Thursday, April 25, 2013

Endless Possibilities for Chicken

Chicken chicken chicken. With almost 40 billion pounds of chicken produced in the US as of a few years ago, you could almost say Americans eat their weight in chicken annually. Good thing there are so many different ways to cook a delicious chicken dish.

I'm a big advocate for buying whole chickens. There are many reasons to be troubled by the American chicken industry, from plant conditions to the pollution caused by chicken farming to the chemicals used in raising chickens. Buying a humanely-raised, organically-fed chicken is the simplest way to avoid these problems. And while organic meat gets a bad rap for being expensive, that's not always the case. I recently paid $14 for a 3 and 1/2 pound organic chicken, but that $14 goes pretty far when you account for the fact that I get two to three meals out of one chicken. A huge cost when buying meat is the butchering. A whole chicken may run $1.99 a pound, where boneless skinless breasts run $6.99 a pound. There's no need to pay for someone else to cut up your chicken for you. So my best advice is to buy a whole bird and learn how to cut it into useable pieces. This how-to video is a great primer.

Or forget cutting up the chicken first and just roast it whole. High heat and dry conditions make for crispy skin and juicy meat. I may be late to the party, but I am a recent convert to the roasting method called spatchcocking. OK, it sounds a little naughty, but it's simply the process of removing the backbone from the chicken before cooking, allowing you to be able to flatten the bird and roast it quickly. If you can't say the name without giggling, try "flat roasted" or butterflied."

Even with a roasted chicken, there are so many possibilities. You can eat it straight up, as soon as it is removed from the oven when the skin is its crispiest. In my house, many a wing and leg have been consumed this way. You can make a pan sauce. You can roast it with lemon slices under the skin. You can add dried fruit or potatoes in the pan. You can make gravy with the drippings. You can make a chicken bread salad. You can shred the leftovers for chicken pot pie. Or chicken salad. You can use the carcass to make chicken stock. 

And I know every grocery store sells a rotisserie chicken all wrapped up and ready to go, and sometimes it's the same price as a raw whole chicken (yet another example of how our food system is twisted). But I still say it's worth it to roast a bird yourself, for flavor if nothing else. First, it's almost inevitable that the meat on a store-cooked bird will be dry by the time you actually eat it. Second, you can't really control the amount of salt that goes onto the bird, and when I am roasting I often don't put any salt on at all. Third, you miss out on the drippings, which hold so much flavor.

Luckily with spatchcocking (there, I said it again), you can cut the cooking time drastically. Suddenly a roast chicken is well within the reach of a weeknight dinner. A loaf of bread and a salad, and there's your meal in under an hour, with leftovers to boot.

Fastest roasted chicken

1 whole chicken, between 3-4 pounds

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Pat the chicken very dry with paper towels. Turning the chicken breast side down, take a pair of kitchen shears and cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it.

Place an oven proof skillet big enough to fit the chicken on the stove on high heat. Spray with a thin film of canola oil. When the pan is hot, place the chicken skin side down in the skillet. After about 5 minutes the skin will start to brown. Place the pan in the oven without moving the chicken. Cook for 30-35 minutes, until the juices run clear and the thigh registers 165F using a meat thermometer.

Use a spatula to remove the chicken from the skillet and flip it skin side up to a plate that can catch the drippings, keeping as much of the skin on as possible. Place a piece of foil loosely on the top of the chicken and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Even Faster Pan Gravy

While the chicken is resting, put the skillet back on the stove and heat on medium high heat. Whisk in 4 tablespoons of flour until incorporated, then add 2 cups of chicken broth or stock, one cup at a time. Continue whisking on medium heat until the gravy thickens, about 5 minutes. Before serving the chicken, tip any drippings that have collected on the plate into the gravy and incorporate. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Tale of a Torte and a Recipe for Eggs

Now that I have obtained a culinary degree, internal and external expectations run high when it comes to me and food. I worry about how people will react when I bring something to a potluck. Friends regularly apologize for the food they serve me. And even though my kids would not be interested in many of the techniques I learned in cooking school, they set the bar high for me as well. For example, they have been clear that never again will frozen gnocchi be consumed in this house. Recently my son announced that we needed to provide a dish for a school celebration, and the dish must be typical of a country where our family comes from. He chose Hungary, and after some research, he rejected my suggestion of goulash for an overly complicated dessert called Dobos Torte.

Dobos Torte, a multi-layered concoction of cake, chocolate, and caramel, was invented by a famous pastry maker in Budapest in the late 1800s. There have been festivals held in honor of it. I am almost positive that my great-grandmother, who arrived in this country in 1903, never cooked or ate a Dobos Torte. But no matter—that’s what my son wanted, hands down.

So I did my research. I googled, I looked through my cooking school recipes, I took out books on Hungarian cuisine from the library. Before I even began, I was hopping between at least ten recipes. I was clearly overfunctioning on this one.

In the end, what I made bore little relationship to what most Hungarians would identify as a Dobos Torte. I didn’t use a traditional shape, since I didn’t have the right pans or adequate oven space. I didn’t use the traditional icing, since I thought I’d better not feed uncooked eggs to 2nd graders. And in the end, I used a sponge cake for all the layers instead of baking a separate butter-based cake for the top layer.

The results were….well….mixed. I was frustrated with the buttercream, the cake listed a little to the right, and I simply ran out of time to smooth out every wrinkle in the frosting. But it all came down to this — my son loved it, and my efforts worth the hug I got from my son after he saw the finished cake.

Food is emotion. Food is love. And because of that, perfect execution really is beside the point.

I’m not going to even bother sharing my recipe with you — if you want to make a Dobos Torte, there are many versions out there for you to consult. Instead, I’ll give you a ridiculously simple recipe that also signifies family to me. Because of the Passover holiday, you can currently find matzo on the end of the “ethnic foods” aisle in many supermarkets. Matzo Brei is a simple combination of matzos and eggs that my father frequently made for me as a kid. My kids have recently discovered it too. It’s easy to make, although I don’t have photographic evidence because I couldn’t find a photo that made it look appetizing (even though it is delicious). There are many variations, but I think the original is best.

Matzo Brei

Serves 2

2 matzos
4 eggs
pinch of salt

In a bowl, break up the matzos into several pieces and cover with cold water. Let stand 10-15 minutes, then drain.

In another bowl, crack the eggs, add the salt, and beat them with a fork until combined.

In a skillet, melt about 1/2 T. of butter on medium high heat. When foamy, put matzo pieces in and move around with a spatula for about one minute. Add eggs on top, and continue stirring until the eggs are cooked through.

Serve, topped with a sprinkle of turbinado sugar.