I’m out of town, and lucky to bring you a guest post from wonderful writer Paige Orloff, food editor of The Sister Project. When Paige isn’t writing, cooking, or thinking about cooking, this city-turned-country girl cares for family, friends, horses and fowl. I asked Paige to share a food memory, and did she ever; clearly, her roast chicken will take care of (just about) everyone.
When I Became A Cook, by Paige Orloff
For at least the last twenty years, maybe longer, I’ve considered myself a passionate cook. It’s not a hobby, exactly, or an interest, though it is also both of those things, mostly, it’s just what I do. Mind you, I’m a writer and a mother and a wife and a (well-intentioned if inconsistent) friend and a volunteer and a (bad) gardener and I live on a farm with chickens and horses and….you get the idea. My life is full. But the place it most often feels full, and fulfilling, is the kitchen, and much of my passion for cooking is rooted in my relationship with my mom, whose cooking was always the best of any mom I knew.
My mother lives with me now, and she revealed to a friend visiting earlier this summer that one of the reasons she learned to cook (when she was a 19 year old bride living with my dad in Boulder, Colorado) was for the attention it gained her, from my dad and his crew of friends. I suppose that motivation has been mine, too: in college, I remember cooking a meal for a guy on whom I had an absurd, and unrequited, crush. My attempt at seduction failed utterly (though I did end up dating his roommate), but the coq au vin, made for the first time, was really, really good. (Is it a coincidence that the object of my crush is now a successful restauranteur? Hmmm.)
I often try to pinpoint the place in my story when “cook” started to describe me: in graduate school when I threw huge “orphans” dinners ever Thanksgiving? In college, when I baked fresh bread for the half dozen or so guys who shared an off-campus apartment building with me and my roommates? In high school, when I baked care packages of Christmas cookies for classmates who’d returned to their far-flung homes (I went to boarding school) for the holiday? None of those feel right. There’s no B.C., “before cook”, in my timeline, though there are plenty of other stark divides.
When I was four, my mother had a stroke. We were sitting at dinner, the three of us, eating chicken curry. I loved curry nights, because of the delicious, mellow stew and fluffy (never sticky) rice, but also because of the condiments my mother always served alongside: peanuts, shredded coconut, chopped tomato, chopped apple. These were always presented in a tiered Japanese porcelain box, with square compartments stacked one on top of the other, decorated with gold leaf and painted flowers. It was a wedding gift to my parents from my father’s older brother. The whole preparation now feels a little hokey, a very 1970s American interpretation of Indian, but even a fancy foodie would find it delicious. One night over curry, my mother collapsed into her plate, and for years thereafter, my world was much changed.
By the time I was six, Mama was home, but not yet healed. Bedridden much of the time, it was hard for her to care for me and my dad. She did everything she could: I have vivid memories of sitting at her bedside in the morning before school while she brushed my long hair. My other most vivid memory from that hazy time is the afternoon she taught me, step by step, as I ran back and forth between her bedside and her pride-and-joy kitchen (way ahead of its time in 1972, with a restaurant stove and stainless steel countertops) how to roast a chicken.
I’ve never really asked her why she did this. Did she just really crave chicken for dinner? Did she think it would help me to have some control in an out-of-control time if I could put dinner on our table? Maybe both. While the exact recipe from that afternoon is lost (at least to me–she may well remember!), the feeling of pride I felt is still vivid. Maybe that’s why I still relish serving this absolute simplest meal to family and friends, no matter the occasion or time of year. I’ve tried many different versions, tinkering with recipes, rubs and seasonings along the way, but this is my tried and true method. It won’t fail you, and it will comfort you. If it could help heal a scared six year old and a 36 year old stroke victim, roast chicken can do anything.
This method is adapted from Julia Child. I find it easiest to do this in my well-seasoned cast iron skillet (I like having the handle to grab when taking the pan in and out of the oven) but you could certainly use a roasting pan. If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand, the chicken will be perfectly good with just the lemon, or even just a bit of salt and pepper. If you are lucky enough to find a local, small farm chicken – try it. The flavor really is different, and better.
1 chicken, around 4 lbs. (If possible, allow the chicken to air dry in the refrigerator for several hours before roasting: just unwrap it, pat it dry, and place it in the skillet or roasting pan, and shove into the fridge. Drying out the skin makes it crisper when cooked.)
coarse salt (I prefer Maldon)
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped mixed herbs–I usually use a handful of Italian parsley, a few springs each of thyme and rosemary, and perhaps a bit of tarragon
2 T extra virgin olive oil plus extra for oiling the pan
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Rub your pan with a couple of teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle the dried chicken with about 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper, inside the cavity and all over the outside.
Grate the zest off the lemons. Combine zest, chopped herbs, garlic and olive and olive oil in a small bowl. Add another pinch each of salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Stuff some of this mixture (about a tablespoon per side) under the skin of the breast. Smear the rest all over the inside and outside of the chicken. Stuff the zested lemons inside the chicken’s cavity.
Place the chicken on its side in the pan. (This can be a balancing challenge; just do your and the chicken’s best.) Roast for 25 minutes on that side, then remove from oven, and place the other side up. Return to oven for another 25 minutes.
Turn the chicken breast up (lying on its back) and roast for another 25 minutes. Finally, turn the chicken breast down, and roast for the last 25 minutes.
Remove from oven and serve hot or cold. The juice of the roasted lemons is delicious squeezed over the sliced meat.