Sunday, March 16, 2014

How to Roast a Chicken

Oops, it's been a while. A really long while. I'll spare you the details (it's nothing tragic), but I'll confess that part of it is laziness. And a full-time job. And a wedding to plan. And. And. And.

So the other day some colleagues and I were discussing the ins and outs of roasting a whole chicken. I said I thought it was super-easy and really delicious, but my colleagues had questions about the process, and had experienced failure enough times that they didn't think they were willing to take another stab at it. I hadn't planned to write about it, but I was suddenly feeling inspired by these women, so here goes.

Whether or not you choose to buy organic, free range chicken is really up to you. It costs more than conventional chicken for sure. But it is also never fed GMO feed, or ground-up animal parts, or feed with any vile pesticides or fertilizers. The chickens themselves are allowed to walk, run, preen, dust themselves, etc. You know, like real chickens. 

The ingredients for this dish are simple and you already have them in your kitchen: about a tablespoon of butter, and about a half-teaspoon each of salt, pepper, paprika, and whichever herb you like best. I used a pinch of thyme and some oregano here, but I have used rosemary, tarragon, and dried basil also. You can adjust the amount of each spice as you see fit. (I used to drizzle a little olive oil on the chicken, but then I saw a Julia Child episode where she roasted a chicken and rubbed, like, 20 pounds of butter on the chicken instead, so now I do it this way too.)

The process is also simple. No seriously, even the Texan can do it. He kept exclaiming how easy and delicious it was after his first attempt. I totally agreed.

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
2. Rinse the chicken (run a little water inside the body cavity too). Remove the bag of organs if included. 
3. Drip or pat the chicken dry. No need to be all OCD about this. Just blot a little and move on. Cut off any obvious blobs of fat, which usually occur at the tail end. Place in roasting pan, breast side DOWN. Julia Child says this keeps the moisture in the breast meat, which is right where you want it.
4. Rub the butter into the skin in chunks. My pats of butter don't always stick, so I usually wind up with several pats near the top. I figure this is fine because the butter is going to drip down the body of the chicken as soon as it goes in the oven anyway. Sprinkle some of the spice mixture on top. 
5. Place on middle rack in oven and roast for 90-120 minutes, depending on the size of your bird. It is safely cooked once the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. You can baste the chicken once or twice if you like. More is not necessary. To do this, use either a large spoon or turkey baster and spoon some of the drippings onto the top of the bird, coating the skin. This will result in a crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-on-the-inside skin.
6. I boil a kettle of water to pour in my sink after I've rinsed the chicken to kill salmonella and other creepy germs. You can also use bleach but bleach is so not environmentally friendly. 
7. I put the organs in a little pot with water, and cook them over very low heat for a while. My dog and cats love a bit of this in their dinner too.

You don't need all that fat rendered off into your pan, so remove the glob!

Buttered, spiced, and ready to roast.

I put a piece of tin foil under the pan so the fat splatterings don't spray all over my oven. Trust me, it's a pain to scrub later. Technically, you aren't supposed to do this because it interferes with even heat distribution, but I do it anyway.

I used to throw root vegetables in the pan with the chicken to roast, but I found that some pieces of potato or carrot or beet were done, while others were too firm. So now I toss them in a single layer on a baking sheet with a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, praprika, and whatever herb I'm in the mood for. I stick them on that top rack for about 20-25 minutes, and they are done perfectly.

Digital thermometers are easy to use and inexpensive: this one was $10 at Sur La Table. Be sure to insert the probe far enough to measure the center of the meat, where it heats up slowest. Here I put it into the center of the thigh.

The bird will shrink a bit when it is cooking.

Add caption

Leave the meat you aren't eating on the body until you need it. Otherwise all the juices run right out, making your meat dry. I like to carve off (and eat) the legs first, then the wings, then the breast meat. We usually have some breast meat left for a meal the next night, such as chicken pot pie, chicken enchiladas, or chicken soup. The Texan and I can usually get 8 meals out of a single chicken, which makes this a great choice for weeknight meals with enough left for lunch.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Foodie Pen Pals: Revealed!

The last time I had a pen pal was in 6th grade. Her name was Sophie and she was frumpy-looking and British. But she wrote great letters.

I have some new pen pals this month. Neither is British or named Sophie, I don't know what either one looks like, and we send each other boxes of food instead of long letters.

We all signed up for Foodie Pen Pals, a program designed by fellow food blogger Lindsay at the Lean Green Bean. Participants get matched with two people each month: a pen pal to send a box to, and another to receive one from. We email back and forth, asking about each other's likes and dislikes, interests, and food preferences. We shop and bake, packing boxes for strangers that are filled with things we love, things we hope they might love, and things that say something about each of us in some small way.

My sender pen pal, Donna M, shipped me a box all the way from South Carolina. I told her I liked to eat healthily, but that I'd be the first to admit I loved sweets, especially chocolate. I also like to try foods from other cultures, something Donna was happy to help with. She sent me:

-TWO kinds of Godiva!
-chocolatey caramel-y granola bars
-chocolate-covered dried plums
-creme brulee mix
-steel-cut oats
-soba and udon noodles
-Asian snack mix

Donna included plenty of chocolate in my box. Obviously, it didn't take her long to figure me out! I'm pretty sure getting a box with chocolate in the mail is one of life's best moments. The package of steel-cut oats even has a recipe for chocolate chip cookies on it, which I will be making shortly.

Donna told me that her grandmother was Japanese, and she used to eat the rice cracker snack mix with her when her grandmother was alive. It was clear to me that the snack mix was important to Donna, and reminded her of someone special. I think this is also why she chose the two kinds of noodles, both of which I love too, and I was touched that she would include such personal information in her letter to me, tucked inside the box. 

My recipient pen pal, Jenna M, said she likes to eat healthily most of the time too, loves to try new energy bars, loves nuts of all kinds, and prefers sweet to salt. I was tempted to fill her box with about 39 kinds of chocolate, but kept reminding myself that a) it's about 1 zillion degrees out and chocolate will melt in the mail, and b) chocolate is what I love, not necessarily what she loves. So for Jenna I packed:
-coconut water
-a chocolate-covered greens energy bar
-a spice grinder from Trader Joe's that has coffee beans, sugar, and chocolate in it
-homemade granola
-homemade toasted almonds with rosemary and salt
-a little bag of Himalayan pink rock salt

The Himalayan rock salt was slightly outside of her parameters, but because it can be used in savory dishes as well as sweets such as caramel, I thought she might like to try it. Plus, it's just pretty. I sneaked little bits of chocolate in her products to try, but chocolate wasn't the dominant flavor in the box. Judging from Jenna's enthusiastic thank-you email, I think she liked her box! Visit her Facebook page to see her photos and comments about the experience.

I can't think of a better way to connect with strangers than through food, and while this program has the potential to get a bit pricey (most of us used flat rate Priority Mail boxes, which are around $12 to ship, plus there is the cost of the food items themselves), I will definitely participate again. There is something comforting about receiving food, and better still, someone else does the shopping.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Cupcake Craze, Part 1

Frosting isn't easy, you know.

Sometimes it's too thin and runs down the sides of the cupcake, leaving bald spots on the top.

Sometimes it's too sweet because the powdered sugar you used to thicken it is enough to choke a horse.

Sometimes it's grainy, or clumpy, or both, or is made with things like Crisco and really isn't food.

But this frosting is perfect. It's smooth, provided you coax it to the correct temperature, and perfectly sweet and chocolatey and has just five ingredients:

1. cream
2. powdered sugar
3. chocolate
4. butter
5. vanilla extract

For once, my cupcakes look like the ones in the picture in the cookbook. That never happens.

Of course, frosting is nothing without a good cupcake to rest upon. These vanilla cupcakes are also perfect, and versatile: they could support lemony frosting, or cream cheese, or vanilla, or mocha, or whatever else your little heart desires.

I've been resistant to all things cupcake because, well, everyone's doing it.  I hate doing what everyone else is doing. Plus, cupcakes really do need frosting. Otherwise they are just muffins that seem to be missing something. And I believe I have made my position on frosting quite clear. But I have to admit that the last two cupcake batches I've made have been awesome enough to make me a believer.

A believer in cupcakes.

If the frosting is too cold, it doesn't spread or shine as nicely.

Vanilla Cupcakes with Truffle Cream Frosting
adapted from Chocolate Obsession by Michael Recchiuti

makes 12 cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
1 1/2 C AP flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt (kosher is best)
1 C (8 oz) creme fraiche, at room temperature (I substituted full-fat plain yogurt; DO NOT use low-fat or nonfat!)
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract (I also added seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean)
6 TBSP unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 C granulated sugar

For the frosting:
8 oz chocolate (65% dark)
2/3 C heavy whipping cream
2/3 C plus 2 TBSP confectioner's sugar
4 TBSP unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 TBSP vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper liners, or coat with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Sift flour, baking powder and soda, and salt together into a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. Combine creme fraiche or yogurt, eggs, and vanilla extract and seeds (if using) in a medium bowl and whisk by hand until well-mixed.
4. Beat butter on medium speed until butter is creamy. Add granulated sugar and beat until fluffy and pale.
5. On low speed, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the wet ingredients in 2 additions.
6. Divide batter among muffin cups, filling each about two-thirds full. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cupcakes are puffed, slightly browned, slightly cracked on top, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Remove from muffin pan.
7. Place chocolate in a medium bowl. Put cream and confectioner's sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook for one minute at a simmer and remove from heat.
8. Pour hot cream mixture over chocolate and whisk by hand until chocolate melts. Whisk in butter, and then vanilla extract.
9. Cover bowl with plastic wrap so that the wrap touches the surface of the frosting, and refrigerate until mixture reaches 70 degrees. This will probably take 30-40 minutes, but start checking after 20.
10. When frosting is at 70 degrees, beat on high speed until it is lighter in color and less dense.
11. Frost cupcakes as desired.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Meatless Mondays: Sushi Night

You can pretty much put anything in a sushi roll.

Like tempura asparagus.

And orange segments.

And Mexican-style salsa.

No, seriously. The Texan and I have eaten all of these things and more in various rolls we've tried, and loved them all.  So we figured fishless sushi would feel like a kind of roll we just hadn't tried yet.

We found a recipe for quinoa maki (the type of roll that is made with rice and filling and wrapped in seaweed, or nori) with avocado and Cajun portobello fillets in The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen*. The author argues that quinoa is more nutritious than white rice and has an interesting texture to boot, so is perfect for sushi. I was a little skeptical, so I made some sushi rice just in case, but the Texan and I both really liked the quinoa rolls.

Also just in case, I seared some extra-firm tofu in a bottled teriyaki marinade, because I was a little worried the portobellos would be gross. Which they weren't. At all. I marinated them in a mixture of white wine, Cajun seasoning, white wine vinegar, and some spices, and later seared them so they would dry out a bit and get crispy-ish. Perhaps they were selected for a veggie roll recipe because they tend to have that slightly slimy-chewy-raw texture the way raw fish does, but these were no fish substitute-- these were just good in their own right.

A friend sent me a sushi mat and some chopsticks from Japan when she lived there, so our rolling efforts were, you know, authentic and whatnot. 

The Texan's roll of choice: tri-color quinoa, portobello, tofu, avocado, and carrot.

Our rolls were a little messy. We admit it.

I made some miso soup with little cubes of tofu and sliced scallions, the way they do in some Japanese restaurants.  I used yellow miso, never having used any miso before, and figured I'd try the middle-of-the-road strength for my first time. (Miso comes in three colors: white, the least fermented and mildest, yellow, and red, the most fermented and most intense.) I would be game to try red miso next time, for a little extra flavor.

The recipe calls for a little mayonnaise to be mixed with a tiny bit of sambal oelek (Thai chili-garlic sauce) and then rolled up with the rest of the fillings. I completely forgot to make it, but we have had sushi at restaurants that have drizzled something similar over certain rolls, and it's quite good. The next time we make sushi we will have to try it. Yes, there will be a next time. Even the Texan said so.

Fishless sushi is ridiculously inexpensive to make. Packs of nori can be gotten for under $2, and contain 10-12 sheets per pack. Each sheet yields 5 or 6 pieces, so one pack makes at least 50 pieces of sushi. Sushi rice is a little more expensive than regular white rice, but not prohibitively so, and regular rice with some binder ingredients could be used in a pinch. I used only one portobello last night, along with a carrot, an avocado, a few pea sprouts, and half a pack of tofu. That's it. You can use whatever combination of vegetables (or fruit, if you are feeling especially avant garde) you like, but you probably won't spend more than a few dollars on all the fillings. Go Team Vegetables!

* The title makes the book sound like the hokiest bunch of hippie crap on the planet, but it isn't. And it contains recipes for dairy substitutes that don't involve soy milk, so I am all over it. Dairy and I just don't get along.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Meatless Mondays

It's Monday, and the Texan and I are going meatless.


After reading this article in the latest issue of my UCLA Alumni magazine, I was inspired to go totally meatless a minimum of one day a week. There was only one problem: I knew I had to get the Texan to try it. Otherwise, each Monday I'd be nibbling on tofu and salad greens while he chowed down on a steak, my martyrdom to the planet spilling over onto the table between us. But how was I going to convince a guy to go meatless who owns a t-shirt from a barbecue joint in Texas that says, "Vegetarian: The Indian word for Terrible Hunter"?

I decided to take the direct approach. One evening when I knew we were going out to an area with a large bookstore, I told him I had a proposition for him that involved reading a short article. I figured this would help my cause because a) he is an avid reader, and b) he loves facts. When he finished, I planned to just come out and say that I wanted to do Meatless Mondays and I wanted him to do it with me, please. I sat him on the sofa, handed him the article, and had this conversation:

Me: (silently rehearsing elevator speech)
Texan, finishing article: "You know, we should probably eat less meat. We could do Meatless Mondays or something like that."

Me: (silently) Wait, what?
(out loud) "Yeah, that's what I was thinking. We can stop at the bookstore tonight and look at vegetarian cookbooks."

Texan: (silently) That's EXACTLY how I wanted to spend my evening: perusing tofu and bulgher wheat recipes.
(out loud):  "Great! Let's go!"

As luck would have it, we found not one but two cookbooks we both liked, one of which is appropriately titled The Meat-Free Monday Cookbook and offers three seasonally appropriate meals for each week of the year.

Over dinner that night, we had this conversation:

Texan: "You know, it's really just one day a week. We can totally do it."

Me: "Yeah, and we already eat vegetarian breakfasts, so it's just two more meals that day that have to be veg."

Texan: "But if we like it and find recipes we like, we could make it two nights a week. Or even three."

Me: (silently) What the $*@%? Who ARE you?
(out loud) "That'd be cool. I have to admit, though, I was surprised when you suggested doing Meatless Mondays."

Texan, waving hands evangelist-style: "As I read the article, I was worried you had, like, seen the light and wanted to go totally vegan or something. So that's why I suggested Meatless Mondays before you could say anything: I figured one day a week was better than seven."

Ah, there's my carnivore.


Tonight's meal? Homemade tamales, salad, and maybe some vegan chocolate cake for dessert.

Fall from Glory

First, there was this:

Then, there was this:

And when I wasn't sure it could get any better there were these:

For vanilla-sea salt caramels in dark chocolate

So I decided to go really big and enter the California State Fair, and instead of entering two items, I figured I'd go for broke and enter three. All of which, of course, I wanted to be as fresh as possible so I waited until the day before the drop-off to make them. And so there was this:

Yep, two second places and a third place. And the most ironic part is, the third place entry won Best Of Show at the previous fair; the espresso-hazelnut truffle that placed second here placed first not once but twice at previous fairs!

The competition wasn't really that much stiffer at the state fair. The system of judging was different, but not necessarily harder. The problem was me: making three totally different products in a single day and expecting all of them to be cosmetically perfect is just plain stupid. Candy is time-consuming to make and chocolate is finicky to work with-- it can't be rushed, no matter how big a fair I enter. And sometimes I get impatient, and then I make tiny mistakes that no one else but me and the judge would notice, and then I don't win.

I would love to be able to say that I never make the same mistake twice, but I can't. Usually I have to make it a few times before I finally learn my lesson.  This isn't the first time I've made cosmetic mistakes on my candy, but I'm hoping that three non-blue ribbons, framed on the wall, will help me make sure it's the last.

Especially next summer, when I enter the state fair again, and WIN.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Taco Night

The Texan loves fish tacos. Like, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if he up and moved to Baja and grew his hair all long and stringy and started wearing board shorts every day.

The first time he suggested we eat them, I wasn't altogether sure I'd like them, much less love them. I admit now that I do love them, but there are three problems with them.

1. Our favorite kind involves fried fish.

2. Fish is loaded with lead.

3. Many popular varieties of fish are overfished, or come from poorly managed fish farms.

On a weekend when the Texan happened to be out of town, my neighbor made fish tacos that offered a compromise to Problem Number 1. She breaded the fish filets in panko-style breadcrumbs, and then baked them in the oven. The breadcrumbs created the textural appeal of fried fish without all the fat and cholesterol. She sliced them into strips to serve, along with cabbage slaw, avocado slices, and lime quarters to squirt on top.

I liked them so much that I made them the next day for my dad, substituting shrimp for the white fish and adding a black bean-corn mixture to the fixings, as well as a little bit of jarred salsa. He seemed to like them, and they were ready in a ridiculously short time.

For a quick dinner before a date at the ballpark this week, I decided to make the fish tacos for the guy who loves them the most. I used shrimp again (I bought the 16-20 size, which I think is a little too big; in the future I'll use the next-smaller size), sauteeing it quickly in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and a teensy bit of cayenne.

I couldn't remember exactly how my neighbor made the slaw, so I just sliced cabbage very thinly, added some cilantro, and then lemon juice, S & P, and an even teensier bit of cayenne. I think she added either yogurt or sour cream to hers, but I don't use dairy if I can avoid it.

I sauteed some green bell pepper with a bit of onion in some olive oil and S & P, sliced some avocado, and boiled an ear of corn, and put them in individual bowls to be used according to taste. I also had a ripe mango and some peaches just waiting to be used, so I diced those, added some cilantro, onion, lemon juice, S & P, and a teensy bit of cayenne to make a fruit salsa with a little kick.

The fruit salsa adds the perfect amount of moisture to the tacos, without becoming soggy and drippy.

He loved them. What surprised me the most was that he also loved the fruit salsa, because he is not the Number One Fan of either mango or peaches. Granted, I had just found his new favorite chip at Berkeley Bowl -- a blue corn-quinoa-chia-maca salt-free chip -- so he had reason to eat many of them, but he's perfectly happy eating the chips plain so he must have actually, like, liked it. 

The only way to deal with Problem Number 2 is to eat fish sparingly. This would put a definite cramp in the Texan's Baja style, but while we still live in northern California, this is Just The Way It Is.  And as for Problem Number 3, I screwed up this time around. Not only were the shrimp I bought too big, but they were wild-caught from Mexico, which, according to my Seafood Watch app, is not a well-managed source of seafood. Think tons, literally, of sea turtle and small fish bycatch. Had I bought the smaller ones, I would have purchased US farm-raised shrimp, which is one of the most sustainable options.   See what happens when I get all greedy?