A confession: I am an avid collector of food porn — I salivate over gorgeous still lifes of foodstuffs, probably in hope that gazing at them will somehow improve my own lacklustre photography skills. And despite the fact that meat is notoriously difficult to photograph, I believe that an image of a perfectly roasted chicken, with a crispy browned crust, really hits the top of the eye-popping charts.
The thing is, a roasted chicken will never let you down. It will do for a meal that’s simple and homey as well as for an elegant dinner party. It’s great for all times of year: in the spring, stuffed with leeks, or lemon and onions; eaten cold in the summer with (yum) garlic mayonnaise; in the fall with roasted vegetables; and, of course, with gravy and a spicy sausage or bread or chestnut stuffing, in the bitter cold of winter.
The best chickens are organic free range birds that have been allowed to live happy lives scrabbling and scratching around in the barnyard, antibiotic free and not factory farmed. You can find them at fancy butchers, or places like Denninger’s, or at the farmer’s market or Dundas market or Locke St. market — and here’s a list of farms near Hamilton from Environment Hamilton that sell them:
Free range, organic will cost more but definitely will taste better.
Once you have your chicken, you must realize that there is great controversy about the best method of cooking. Some prefer their chicken to be slightly pink at the joints, roasting it maybe 15 minutes a pound. I, on the other hand, am horrified by any shade of pinkness in my chicken and like to have it with the meat falling off the bone and the skin very crisp. I know that people tend to think that cooking the bird for long periods of time will leave it hard and dry. But there is a secret! First of all, cook it at a low temperature (300 degrees F.) and baste(butter, please)continually. But more importantly — the bird must first be brined.
Now brining a chicken isn’t really such a big deal (brining a huge turkey, on the other hand, requires the management skills of a major CEO) — it just requires an extra bit of preparation time. Brining is, essentially, soaking meat or poultry in salt water to make it tastier and juicier. There are all sorts of recipes for the brine. I find the ratio of 16 cups of water to one cup of kosher salt works well. I heat four cups of water, add the salt (and maybe a half cup or so of light brown sugar to sweeten the juices if making gravy) and stir until dissolved. Then mix in the rest of the water — the brine needs to be cooled before using.
Use a container that is big enough for the entire chicken to be immersed — but not so large that it will not fit in the refrigerator. (Brining does not stop the meat from spoiling so everything must be cooled or refrigerated.) I usually use a soup pot which just fits into my refrigerator. (I do recall brining a turkey in a laundry basket in the cold garage when I lived in a house.) You can brine the bird for six hours up to 24 hours but overnight is usually plenty of time. Rinse it off before cooking and pat it dry and let it dry out a bit (at least a couple of hours in the refrigerator) before you start to baste or put it in the oven so that the skin will get crisp. And, oh, yes –THROW OUT THE BRINE!
Voilà, you are ready to cook your bird. I must say that I tend to do two at a time because I love to eat one hot with gravy and use up the rest of the meat in sandwiches or chicken salad. There probably are entire books of chicken salad recipes for you to try, but a proper chicken sandwich is a work of art in itself.
Use the breast meat and slice very thin. You may add prepared mayonnaise with a bit of lemon juice and a dusting of celery salt. The only other accompaniment allowed is a few leafs of Boston lettuce. But the bread must be untoasted, fine grained white bread — you know, the “cakey” kind. Cut off the crusts. Enjoy as a perfect lunch with a glass of cold milk or buttery Chardonnay.
And, finally, don’t forget to save the carcases to make broth for a savory, homemade chicken noodle soup.
I’ll leave you with a recipe for an easy roast chicken with vegetables.
But first, here’s a date you may want to circle on your calendar: On Tuesday, November 4th, the Hamilton Food Summit 2014 will take place at Liuna Station, from 8 am. to 4 pm. The summit includes workshops and discussions of food system issues and the role of a healthy food system in creating a resilient city. It sounds like a fascinating programme for anyone who might be interested in food issues. For more information see:
Roast Chicken with Vegetables
my own recipe
2 brined chickens (about 3 – 3 and 1/2 lbs. each)
2 large onions
butter for sautéing
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp thyme
8 cloves garlic
two lemon halfs
paprika, salt and pepper
softened butter for basting
1) Brine the chickens and dry off with paper towels. (see above)
2) Peel and cut up the potatoes, carrots and onions. Sauté them in butter until the onions are golden, season with salt, pepper and thyme. Put the vegetables into a large roasting pan. Add about a cup of water to the skillet and boil it while scraping up the sticky bits. Pour this over the vegetables.
3) Stuff chickens with garlic cloves and a lemon half. Sprinkle with paprika and salt and pepper. Set the chickens in the midst of the vegetables. Roast in a 300 degree F. oven. Baste frequently (every 15 minutes). This is really boring and irritating, I know, but it is absolutely necessary.
You can roast for at least two hours and maybe as long as three — just wiggle the leg bone and make sure the flesh is loose when it’s time to eat. The paprika makes the skin a beautiful colour of teak.