Sunday, July 21, 2013

Guest post from the Midwest: Mary's perfect roast chicken + chicken stock

From the moment Mary and I met we started talking about food. We were new work colleagues, so there was probably some discussion of books, and music (just one the excellent lists she heads up) and other workplace type things in there too...but really, somehow we recognized a kindred soul on the food front immediately. I believe I sent her back to Wisconsin with a jar of jam I had recently made after that first meeting, and thus begun the exchange of delicious cooking ideas and meals and more. One of my favorite cocktail secret weapons has been some artisan blackstrap bitters she gifted me, and I've kept the California fruit preserves coming her way. This post has been a long time in coming (my fault entirely, as she delivered it back in May!), but with the look of things outside todaycue fog, cold wind...SF summer regularsroast chicken is still a perfectly timed dish to be making. When isn't it really? 

Reading this I find myself to be quite the opposite kind of cook from Mary. I tend to be interested in cooking many things at once, and am constantly trying new recipes versus spending the time really perfecting a dish. Of course I do have my own staples I can turn out with regular consistency, but I admire her dedication to getting something just right. Read on for Mary's step-by-step guide to the perfect roast chicken, followed by chicken stock.

I don’t consider myself a creative cook. The dishes I enjoy making are simple, and I make them again and again. My grandmother used to say that the simplest things are the hardest to do really well. I often think of her when I get into a groove with a dish I am interested in, and start to make over and over again, to try and get it just the way I like it.

This winter, that dish was roast chicken. Not a fancy, complicated thing to make. But there is boring roast chicken, and there is satisfying and delicious roast chicken, and there is sublime roast chicken. I wanted to get to the really satisfying and delicious version, reliably, every time. (And maybe one day one of them would be sublime, but hey, that would be a bonus.) Roast chicken is an excellent thing to obsess about in the winter in Milwaukee: roasting keeps our place warm and uses the only kind of produce that is fresh and local in the winter. Also roast chicken produces a crucial dividend: stock.

Roast Chicken
The ingredients
For me and my spouse, we get a four pound organic roaster. This recipe can scale up for your massive Thanksgiving monster-bird, but a four-pounder is just right for one meal of hot from the oven roast meat and vegetables, plus cold chicken leftovers, and the all-important stock. If we have guests, I roast two chickens…..or get a turkey. 

Rutabaga and root vegetable love
I roast my chicken with root vegetables. In the winter, in the upper Midwest, if you want to eat local, you need to get to know your root veggies: onions, potatoes, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, celery root. (I adore sweet potatoes, but my spouse does not. Carrots and beets, especially the winter ones that have been around the block, work well, but I find them a little too sweet. But any and all of these would work well if you fancy them.) I will never be a vegetarian, but roast chicken taught me to appreciate rutabaga.

I love stuffing, and I am old school about putting stuffing inside the bird. But a normal chicken doesn’t have room for a satisfying amount of stuffing. I buy two lemons per chicken, and a big bunch of either rosemary or tarragon to stuff my chicken with.  

Finally: butter, at room temperature, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

The method
I am of the start-it-hot school of roasting: preheat the oven to 450°, and after the first 20 minutes of roasting, lower the temp to 400°. My oven is slow; for a hotter oven, you would use different temperatures. Experiment and figure out what works with your oven. I swear by twenty minutes per pound; I’ve tried other guidelines for how long to roast a bird and found them wanting. 

The bird, ready for the oven
I like using a rack in my roasting pan because I can but veggies right under the bird, but you can also just lay the bird in your roasting pan right on top of your veggies. The point of roasting veggies under the bird is to get them all covered with the delicious chicken juices. I rub just a little bit of butter on the bottom of the roasting pan, and put the chopped veggies into the pan as is: no oil, no water, no wine, just some salt and pepper. Veggies can get soggy and greasy, so I herd them to get the desired results. Potatoes and celery root absorb a lot, and putting them around the edges keeps them from getting too greasy. On the other hand, a lot of chicken juice really makes a parsnip or rutabaga worth eating, so I put those pups are right under the bird. You are going to have this operation going a long time in the oven, so don’t cut the veggies too small: larger chunks get nicely roasty without turning to mush. The most delicious roast veggies of all are onions (leeks and shallots are my favorites, but whole pearl onions are lovely too) and garlic, and those can stand up to anything. My standards for “enough garlic” are pretty far over on the bell curve: I use an entire head per chicken (two if they are small), scattering the cloves among the other veggies, and two or three inside the bird.

Rinse the bird inside and out. Cut one of the lemons and juice it, reserving the juice. Stuff the halves of the lemon inside the bird, along with as much of the herb of choice as you can fit and a few cloves of garlic.

I put the bird breast down for its trip to the oven: in my experience, this does make the breast meat more tender and juicy. (Thanks, gravity.)  This method sacrifices the classic breast-meat-super-crispy-skin combo. But I am not a chicken-skin fetish person; I’d rather have the white meat reliably juicy. 

Once the bird is stuffed full of herbs, garlic, and lemon rind, poised on the rack above the veggies, grab a chunk of room temperature butter and rub it all over the bird’s skin. Then, pour the juice of the lemon over the skin, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. 

If you roast breast side down, you don’t need to baste obsessively, but every 15 minutes does help keep the bird uniformly moist. More important, you should turn the bird every 15 minutes, so it gets evenly browned. I use olive oil to start, and once bird starts giving up enough juice that you can scoop it out of the corners of the pan, use that for your basting. 

Once twenty-minutes-per-pound is up, ‘resting’ the bird for 15 minutes before carving does help everything settle, and if you are of the school of making pan gravy, this is when you go to town. I am not of that school: I take my extra lemon, juice it, pour it over everything in the pan. I’ve never been able to make a gravy can hold a candle to the blend of chicken juice, chicken fat/butter/olive oil, and lemon juice that this method delivers.

Beautiful, ain't it?

The ingredients
The rule for stock is: nothing succeeds like excess. The whole point of stock is to have something rich, delicious, and full of vitamins to use in your cooking. But if you skimp, you end up with mildly flavored stuff that is hardly an improvement over water.

The carcass of your roasted bird is where it all starts. Cold leftover chicken is a big favorite in our household, so we have had to reach détente over how much meat to remove from the bird: you want some meat going into the pot. The bones are just as important: get them all in there, they add a lot of body and richness. Skin too, and if you got a neck or giblets with your bird, they go in as well.

The workhorses of making good stock
Pot veggies: onion, shallots, leeks, garlic, carrot, celery. Two big onions, a whole head of garlic, an entire bunch of celery, and three carrots is my absolute minimum. I like to include other veggies too, usually things that are mellow and sweet: asparagus ends, mild greens (baby spinach, lettuce), peas or corn. What goes into your stock will assert itself, so don’t kid yourself that stuff that comes in your farm box that you don’t like can be tossed in without consequences. (No cauliflower in my stock, thank you very much.) If you plan to do something where the broth’s profile can be strong, go head and add bitter greens (radish tops, turnip greens, mustard greens). Mushrooms create an amazing flavor profile, they aren’t going to hide themselves. I tend to avoid starchy root veggies, since they thicken the stock. But if you are making something creamy (chowder, bisque) that may be exactly what you want, so go to town with some potatoes or other root veggies.

I always include some herbs in my stock; a big bunch of flat leaf parsley, and some rosemary or tarragon (whichever was used to roast the bird). I also throw in five or six whole peppercorns, and if the stock is headed for an Asian recipe, a hunk of ginger. 

The method
Rough chop everything up and put it all into your big stockpot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat until you’ve got a vigorous simmer, and let that keep happening for at least three hours. My most successful stocks have been the ones that cooked the longest: long simmering draws all the yumminess out of the meat and bones especially.

Once everything has been cooked into submission, strain it into a new pot with a fine mesh strainer.  For super-clear stock, strain it twice, using cheesecloth the second time. Then set it into the fridge to cool thoroughly. Once it is completely cooled it is easy to skim off as much fat as you want to.  Now, my grandmother would never dream of skimming off all that lovely fat, or at the very least she’d save it if she did. But to each their own. 

Before you use the stock, it needs a little finishing. I don’t put salt into my stock until this point, but stock does need salt. Heat it up, give it a taste: cold unsalted stock tastes different from warmed unsalted stock. A little something acidic will brighten the flavor, the juice of a lemon, or some dry white wine. 

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