Girls’ Night In
Usually I don’t have much time to cook on weeknights, let alone preparing something worthy of a guest, but last week was an exception. Last Sunday I had planned on making dinner for myself and Marvin and had bought a couple small chickens to roast. But as I was finishing up my grocery shopping, I got a call from a friend who had free Neil Young tickets for that night! Luckily Marvin was understanding and not too disappointed about not getting his chicken dinner (or if he was, he took it in stride) so I went to the show. A couple days passed and I still hadn’t cooked the two chickens sitting in my fridge, all nicely salted and seasoned… I put in an eleventh-hour email to my friend Amanda and luckily she was game to join me. She showed up after work with a bunch of flowers for the hostess (always appreciated!), and we opened some wine and chatted as I got things ready. We had a simple but satisfying dinner of chicken, an eggplant-tomato concoction (sort of an experiment… but that’s another blog post), green salad, bread, Camembert, and some Côtes du Rhone to wash it all down. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I know the food tasted much better with her there for company.
I usually only roast one chicken at a time and use my cast iron skillet, which I love for this job since you can heat it on the stovetop, sear the bird and then put it in the oven. It also lends itself well to making a pan sauce when you’re done (just don’t grab the handle without a pot holder, as I did once… ouch). This time though, I decided to use my swanky All-Clad Petite Roti roasting pan that I got a couple Christmases ago- I was feeling guilty that it doesn’t get enough use. As you can see from the photo, it just fits two chickens side by side. Hey, as long as you’re turning on the oven, might as well make enough food for the week!
I’m not going to give a recipe for roast chicken, since there are enough out there already, and besides, I use different instructions each time and it always turns out fine. As long as you stick with a reputable cookbook, I think the quality of your bird will have a lot more to do with the outcome than the recipe. That said, I do follow Zuni Café Cookbook author Judy Rodgers’ advice of salting your bird at least 24 hours in advance, and have found that it does wonders for keeping the meat moist AND seasoning all of the meat and not just the surface. This and the classic French preparation of stuffing herbs under the skin (sage, marjoram, thyme, and rosemary) are the two factors I don’t usually stray from. I happened to have a few lemons this time around, so I did add a whole lemon to each bird… just cut the lemons in half, squeeze some of the juice into the cavity and then stuff the halves in there. It wasn’t too strong; it just gave the chicken a nice subtle lemon perfume. While the chickens were roasting, I opened the oven a couple times to splash some Sauvignon Blanc into the pan to make sure the drippings wouldn’t burn. After the birds were done roasting, I let them rest on a platter loosely tented with foil while I made a simple pan sauce- just cook some finely minced shallots right in the roasting pan along with the juices, adding a splash more wine if necessary and cooking for a couple minutes over medium high to reduce the sauce a bit. (If your roasting pan is unwieldy you can transfer the operation to a smaller saucepan, but I didn’t find it necessary.)
As good as the chicken was that night, I had lots of leftovers, so Saturday afternoon I did a double project of taking all the meat off the chicken carcasses for chicken salad, and making chicken stock with the remains. I picked most of the meat off the bones, but left a little of the harder-to-get-at bits to flavor the stock, like the wing meat. I then put the two carcasses in a stock pot (plus one that I’d had in the freezer… I always save them up until I have 2 or 3), added cold water just to cover, cut up 3 carrots, a couple onions, a couple celery stalks, some peppercorns, a little fresh parsley, and brought to a very gentle simmer. I like to add salt when the stock is close to done; that way you don’t run the risk of having it cook down and be over-salted. Simmer about two hours- if it tastes weak, let it go a bit longer. When it’s done, fish out the large pieces with a slotted spoon and discard or compost; strain the stock into containers with a fine-mesh strainer and/or a strainer lined with cheesecloth. I don’t mind if my stock is cloudy so I never bother with clarifying it and I don’t worry about whether I stir it while it’s cooking. (If this matters to you, any good classic cookbook should have instructions on how to make your stock clear.) I like to divide it up into several small containers so I can freeze some and have some in the fridge. After it chills, remove the solid layer of fat on top and discard or save for frying or roasting potatoes… yum.
Chicken Salad Secret Weapon
For my chicken salad, I also hesitate to give a “recipe” because I make it differently each time depending on what I have at hand and it’s very much a taste-as-you-go operation. I do like to use shallots, celery, some kind of fruit (usually diced apple or dried cherries), and some nuts, either walnuts or pecans… Chopped fresh herbs are always nice too, if you have them. Other times I make a more Mediterranean version with Kalamata olives and roasted red or yellow peppers, or even artichokes. The key to my chicken salad, though, is in using the remainder of the pan drippings to moisten the meat (I credit Judy Rodgers for this idea, too). Another one of Judy’s tips is to leave your meat on the bone until you’re ready to make your chicken salad; otherwise it will dry out and pick up odd flavors.
Assuming your drippings or pan sauce have been refrigerated, scrape any fat from the top and warm the drippings in the microwave on low power until they are liquid again. Stir this into your diced meat before adding your other ingredients. You can then get away with adding very little mayo and still have a very moist (and extra-flavorful) salad. If you’re serving your salad on a bed of greens, reserve a little of the pan juices to add to your vinaigrette. I usually add lemon or vinegar to my chicken salad to counter the richness of the drippings, and because I love a touch of acidity. This time around, I soaked my shallots and dried cherries in a couple tbs. sherry vinegar (substitute balsamic or red wine vinegar). This achieves two things: takes the “bite” out of the shallots, and plumps the cherries, giving them a nice tart/sweet flavor burst when you bite into them. (If you’re using apples, soak them in apple cider vinegar.) I served this as a weeknight supper for myself and my mom, on a bed of leaf lettuce and frisée, so I ended up getting lots of mileage out of those two birds… not to mention the dishes yet to come when I use up all that chicken stock! I’m already plotting a risotto, a Spanish-style soup, and more…