Inspiration from Resurrecting a Chicken Dish

Inspiration! I need a quest to raise my inspiration level. I think I have been hit by a vampire and suffered a level drain lately. I have been following Kitchen Incantations from others … TO THE LETTER, nonetheless. I have also been afflicted by a Curse of Habit by which I am repeating these routines. These incantations, now bordering on alchemic mumbles.

Variety is crucial, beyond essential, to the Kreative Kitchen Kleric. In following my recent vegan experiment, I learned the real meaning of “variety is the spice of life” as I failed to employ variety. As a result, I managed to make myself tired of things that I normally like.

But for some of this I have been following recipes that are supposed to be quick-and-easy — something that has become important to me as I balance evening meals with a commute home. (So, what’s my excuse on the weekends… another story, perhaps.) Last night I ended up at least putting some experience to use to correct something I could see was going to go horribly wrong. The idea was that a whole chicken gets cut up into “serving sizes” and then satueed. Once prepared (simply salted & a bit of pepper) and in the pans, I could tell the breasts were going to give me the usual trouble: bone-in-breast means raw meat on the bone. I have tried cooking these several ways with the same result. The only way I have found to cook bone-in-breast chicken is in the oven or on the grill with lower heat. My theory is that my stove-top area isn’t really a good place to get the heat to permeate the meat well enough to cook all the way through, even with a cover.

So what happened…

After cutting up the whole chicken, I salted and peppered it. I used two skillets (per the recipe so that none of the parts were touching) and cooked them on high heat, skin-side first, for a short bit to crisp them. I salted/peppered the up-side while the skin side was cooking. I then flipped them and crisped the other side. This is when I noticed the breast-meat swelling and, as is my experience, threatening not to cook. Therefore I summoned an Oven of 350F.

I added a little minced garlic and some paprika, covered the skillets with oven-proof covers*, and tossed them into the oven for 15 minutes. All came out well — juicy and tender. It wasn’t according to the recipe, but it worked. It works for steaks, and it works for chicken.

*This is quite simple in my case as I use cast-iron. One of the pans has a cover that goes with it, the other I know of a kettle cover I can use that is oven-proof.

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Just for the Sake of Amusement ~ The Early Years

Back when I was a Level 0 cook, and my efforts were confined largely to scrounging up lunch for myself while I was home for the summer and Mom was busy with Mom Things[tm], there were a great many “oh, I thought I was making something else” moments. Many meals started out with half remembered spells for cheeseburgers or omelets which ended with saving throws to transmogrify into hash. Important lessons during these years included notions such as:

  • Always cook eggs in a nonstick pan. Nothing sticks to a well seasoned cast iron skillet — except eggs *
  • With almost all proteins, the higher the heat, the less likely things will stick to the pan — except eggs *
  • Keep flattening a ground meat patty with a spatula often and hard enough, and it will completely fall apart.
  • When cooked ground meat falls apart, it doesn’t go back together again. Ever.
  • Trying to convert crumbled hamburger into sloppy joe or chili after you’ve cooked it never works.
  • Always start the potatoes first. Potatoes take way longer to cook than they look like they should.
  • You are not clever enough to cook two things in the same pan which are not supposed to eventually be combined.
  • The only thing which sticks to a pan more permanently than eggs is cheese.
  • Always have the pan scraped and cleaned before Mom gets home.
  • Leftover transmogrified hash may actually be a potion for the ending of all life on earth.

* Advanced spells involving bacon grease can prevent eggs from sticking to pans, even cast iron, but over use of this spell eventually leads to saving throws versus myocardial infarction and death — use with caution.

Quest for the Wholly Chicken (Roasted)

I have this problem roasting chicken:  I have been following recipes that seem to be written by people who don’t like chicken.  I also don’t pay attention as much as I should, but even when I have paid attention the roasted chicken I have made hasn’t been all that great.  I believe I fixed that last night.

I received Anthony Bourdain’s cookbook as a gift — which is just as fun to read as it is to cook with.  As usual for this sort of thing, the recipes have ingredients that I don’t tend to keep around.  This recipe is going to change one item though:  white wine.  As for the other things, I made substitutions that were sufficient enough for the result to be wonderful.  The chicken was flavorful, juicy, and delicious; it represented exactly what I have been trying to do.  It required a little tending, but for the result I got, it was worth it.

  • 4lb whole chicken
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1T rosemary
  • 1T thyme
  • 2t lemon juice
  • 1 “medium” sweet onion — halved, in “the easiest way, in your opinion”
  • 1T bacon fat (the recipe called for the giblets, but this was what I decided to use in their absence)
  • 1/2c white wine — This is wine I didn’t mind drinking.  I finally learned that if I wouldn’t otherwise drink “it” (wine, whisky, vermouth, etc.), then there was no point cooking with it.
  • 1/4c olive oil

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with a paper towel.  Rub all over with salt and pepper.  This is very important.  I was not shy and rubbed it all over.

Splash lemon juice into body cavity.  View this like an adhesive for the thyme and rosemary.  Ideally, the spices should be somewhat spread around, not settled into a heap.  Add half the onion and then truss the legs together.

Rub the bacon fat on the bottom of a roasting pan (the inside, dude… the inside…). I used a cast iron dutch oven for this because it is better for me than any roasting pan I’ve used (it also makes a fair helmet in an emergency…).  Slice the remaining half of onion into 4 pieces and lay flat in bottom of pan.  I’m a “tuck the wings behind the bird” cook, so I did that before I put it in the pan — on top of the onion slices.[[3]]  Pour in the wine, being careful not to rinse off the salt and pepper rub.  Drizzle olive oil over bird. [[1]]

Cook for 30 minutes at 375F, basting every 10 minutes.  Now it’s okay to have some of that rub rinse off, you won’t be able to baste otherwise.  I cooked it in 10 minute increments to ensure the bird spent all 30 minutes in the oven.  Crank the oven to 450F and cook for 25 minutes, covered and left alone.  Remove from oven, leave covered for 15 minutes to rest.  This 40 minutes of being unobserved is the moment of Quantum Cooking.  Maybe the chicken comes out alright, maybe it’s a mess — but that lid can’t be opened until the full 40 minutes is up.

Remove bird from pan, remove onion — and giblets if you happened to have and use those.  Put pan on low heat and scrape around in there (wooden spoon!!!) to loosen up all the flavorful bits.  The original recipe called for another 1/2c of wine, but I used 3/4c of water with about 2T of cornstarch to thicken.  I’m not very good at gravy, so cornstarch is my escape plan.  A roux could be used, but I’m not that good with that either.

And that was it.  I had a nice juicy bird with some outstanding gravy (duh… it had bacon fat in it!!).

Keeping bacon fat is a leftover (har har) from my childhood.  My parents and grandparents always had a container of drippings.  It was what was used before “cooking sprays”.  Sometimes butter was used, but bacon fat is heavier and won’t cook off as quickly as butter will.  Also, depending on the bacon you use, there is phenomenal flavor in bacon fat that is a shame to feed to your Omnivorous Trashcan or worse, The Gurgling Drain of Death.  [[2]]

[[1]] Do yourself a big favor and get an olive oil cruet to your adventuring gear.  Avoid kitchy, decorative crap.  Get one that you can easily tell (a) you will be able to fill without gymnastics, application of quantum physics, or anti-gravity, and (b) that you can actually hold on to if it gets slippery.  It contains oil — it’s going to get slippery at some point.

[[2]] … never put heavy oily sludge down your drain!!! It will seriously mess up septic tanks, and fouls up waste processing in municipal water.  “Other people do it”, but Heroic Cooking Adventurers are better than “other” people.  Besides, every adventurer knows you never throw something away — the DM has provided it for a reason not yet obvious to you (or overlooked that they just handed you an unplanned solution to an Epic Problem).

[[3]] 2011-12-28 — I’ve learned after a few adventures that putting the onion in the pan such that the bird can rest on it is a good thing.  This requires the onion to be cut into 4 slices, roughly the same thickness.  My observation is that the meat absorbs more good flavor from the onion this way and the onion breaks down more and contributes to the juices for gravy.

What Good Is a Spell-book Without a Pouch Full of Physical Components?

I have been wracking my brain trying to remember blatant “happy accidents” since John invited me to co-author on this blog, but so far, I haven’t been to sufficient therapy sessions, it seems, to un-repress them. Soon, I promise. Meanwhile, I will continue a bit on the theme from my first entry with regards to flexibility and working with left overs.

One key to establishing flexibility and adaptability in the kitchen is to develop a core set of “go to” items which you understand deeply and which occur over and over in your spell-book, ehem… cookbook. For me, these items include cans of stewed tomatoes, cans of tomato paste, marinated artichoke hearts, olives (green, black and kalamata), garlic, onion, capers, and then wet items such as olive oil, lemon juice, various vinegars, vegetable broth and then staples like lentils and barley. These are the physical components for casting the spells in your spell-book. I use these things to make everything from pasta sauce to tapenade, soups, stews, and cold salads. I buy them in bulk at warehouse stores. Seriously. Huge quantities. Notice that they’re all things which are unlikely to spoil. That’s the key.

With careful honing of skills, advanced Kitchen Klerics can also use them to polymorph yesterday’s soup into tonight’s sauce or stew.

Behold.

Last night I made lentil soup (what is it with us and lentil soup?!?!). On purpose. Here was my approach for the soup:

Simmer half a cup of green lentils in water until nearly fork tender. I use roughly a 3 to 1 water to lentil ratio. The trick is to not go 100% dry when you reach “done-ness” but you don’t want too much left over, either. Saute chopped leafy greens in olive oil until soft but not disintegrating. Lightly pulse one can of stewed tomatoes w/ basil until rough chopped. Combine with vegetable broth to create 4 cups of flavorful liquid. Add new liquid and greens to tender lentils, retaining any water still not absorbed by the lentils. Season with salt, all three: hot, half-sharp and smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, dried oregano, sumac and dried cilantro. Bring all the new liquid up to heat quickly so the lentils and greens don’t go to mush. Add already cooked barley (see Alton Brown’s technique for baked barley) and serve.

To clarify, the salt, half-sharp paprika, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, dried oregano, sumac and dried cilantro were in a blend provided by Penzey’s which they call “Turkish blend”. The hot and smoked paprika I added myself. Also, as a point of order, that’s as close to a formal recipe as you’re ever going to get from me. Fair warning.

Now, part of last night’s experiment was to avoid past disasters in which creating correct proportions between ingredients resulted in eight quarts of soup for two people. This was probably enough soup to serve four hungry people. I had some left over for lunch after last night’s dinner, and so tonight’s goal would be to use up what remains without simply eating more soup.

There was also a carton of mushrooms (baby portobello, which I think are really just re-branded button mushrooms) in the fridge. I hate mushrooms. I will eat nearly anything. Often in states of cooked or uncooked that would terrify most other people. I am a genuinely adventurous eater. My “no freaking way” list is very short. Wax beans are on it, and mushrooms are on it. Haggis is probably on it, but I intend to never find out. But we ended up with this carton of mushrooms because my wife wanted to make a particular recipe which called for them last Friday. I talked her out of including them in that recipe, but we already had the carton in the house. What to do? Clearly, I need a high level spell which will obliterate the evil fungus into something I can eat. This is where those “go to” components shine.

In a skillet saute chopped garlic and chopped mushrooms with a generous amount of olive oil. In a second skillet defrost a bag of sweet peas. Once the peas are no longer cold and the mushrooms have reduced down considerably, add a proportional amount of peas to the mushrooms (put the rest of the peas in the fridge and combine with black beans for a nice salad later in the week). Add some of the chopped leafy greens from the night before which didn’t go in the soup because you made too much of them (they were also from a frozen bag). Add chopped up artichoke hearts, drained of their marinade. Put last night’s left over lentil soup into the blender and render into a liquid. Add this to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drive out most of the water. Serve over baked barley or pasta. If it isn’t Wednesday or Friday, add a hard, well aged cheese, shredded.

There is no way I am going to taste those mushrooms. Viola! Food doesn’t get wasted, I don’t have to hold my nose while I eat, and once again, my tried and true “go to” elements save the day.

Speaking of skillets, I remain relatively convinced that the only cooking vessels you really need to own are one large pot for boiling pasta, a Dutch (or French) oven, two cast iron skillets, a couple of simple steel sauce pans and a wok. If you cook eggs, you need something nonstick, otherwise you don’t. The only items here that may ever wear out are the pasta pot and the sauce pans. The cast iron and the wok should actually get better the more you use them. Think of these items as the armor which is permitted for your Kitchen Kleric. Huge arrays of shiny pans or entire sets of nonstick are out of bounds for your character class.

I promise not to mention lentils or lentil soup again anytime soon. Really.