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Christmas dinner: chicken, candles and company

roast chicken with herb butter

RoastedChicken

For Christmas we had a friend come over, and I wanted to make a meal that would be nice but not overly demanding. I settled on roast chicken, along with roasted potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts (our friend brought some cold appetizers plus truffles for dessert and some vodka), and leafed through my books for a good recipe.

HerbsInButter

You would think roasting a chicken would be part of my basic skills now, but I’ve tried out a number of different approaches trying to find the best one for me. For years I used a technique from Cook’s Illustrated that involved starting at very high heat and with the chicken breast-side down, then turning the bird breast-side up partway through and maintaining the high heat until the skin had browned, then turning down the temperature to finish, plus basting every 8 minutes or so. It was pretty labor-intensive, and I quickly lost enthusiasm for repeatedly reaching into a 500-degree oven. When I got fed up with that one I tried versions with a lower starting heat, more or less basting, some with the bird starting breast-side down and some not, but all fairly fiddly. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything promises simple roast chicken in one recipe title, but I have to say that his roast chicken with herb butter is equally simple during the roasting process itself, which is what matters to me and my oven-heat-warmed face.

PreppingTheBird

The recipe is much like the simple version: starting the bird hotter than the final cooking temperature (450 instead of 500), starting it breast-side down and turning it over partway through (to help ensure that the breast is moist), and basting sparingly. The difference is that first I mashed together half a stick of butter with a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs (I used thyme and chives) plus some salt and pepper, then rubbed the butter mixture all over the bird, loosening pockets of skin and rubbing butter between skin and flesh as well. (This is easier than it sounds.) I also put two quarters of a lemon, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a couple of chunks of ginger root into the bird’s cavity. I melted the other half stick of butter in the roasting pan, then added some water and put the chicken on a roasting rack atop it all, and into the oven it went. I cooked it breast-side down for about 20 minutes; then I basted with pan juices, turned the bird over, basted some more, and returned it to the oven for another 8 minutes or so. At this point I basted it once more, turned the temperature down to 325, and inserted my probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh so it could track the temperature up to the desired 160-165 range without my having to repeatedly stab the hot chicken. At this point Bittman lets you stop basting, which takes away a lot of the fuss factor that you find in other recipes, though I did give it one more wash about 20 minutes later when I was turning the roasted vegetables anyway.

PanSauce

When the temperature was in the right zone — I forget just how long that took, though it was a little longer than the suggested time of an hour total because my chicken was kind of large — I tipped the bird up to pour the juices out of the cavity and confirm they were clear. (This also helps make carving less of a catastrophe later, though for me that is frankly a lost cause and always will be.) I let the bird rest about 5 minutes, and in the meantime I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and added some wine and cooked the mixture until it reduced by about half, whisking periodically. This was not technically a gravy, since I didn’t thicken it, but it was a nice flavor complement to the bird, though the meat was very moist and didn’t need gravy to help in that respect. I carved the chicken as best I could, which is not that great considering I only do this a few times a year. But I wasn’t trying for a magazine spread, I just wanted to have light and dark meat easy to choose from the platter, and I did manage that.

RoastedSprouts

The roasted vegetable sides were very easy. I made the Brussels sprouts as I usually do: trim the stems, cut in half, toss with olive oil, pepper and salt — in this case, paprika salt. For the potatoes I mixed together Yukon golds and purple potatoes, cutting the larger ones to try to get reasonably uniform chunks, and tossed those with olive oil and salt and pepper as well. (By the way, yes, those purple potatoes are purple all the way through. And if you rinse and blot them dry on a towel they’ll bleed a little purple onto the cloth. Heh.) Those I put in the cast-iron skillet to ensure a good crispy crust. I put them into the oven when the chicken went in; the sprouts came out a little earlier than the bird and the potatoes did.

PotatoesToRoast4

I didn’t get any photos of the dining table because we had it candlelit, with votives in the holders that we had made the night before using cheap glassware and Mod Podge and tissue paper. I don’t like the effect of my camera’s flash, and there was nowhere near enough light to go without it, so I didn’t record the moment but let us simply experience it. That was the point anyway, right? To enjoy good friends and a holiday meal, to celebrate in the now, to be fully present.

VotiveHolders19

Chickpeas and Cheap Cookery

golden “chicken” patties

DinnerPlate2

My plan is to set up a twice-a-week blogging schedule: A post early in the week about something I cook over the weekend, and a post later in the week about either a cooking experience or a food-related subject, such as things in the news or weird products I come across. (Rejoice: There is a SlapChop review in our future.) I meant to kick off that schedule last week with the chickpea patties, but am in catch-up mode. Better late than never.

ChickpeaPuree

I made the chickpea patties because, quite frankly, I was broke and needed something I could do cheaply with few new ingredients to buy. I’m in catch-up mode financially as well; we had to squeeze in an unexpected trip to Los Angeles in November and it was what is euphemistically known as “off-budget,” and then I had to do my holiday baking, which involved stocking up on butter and nuts and some other non-cheap ingredients. So I looked at my dwindling store of canned beans and thought, veggie burger, there’s got to be an easy one I haven’t made yet.

ChickpeaPatties

I was surprised to discover that there aren’t that many veggie burger recipes in my vegetarian cookbooks. Or maybe I was just having trouble finding them; not all indexes are created equal, and a cookbook may class a bean burger under “beans” but not “burgers” or “sandwiches.” I tried as many terms as seemed reasonable and ended up with three choices: a bean burger I’ve made many times, a lentil burger that lacked a certain appeal, and a chickpea patty that I think I made once about 10 years ago. The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook recipe called for few ingredients: canned chickpeas, some of the reserved liquid, oats, garlic, salt, pepper, and oil with which to cook it.

TurningPatties

It’s a simple recipe. You drain the chickpeas and reserve the liquid, puree the chickpeas in a food processor with just enough of the liquid to make a smooth paste, mix it up with some oats and minced garlic, season to taste, and cook in a lightly oiled pan for about 8-10 minutes per side.The patties were a little fragile, shedding chunks when I turned them, but held together well enough for a slightly sloppy dinner. It’s possible I needed to make the chickpea paste a little wetter, or add a bit less of the oats. But they tasted good, with a nutty chickpea flavor and aroma. I served them on basic hamburger buns with a bit of mustard, and if I’d had mayonnaise on hand it would probably have been a nice complement.

FriesToBake3

I had some russet potatoes on hand too, so I made oven fries to go with the chickpea patties. I scrubbed the potatoes and sliced them into fairly thick fries (skin still on, of course), tossed them with olive oil and some salt and pepper, and baked them in a 450-degree oven for a bit less than half an hour, turning them a couple of times for even browning. They were yummy, with a strong potato taste and no oily overtones. There were crispy edges and rich, smooth interiors. Nice.

DinnerPlate

I rounded out the dinner with some corn and a few of my homemade pickles, which were as close to a green vegetable as we were going to find in the house until payday. (I know. Shut up.) These were the hot-pepper pickles, which continue to pack a serious punch.

Metropolitan Cook Book: Helpful Recipes From a Life Insurance Company

potato salad

Metropolitan Cook Book is my second Recipes of the Damned effort in this project, and while the small booklet has a lot more recipes than Tempting Low-Cost Meals for 2 or 4 or 6, I found it just as challenging when it came to finding recipes I was actually willing to cook. While I was cataloging my collection I made a vow that I would not make any recipe that forced overcooking of vegetables, as noted by instructions such as “add the tender [asparagus] tips [to boiling water] the last 15 minutes” (which is approximately 14 minutes 30 seconds too long to be boiling asparagus) or “boil Brussels sprouts 15 to 20 minutes.” Unfortunately, for the Metropolitan Cook Book this ruled out nearly anything involving non-starchy vegetables. The meat recipes all seemed rather heavy, more suited to cold weather; the pastry recipes were tempting but I thought I should try not to make cake all the time. So potato salad won the draw.

I’ve never been terribly enthusiastic about potato salad, having had some pretty dull specimens over the years. I didn’t have high expectations for this recipe. It’s quite simple: cooked potato cubes, salt, pepper, onion juice (obtained by cutting off a chunk of an onion and squeezing), parsley, olive oil and vinegar. It’s so simple it’s virtually foolproof, which is a good thing since the instructions seem to take a lot for granted. The ingredients list “2 cups freshly boiled potatoes,” and the first instruction is “Cut potatoes into 3/4 inch cubes.” So does one boil the potatoes whole and then cut them up while hot? Cube them before boiling? How long to boil? I threw caution to the wind and peeled and cubed the potatoes before boiling them for about 15-20 minutes, paying less attention to the clock than to their texture when poked with a fork; when they were tender but not mushy I drained them off and proceeded with the seasonings. When I had mixed it all together I covered the bowl and refrigerated it.

I served the potato salad with a cold supper of sandwiches (see the upcoming entry on 500 Tasty Sandwich Recipes for details), and was pleasantly surprised. The potato flavor was pleasant and not overpowered by seasonings, and the texture was a nice complement to the lettuce on which I served it.

Verdict: Success. I would make the potato salad again. But I still refuse to boil asparagus to death.

The Well-Read Cook’s Book: Still more party food

roasted potatoes with parsley pesto
Roasted red potatoes
The Well-Read Cook’s Book was a gift from my friend Sally a few years ago. I forget just when. I am fairly sure it came in a box with other gifts, and that remembering just when it arrived will not give me much idea of which birthday it was meant to honor; Sally and I have a habit of sending gifts at random to go with whatever the past range of missed birthdays, anniversaries and other major holidays may have been. One of the more recent gifts I sent had to cover at least 18 months of neglect.

I am pretty sure I was living in Lake Oswego when the book came. Definitely still in Oregon.

Anyway, The Well-Read Cook’s Book is hard to categorize. It’s a charmingly illustrated book, and in the preface author Jean Gilbert recounts her influences: childhood in Texas, the regional popularity of Mexican food, local specialties enjoyed in her global travels, and the sheer joy of eating and cooking. The book expresses joie de vivre. I had spent time admiring the recipes but just never got around to using it until now. I thought it would be great for a party.

PotatoesNPestoIn the preface Gilbert spends some time extolling the virtues of garlic, so it is fitting that I was drawn to the recipe for roasted potatoes with parsley pesto. I learned to make pesto a little over 10 years ago during the preparations for a friend’s wedding, and have always used fresh basil as the base, so I was curious to see how parsley would do instead. In fact, for a little while I was tempted to substitute basil for parsley, but I decided that would not be in keeping with the spirit of discovering the recipes as they are provided. And it’s a good thing, because the recipe calls for a full head of garlic, and I think the relative bitterness of the parsley is necessary to balance out its power.

Pesto is incredibly easy to make. You throw a bunch of parsley (minus the big stems) into a food processor with a head of garlic (cloves peeled), 1 cup of freshly grated parmesan, a couple of tablespoons of dried basil, half a cup of pine nuts, about half a teaspoon of salt, and a cup and a half of olive oil. At this point I think the guests would have been happy if I had just poured the mixture into a bowl and handed out spoons, but I kept to the instructions and tossed it with about two pounds of small roasted red potatoes. (Gilbert tells you to prepare the roasting pan with half a cup of olive oil, but that would have been too much; I tossed them with less than half that amount and they were still swimming in it, so use your judgment there.) This would be phenomenal if served while still a little warm; it was a huge hit at room temperature, and kept its flavor wonderfully for the few days thereafter that the leftovers lasted.

Verdict: Success. I will make the pesto again soon, this coming week in fact, to pair with pasta (it would also go nicely with chicken, now that I think about it). I may wait to try the potato version until there’s a fresh crop of red roasting potatoes in the Greenmarket, and I feel like turning on the oven again.