Worth the Effort, or My Chicken Epiphany

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Well, that was a longer hiatus than I had intended. I hope you small cabal of readers will forgive me my absence over the last few weeks, which have been very busy and filled with good things. First, I graduated from my doctoral program last week! My Mom flew out from Edmonton to attend my convocation at York University (the only of my three convocations I’ve ever attended… I figured the last one would be important enough to make up for missing the previous two) and I am now, officially, Dr Sheena. Hooray! And, as if that wasn’t good enough, I’m happy to tell you that I finally got a full time job! Starting in July, I’ll be working a 9-to-5 office job in downtown Toronto, which means the end of underemployment for me! I was a bit worried that not working in academia might bum me out, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t be more thrilled to be starting this new chapter in my life so soon. My new boss seems great, the work seems interesting, and I will no longer have to support myself with part time jobs. What’s not to like about that? And, as a cherry on the sundae, my friend Margaret gifted me with her entire yarn stash and all of her knitting needles yesterday afternoon. Am I lucky, or what?

Anyway, now that my good news is out in the open, let’s focus on the task at hand: chicken. For most of my life, I’ve been of two minds when it comes to chicken: 1) Chicken is good for you; 2) Chicken is gross. While the former is definitely something to think about when making choices about what to eat, my decision to become a vegetarian at age 19 was primarily based on the latter opinion. For years, my distaste for chicken (and beef and pork) was the only reason I didn’t eat meat. And, because I didn’t see the point in lying about it, it was also the reason I gave when people asked why I’d become a vegetarian. As an adult woman living in North America in the twenty-first century, I thought this was a perfectly appropriate reason to be a vegetarian: I’m in charge of what I put in my body and there’s no reason for me to force myself to eat something I don’t like just because. Then I met a classmate who decided to clear it all up for me. My reason, he told me, was stupid. Not enjoying meat was not a good enough reason to give it up, he argued, so if I was going to be a vegetarian I’d better come up with something better than that. Then, as now, I brushed off his reasoning. What business is it of others what I eat? When it comes to food, I’m definitely something of a libertarian. I have never judged others for eating meat, so I expected others to keep their opinions about my vegetarianism to themselves.

All of this is now moot, of course, because I’ve eaten quite a lot of meat in the last year or so. I mean, it’s hard not to be tempted when you live within walking (and smelling) distance of the best Carolina-style barbecue north of the Carolinas. But there’s even more to it than that. Eating meat has given me more energy than I used to have, and it’s helped me lose enough weight that people have recently started commenting on how different I look despite not having changed anything about my fitness regime. Most importantly, though, and because my taste buds govern just about everything I make and eat, I’ve finally (finally!) begun to figure out how to cook meat so that it tastes great.

Surely I’m not alone in being intimidated by cooking meat and, especially, roasting a chicken. Anyone who’s grown up in North America has probably seen a Swiss Chalet commercial or two in their lifetime and, thanks to them, we all know what the ideal chicken should be: spit-roasted to perfection, with tender meat and crispy skin. But how, outside of a rotisserie, can a mere mortal achieve similar results in a crappy, apartment-sized oven for whom the description “seen better days” was most accurate more than a decade ago? Sure, you can cover the bird and preserve the juiciness of the meat at the expense of the crispy skin, which becomes flabby and insipid. Or, you can leave your bird uncovered and try not to choke on the resulting dry breast meat, which ends up tasting chalky and sucking all the moisture out of your mouth faster than you can drink a glass of water. As most of us omnivores probably share the opinion that flabby chicken skin and dry chicken breast has as much appeal as cleaning the bathroom, neither of these cooking options were going to work for me. So when I finally mustered up the courage to learn how to make the best goddamn roast chicken ever, I turned to Julia Child.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how great Julia Child is, and I’m certainly not going to get into the details of my girl crush on her, which developed primarily after reading her letters to Avis DeVoto. But I will say this: Julia Child is the most logical chef ever. Anyone who’s ever cooked from Mastering the Art of French Cooking has probably noticed the great attention to detail and orderliness of the book, with ingredients listed alongside detailed but accessible instructions about how to prepare them. On the subject of roasting chicken, Julia’s instructions are masterful. When it comes to timing, Julia employs a simple formula: 45 minutes + 7 minutes/lb. In other words, a 1lb chicken only needs about 45 minutes in a ˚350 F oven, and each additional pound beyond the first one will need about 7 minutes each. So, as an example, the nearly 8lb free-range Amish bird pictured above took about an hour and a half to roast. To avoid the dual problems of dry meat and flabby skin, Julia suggests an aggressive solution: frequent basting with butter and chicken drippings combined with occasionally turning the chicken in the roasting pan. The results are nothing  short of outstanding.

So, now, to explain the title of this post. Yes, this chicken is a lot of work compared to other methods of roasting chicken. The constant basting and turning might have you muttering bitterly to yourself under your breath, vowing that nothing in this world could be worth as much effort as you’re putting into your chicken at that very moment. I guarantee you won’t feel this way for long after you have your first bite, though. I’m even willing to bet that, after that first bite, you’ll ask yourself how soon is too soon to roast another chicken. And if, for some reason, you don’t feel this way about Julia Child’s roast chicken, I apologize in advance. In fact, I’d be happy to take that chicken off your hands…

Poulet Roti a la Paysanne Provençale

Recipe adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking  and Luisa Weiss’s My Berlin Kitchen

A confession: the first chicken I ever made that I thought was delicious came from blogger Luisa Weiss’s incredible memoir, My Berlin Kitchen (must read!). Her recipe for braised Provence-style chicken is really something else and was a great introduction to cooking chicken for someone who had never done it and was terrified of the process. I’ve channeled the spirit of Weiss’s dish and combined them with Child’s technique, with stunning results. 

2 tablespoons cold butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 ready-to-cook chicken of any size

1 teaspoon salt, divided

2-4 tablespoons softened butter (more butter for larger birds, less for smaller birds)

1 large or 2 small shallots, minced

4 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped

12-20 oil-cured black olives, pitted

2-4 sprigs of thyme

1. Preheat the oven to ˚425 F. Melt the cold butter and the olive oil together in a small saucepan. Set aside

2. Rinse the chicken inside and out in cold water, then dry thoroughly. Sprinkle 1/4 tsp salt inside the chicken, then smear 1 Tbsp of butter inside. Rub the outer skin with the remaining butter and place the chicken in a roasting pan, breasts up. Strew the minced shallots, chopped tomatoes, pitted olives and thyme sprigs around the chicken and set the uncovered chicken on the middle rack of the preheated oven.

3. Allow the chicken to brown lightly for 15 minutes, turning it on its left side after the first 5 minutes and then on its right side after the next five minutes (tongs and a flexible spatula will make this part easier). After each turn, baste the chicken with a few spoonfuls of the melted butter and oil. When the butter-oil mixture runs out, begin using the drippings from the roasting pan.

4. After the first 15 minutes, reduce the oven’s heat to ˚350 F and continue to baste every 10 minutes.

5. Halfway through the estimated roasting time (remember 45 minutes for the first pound and and extra 7 or so minutes for each pound after that), salt the chicken and turn it to its other side. Continue basting as before.

6. About 15 minutes before the end of the roasting time, salt the chicken again and turn one last time, breasts up. Continue basting as before.

7. To check for doneness, pay attention for the following: a sudden rain of splutters from the oven, a slight puffiness in the chicken breast, and the drumstick should feel looser in its socket. Prick the thickest part of the drumstick with a fork to see if the juices run clear yellow. If so, you’re done! If the juices are pink, test again in 10 minutes.

8. When done, remove the chicken to a platter and let the meat rest for 10 minutes before cutting. Then, serve and enjoy!

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