretty neutral canvas for some other dishes I have planned.

If you want, you can dress it up. Just stuff the chicken with half of a lemon, chunks of onion, a clove or two of garlic, springs of rosemary and thyme, or big chunks of carrots. Any or all of these will bring a brightness that works nicely with the chicken’s flavor.

How to Roast 101

Now, if you don’t have a roasting pan and v-rack, don’t dismay. I don’t have these either, but I am accepting donations. In the meantime, I’ve improvised with a glass baking dish (very hot from preheating!) and rolled up sheets of tin foil.

In the first round of roasting, turn the chicken on its side. This will help with that temperature challenge I talked about earlier since the legs will get the heat before the breast. You’ll turn it twice while it’s cooking to get that heat on all sides.

And do you see that wing in the upper right corner? It’s tucked behind the back, nice and neat and out of the way.

Juicy meat and golden skin. Wait. Wait. Let it rest.

Now go forth and create! Make a salad! Make a soup! Make a CLT sandwich!

But don’t get too carried away too fast. If you let it cool before you start carving the meat, you’ll be a happier cook.

Roasted Chicken

1 cup table salt, or 2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1 gallon cold water
1 whole chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large container, dissolve salt and sugar in cold water. Rinse chicken and remove giblets. Submerge in brine. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

With rack on lower third of the oven, heat oven and roasting pan to 450 degrees. Coat v-rack or three rolled up sheets of tin foil with cooking spray and set aside.

Remove chicken from brine. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.

Gently work your fingers between the skin and the breast. Press softened butter between skin and breast. Coat skin with olive oil and ground pepper. Tuck the wing behind the back of the chicken so they don’t burn.

Place the chicken on its side in the rack, or the tin foil “rack.” Roast for about 20-25 minutes.

Remove from the oven and carefully flip the chicken to the other side. You can grab it with wadded paper towels or tongs, whatever works best for you. Roast for another 20-25 minutes.

If there’s too much smoke, pour in just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan.

Remove the chicken and flip one last time to its back, breast-side up. Roast for about 20-25 minutes more, or until the breast temperature is 160-165 degrees. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before carving, or let cool completely and pull the meat off the bones.

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated “Two Roast Chickens” recipe, February 2008.

Music Pairing: Ohio by Over the Rhine

Cheers!




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