Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Roast Chicken to Remember

Years ago, way back before every supermarket and corner gas station began selling rotisserie chicken, if you were in the mood for a roasted chicken you either went to a good restaurant or you made one yourself. Now I have had some mighty tasty roasted chickens from a few markets, and buying one there means you can have it on-demand and without any of the clean up. I love those store-bought birds; they are handy when you need cooked chicken for pot pie, tetrazzini and other recipes. Just the same, we understand that cooking is about more than just convenience, it’s about creating something special.
I will be leaving on a trip to Paris in about a week. A few weeks ago, we made a cheese soufflĂ© in honor of this journey, and now that it is right around the corner, I wanted to do something simple, but with a nod to France. Roast chicken appears in Julia Child’s classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), and in a number of other French cookbooks. While this recipe differs from Mrs. Child’s, it renders a moist, succulent chicken rich with the subtleties of fresh herbs and aromatics.

When this chicken comes out of the oven, it’s important to let it rest. Tent it with foil and give it 15 to 20 minutes of alone time. This will give time for all the delicious juices to redistribute into the meat so it stays moist. You will have some good pan drippings, too. If you want to make a nice sauce, you can add a little flour to the drippings, then add broth, white wine or both and stir to thicken. This bird was moist enough on its own, so I didn’t make a pan sauce.

Carving can be a tricky. While I’ve done it many, many times, I still don’t feel as though I’ve mastered the technique. But practice makes perfect. The wings come off easily, and I cut the chicken so the legs and thighs are together in one piece (leg quarter), but you can easily separate these two. Cutting the two sides of the breast is the trickiest part for me, but I managed to do it without it looking like a complete massacre.

We served this with butter lettuce salad, beer bread, roasted asparagus (very easy and dee-lish) which I included on the video. We also had mushroom rice – I had too much going on to make risotto – but you could cut up some redskin or Yukon Gold potatoes and let them roast under the chicken and they would be wonderful. Bon appetite!

Roast Chicken

1 whole roasting chicken (3 ½ - 4 ½ lbs)
¼ cup butter (a half stick), softened
A bunch of fresh thyme
A bunch of fresh sage (you can use dried herbs, but the fresh are so much better here)
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion sliced in half, peeled
1 medium lemon sliced in half lengthwise
Some kitchen twine

Take chicken out of refrigerator about a half hour before starting. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove neck and giblets from chicken (save if you like for gravy making) and rinse under cold water. Using paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, pat chicken dry all around and on the inside. Put a good teaspoon or two of salt and a teaspoon of pepper on the inside of the bird. Reserve a few sprigs of sage and time, and then put the rest inside the bird, followed by the onion and the lemon.

Take your reserved herbs and roughly chop the sage. Remove the small thyme leaves from the stem by running it between your forefinger and thumb. Using a fork, mix the herbs into the butter. Gently run your finger under the skin covering the breast (be careful because the skin tears easily). This will create a “pocket” between the skin and the meat. Gently rub have of the butter/herb mixture into this pocket, then use the rest of the butter/herb mixture on the outside of the skin all over the rest of the bird. Then put a generous amount of salt and pepper over the buttered skin.

Now you need to truss the chicken – that is to inflict a little poultry bondage on this bird! Using a piece of kitchen twine, you want to tie the ends of the legs together so they close the opening of the chicken. This helps all the meat cook more evenly. You also want to tuck the wings under the chicken so they don’t burn. Now the chicken is ready to go onto a rack inside of a roasting pan. Don’t have a rack? You can make one out of foil by forming a circular shape, or you can throw a bunch of carrots, potatoes and onions on the bottom of the pan and set the chicken on top.

Put in oven for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If you use a meat thermometer, you want the internal temperature to be around 165 degrees, or if you make a small cut in the chicken between the leg and thigh, the juices should run clear. Remove from the oven and tent with a piece of foil and let rest for 15-20 minutes.  You can make a vegetable side dish while it rests. After it has rested, transfer to a large cutting board and carve into pieces. Serve immediately.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Like an Old Friend, Oatmeal Cake Brings Comfort

Cake is comfort food, which is one of the reasons why many of us remain as cake-crazy now as ever before. Oatmeal cake is one that I have had a number of times over the years, and have spotted in many cookbooks, some going back a long time. This cake works well because the oatmeal not only provides a great texture, but it gives it a subtle “oat-y” flavor, much like we get out of an oatmeal cookie.

This is also a moist cake. Butter serves as the fat in this cake (instead of oil) and the final product is a nice balance of lightness and richness. But the kicker of this cake is the broiled topping. Made with brown sugar, butter and coconut, it creates a thin and crisp top that adds sweetness and crunch.

If you are looking for a change from the usual devil’s food or white cake, this old fashioned oatmeal cake really delivers on flavor. Great with a hot cup of coffee or a cold glass of milk, you’ll understand why this is one cake that will never go out of style!

Old Fashioned Oatmeal Cake

1 cup oatmeal (regular or quick)
1 ¼ cup boiling water
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 ½ cup all purpose flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp cinnamon

4 TBSP butter, softened
¼ cup milk or half & half
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, add boiling water to the oatmeal and set it aside for 5-10 minutes. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugars until fluffy (use an electric mixer). Add warm, soft oatmeal to the butter/sugar mixer and blend together with mixer. Add vanilla and eggs and mix well.

Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon in a bowl. On low speed, gradually add flour mixture to the wet ingredients, scraping the sides of the bowl as you go along, until it is all well incorporated. Grease and flour a 9x13 baking pan – best to use a metal pan instead of glass because the cake will need to go under the broiler for the topping. Pour batter into pan and put in oven for 30-35 minutes.

When cake is done remove it from oven and prepare the topping. Turn the oven broiler on. In a large bowl, combine butter, brown sugar, milk/cream and coconut. Mix together until well blended. Spread topping slowly over the top of cake. Allow the warmth of the cake to soften the topping so it will spread easily. Be patient! It will soften to the point when you can easily spread it on the top of the cake without tearing the top layer of cake.

Once you cover the entire top of cake with topping, put it under the broiler for a couple of minutes – cake should be 4 or 5 inches away from the broiler. Keep a close eye on it! You don’t want topping to burn, you want it to bubble and melt and the coconut turn a light golden brown color. When it looks done, take it out from the broiler. Let cake cool completely before cutting. Enjoy!


Monday, April 9, 2012

Like most holidays, Easter is steeped in tradition. For those who celebrate this monumental occasion and all it represents, it is a time of great reflection and rejoicing. And all this comes at a magical time of year, when the colors have turned from grays to greens, and the earth erupts with a renewed cycle of life. Tulips and daffodils emerge as reminders that what had seemed to die in the path of winter has returned with an explosion of color and life. It is truly a beautiful season!

Like most celebrations of life, love and faith, the element of food somehow figures into the events of the day. Growing up, Easter always meant putting on our nice clothes and going to Mass, and then to my Polish grandma’s house for a grand meal. Food abounded, and among the ham and kielbasa was a platter of meatballs with mushroom gravy. As years went on, my mom made these same meatballs in the same tradition as grandma, and now I make them.

People have asked, “What makes these meatballs Polish?” Well, the recipe comes from our Polish family (not sure if grandma got the recipe from someone of developed these herself), and I always say that if a dish involves mushroom gravy then it might have Polish roots! There is also the combination of meat – pork and veal – commonly used in Polish cooking. Whatever the reason, we call these meatballs “Polish.”

For this recipe – and as a general rule – it helps to work with a good butcher who can accommodate special requests for meat. It is important that the pork and veal used in this dish is ground together TWICE. This insures a fineness of grind and good blending of the two meats. Long before the mega-marts dominated our shopping options, people went to neighborhood bakeries and butcher shops where they knew the people who ran the business. You could order or request exactly what you wanted – very different than just having to accept what is pre-portioned in a wrapped package sitting in a refrigerator case. If such a place still exists where you live, take advantage of it!

And while Easter has come and gone, these light, flavorful meatballs are wonderful anytime. Especially good on top of buttered egg noodles or with mashed potatoes, this recipe makes between 36 and 48 (depending on size) and will feed a crowd! Enjoy!

Polish Meatballs

2 lbs ground pork
1 lb ground veal (pork and veal should be ground twice together)
4 eggs
1 ½ cup corn flake crumbs
2 medium onions, grated
1 envelope dry onion soup mix
¾ cup milk
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
Vegetable oil (for browning)
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper (for coating)
1 beef bouillon cube
Water (enough to cover)
8oz sliced mushrooms
2 cans cream of mushroom soup

DAY 1: In a large bowl, combine the ground meat, eggs, corn flake crumbs, grated onions, onion soup mix, milk, salt and pepper. Using your hands, gently combine all ingredients so it is well incorporated. Do not over mix! Once combined, transfer mixture to a sealable plastic bag or other container and put it in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours.

DAY 2: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove meat mixture from refrigerator. Form meat into balls – I make mine about the size of a golf ball – you will get between 36 and 48 meatballs, depending on the size you make them. Once all the meatballs are formed, put a half-cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper in a shallow dish. Using an electric skillet or a skillet on top of the stove, put in enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom of the skillet by no more than a depth of 1/8 inch. Bring the oil up to frying temperature (360-375 degrees). Roll each meatball in the flour so they are lightly coated all the way around. Once the meatballs are coated, place them in the skillet and brown them on both sides. After the meatballs have been browned, transfer them to a roasting pan. Once all the browned meatballs are in the roasting pan, fill it with enough water so that the water just comes up to the top of the meatballs. If you have more than one layer of meatballs in the roasting pan, just bring the water up to the top of the bottom layer. Crumble bouillon cube in pan and add your sliced mushrooms. Cover with lid or foil. Place in 300 degree oven for 1 hour.

Remove roasting pan from oven. Empty two cans of cream of mushroom soup into a large saucepan. Holding the meatballs back with a large spoon or spatula (it works better with someone helping) drain the liquid from the roasting pan into the saucepan containing the soup. Whisk until soup is completely smooth – this is your gravy. Pour back over the meatballs and serve! This can also be prepared in advance and reheated and served the next day.