Monday, August 27, 2012

A Chicken in Every Pot

Or, in this case, every oven, because today, dear readers, you are going to learn how to make the best roast chicken ever.  Personally, I think being able to roast a chicken is one of those basic things that everyone needs to know how to do.  And here's a secret: it's not that hard, I promise.

The important part of roasting a chicken is making sure it stays nice and juicy, without the breast meat drying out to sawdust. "Easier said than done," you say. I'm sure there's a lot of science and stuff behind all the theories of what temperature and how long and all that, but all I can give you is what my experience has shown me, which is hight heat, then lower heat.  Bam!  That's it, really. Oh! and fat.  But we'll get to that in a minute.

Some of you might be saying, "Wait!  Don't you have to truss the bird?" Well, my friends, I'm going to confess that, no, I don't always truss the bird. If someone can show me that it actually makes a difference in how it turns out, I will keep an open mind, but I have had good results, regardless of whether I'd strung up the chicken or not.  There you have it, folks.  Another myth, busted.

The other key to success, for me, is having a meat thermometer that you can put in the chicken while it's in the oven. I like the kind that keeps the read out on the stove, with the probe (hate that word) in the chicken while it's still in the oven.  Here's my thermometer:

Now, you don't have to have that to make great roast chicken, but it takes a lot of the guesswork (and too many opening and closing of the oven door) out of making sure the thing is done. It's not that expensive and lasts a long time (I've had mine for nearly 15 years and counting).

Just one more thing before we get to the actual recipe: people will get in a lather over is whether the chicken is organic or not.  Honestly, I can't taste much of a difference, but if I can afford organic or locally-raised, that's what I would go for.  Mainly because I like to eat the skin, so I hope that the organic stuff has fewer nasty things lurking around the skin and fat.  That being said, I have eaten, and roasted, plenty of non-organic chickens and lived to tell the tale, so I'm not making judgements one way or another.  Just one more thing to note, though.  Some chickens might have additional brine/salt-water injected into them, so this affects the saltiness.  If the package says anything about salt solutions or injections, be careful about the additional salt you rub in to the skin.

Okay, on to the recipe...

Easy Roasted Chicken

1 3-4 lb chicken, patted dry
Large bunch of herbs (thyme, rosemary, parsley are best, either one or a mixture), rinsed and patted dry
2-3 Tbsp butter (softened) or olive oil
2 lemons, quartered (before you quarter them, peel off some of the lemon rind, about 1 tsp)
Salt and pepper
1-2 onions (one if the onion is very large, otherwise you might need two if they're small-sh), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
Other assorted veggies if you like

Preheat oven to 450 degrees (F). While the oven is preheating, combine the butter (or olive oil), lemon peel, salt and 1 tsp of herbs. Rub the chicken with the butter mixture, making sure to get all surfaces, plus rub a little under the skin covering the breasts.  Alternatively, you can just tuck the lemon peel and herbs under the skin, then rub the plain butter or oil over the skin.  Rub some salt and pepper (the amount is up to you) onto the chicken as well.

This was my abbreviated version -- just rubbed the butter on the skin (unfortunately, my butter wasn't softened, so it was more clumpy)....

Toss the onions, half a lemon (chunked up) and any other veggies you want to use (I'll sometimes roast carrots and potatoes with the chicken) in the bottom of a roasting pan, then place the chicken, breast side down, on top of the veggies.  The vegetables will act as a sort of rack to allow some heat to circulate under the chicken.  Loosely stuff the cavity (be sure you have taken out the little package that had the neck, liver, and heart -- but save the neck for later, we're making chicken stock!) with herbs, a couple of pieces of lemon and a few pieces of onion (you can also use cloves of garlic instead of the onion, if you like). Be sure not to stuff the cavity too tightly, though, because it will make it harder for the chicken to finish cooking. You will want the heat to get in there as well.

Put the chicken in the oven, rack in the center, and bake at 450 for 20 minutes.  After 20 minutes, flip the bird (ha!) over, so that the breast is up, insert the thermometer in the thigh and close the door.  If the skin is looking dry, feel free to baste the chicken using some of the juices in the pan, but you should only need to do that once.  Try to keep the oven door closed and the heat in.  Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees (F) and bake for about 40-50 more minutes, or until the thermometer registers 170 (degrees F).  If you don't have a meat thermometer, check doneness by moving the chicken leg -- it should move easily and nearly separate from the thigh bone if you twist it.  You can also pierce the thigh with a fork or knife -- if the juices are clear and not at all pink, it should be done.

Remove the chicken from the oven, then tent with a large piece of foil and let rest for 15-20 minutes (the foil should be laid loosely over the chicken, still in the pan, to let some of the steam escape -- don't wrap the foil around to completely cover).

There you have it!  That's all there is to it.  Quick prep, then let it sit in the oven.  And beats the crap out of those rotisserie chickens at the store that have been sitting around all day.  Oh!  And save the chicken carcass (bones) when you are done.  You can use that to make your own chicken stock later.  I'll show you how!

Also, all that dark stuff that looks burnt on the bottom? Save that, too, because it's going to help flavor the chicken stock. Yum! As you can tell, I've already started picking at the chicken skin.  It's so good!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Sauces

For a friend's birthday, I made her a chocolate-peanut butter swirl cheesecake, and I promise I'll share that recipe with you in a later post.  What I want to talk about today are the sauces I made to go with it.  Not content with just the cheesecake, I wanted a chocolate sauce and a peanut sauce to serve with it and make it look pretty. Luckily, I knew where to look.

A few years ago, I got a book called The Flat Belly Diet, which I should probably follow at all a little more religiously. I liked the book so much that I also bought the Flat Belly Diet Cookbook when it came out a little later. Honestly, when I was following the program and using the recipes, I actually did lose weight. But the reason I liked it was because most of the recipes had ingredients I was already buying anyway.  I'm not going to preach about one diet or another, because I don't think dieting in terms of short-term weigh loss works at all.  What one eats (one's "diet," as it were) needs to work with how your body metabolizes food and your lifestyle, and what works for one person may not work another.  Plus, as your body ages, it's going to have changing needs as well.  Like, cutting out carbs almost all together after you turn 40. It sucks.

But this is not the point of my post.  The point is, in the Flat Belly Diet Cookbook, there are recipes for a Sweet Peanut Sauce and a Decadent Dark Chocolate Sauce, which was exactly what I was looking for. Not only are they tasty, but they are super easy to make and versatile.

The peanut sauce can be served with apple slices, over ice cream, folded into whipped cream (scroll down to see pics), served over chocolate chip pancakes (oh so yummy!) or stirred into plain (or vanilla) yogurt for breakfast. The chocolate sauce can be used the same way (dip bananas in it, then swoon). I found it's also really tasty drizzled over a fig and nut cake that I bought at Wegmans, my favorite grocery store.  The sauces definitely taste better when it's warm, rather cold.

Ummm, yeah, those are finger marks in the sauce.  Quality control and all.  Because I care.  :-)

Folded into whipped cream...

And, below, is the chocolate sauce drizzled over the fig and nut cake from Wegmans.  Essentially, the "cake" is just dried figs pressed together with various nuts into layers.  It was so, so good!

So, without further ado, there are the recipes for Sweet Peanut Sauce and Decadent Dark Chocolate Sauce:

Sweet Peanut Sauce (from the Flat Belly Diet Cookbook):

1/2 cup creamy, natural, unsalted peanut butter
1/2 cup fat-free evaporated milk
2 Tbsp. honey

Heat the peanut butter, milk and honey in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir constantly until melted and smooth.  Serve warm. (8 servings, about 2 Tbsp each)

Decadent Dark Chocolate Sauce (from the Flat Belly Diet Cookbook):

4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup whole milk
2 Tbsp. packed brown sugar

Heat the chocolate, milk, and brown sugar in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir constantly until melted and smooth. Serve warm. (4 servings, about 3 Tbsp each)

What did I tell you?  Super simple, yet very good.  You'll want to keep these on hand for when you just need a little something sweet!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere!

Here we are, in the dog days of summer, and in Virginia it is HOT and HUMID.  Not a surprise, really, but it does become nearly unbearable for a person who grew up in Minnesota.  We spend a lot of time either inside or at the pool these days.

To stay cool and hydrated,  I try to drink a lot of water throughout the day.  It's good for you, and I rarely have juices or sodas in the house (we never had them in the house as a kid, so I don't really think to buy them).  But sometimes a person wants a little flavor, you know what I mean?  Water is just so...watery. Most of the time, that's enough, but every once in a while I need a little more, and a measly lemon slice just won't cut it.  Unfortunately, I'm also trying to limit sugar and prepared foods, so what's a girl to do?

Enter Sassy Water.  This is a recipe I got from the Flat Belly Diet Book, but I've changed it up a little, using limes sometimes instead of lemons and adding more ginger, and thinly slicing the ginger, rather than grating it.  The pitcher I use has a built-in strainer at the spout, but the grated ginger sneaks through and (for me, anyway) is too strong, plus the ginger pulp gives the water a little extra texture that I don't prefer.

You might want to spring for organic ingredients in this case, because everything's sitting in the water, infusing it with their flavors, which means any residues left even after washing them will also be leaching into the water as well. Just something to think about, but it's not like I'll be checking up on you or anything.  For the record, this time I did not use organic, 'cause sometimes I like living on the edge.    :-)

For those of you paying close attention, you'll probably notice that the ginger is in chunks, more than slices.  Sometimes I'll do it in long, thin-ish slices as well.  The best way to get this all done quickly is if you have a mandoline to get the slices nice and thin, but sometimes I just can't be bothered to drag the thing out, so there you go. And look at me, trying to get fancy with garnishes and such.  Unfortunately, it looks pretty weak.  Sigh.  It tastes really good, though, so let's focus on that!

The Flat Belly Diet's Sassy Water Recipe

2 liters of water (about 8.5 cups)
1 inch (or 2 inches if you can spare it) fresh ginger, sliced thinly
1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced (the original recipe has you peeling the cucumber, but I didn't see the point, really, especially if you have organic)
1 medium lemon or lime, thinly sliced
12 mint leaves

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher, chill in the refrigerator, and let flavors blend overnight. I can usually get two pitchers-full out of the ingredients (filling the pitcher back up once the first batch of water is gone, but you have to drink it within 3 days, otherwise everything gets a little too water-logged.

The version I made, shown in the pictures here, is just lime, cucumber and ginger.  Feel free to change things up, depending on your taste and availability of ingredients.