Nostalgia versus the Roasted Chicken

“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain  in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.

(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)

The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.

No fried chicken for the Romans.

According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.

Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.

However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.

1 whole chicken

Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat

Kosher salt and ground pepper

 

Preheat oven to 350o F

Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.

Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.

Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.

Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.

 

Lessons From Granola #6

RE: The Other Ingredients and Dollars

Notes

  1. Vanilla is very expensive when purchasing the small bottles at the grocery store, best price I found was $7 for 4oz (118 ml) at Korger or $5.50 for 2oz at Publix (59 ml). Vanilla is the most expensive ingredient of the recipe when purchasing in the grocery store. I use approximately one liter a year, which would be $59 at Kroger or $93 at Publix. In contrast, vanilla Beans cost $2.99 or $3.99 a bean at my usual spice store but I can also purchase them on Amazon, 5 beans for $8. A liter of inexpensive vodka cost $8. Add three beans to one liter of vodka and hide the bottle in a cabinet for 9 months. The product is full-fledged, delicious vanilla extract. Doing the math, I make vanilla for $17-20 a year.
  2. Raw nuts and fruits, even dried beans and peas, are also difficult products to track for purity. The Ball Corporation has put out a product since the 1970’s called Fruit Fresh© that is a preservative that retail consumers can purchase in powder form. Fruit Fresh is advertised as a product that keeps foods from turning brown. Food manufacturers and farm wholesalers have access to a liquid form and other competing products. MSG is an excellent preservative and adds flavor to factory farmed products that are often deficient in flavonoids. Sulfites are also common in these sprays. The big strawberries that are popular at this time are often sprayed with a product that gives flavor and sweetness to the fruit while increasing their shelf life. In my experience these chemicals do not wash off in water.
  1. Molasses, boiled sugarcane, comes in two basic categories, blackstrap molasses and molasses. Each of the two categories will have two choices: sulphured and unsulphured. Blackstrap is more caramelized and tends towards bitter while regular molasses may be blended with other syrups. Sulphured is a manufactured product in which Sulphur Dioxide is added. Don’t breathe the stuff. The best bet is unsulphured Blackstrap, which is also recommended by the American Heart Association.
  2. Do NOT purchase spices at the grocery store. Herbs and spices lose their taste within one year. Every item for purchase in this section of the grocery store is old and already devoid of full flavor. If there is not a spice store near your location, order online for a better product and almost always a better price. Amazon.com is not the best retailer for spices and herbs because they carry the same grocery store brands. Look here, here, or even here (larger quantities) for an idea of what you can stock in your house.

Bon Appetit!

I hope you have enjoyed this research project into a commonly considered healthy food. Please consider a few takeaways:

  1. Reading labels is not enough. Each ingredient may deserve a label of its own contents. Caveat Emptor!
  2. Pure is not necessarily better but purity establishes a baseline from which an informed consumer can make choices of what to eat.
  3. Food manufacturers are sensitive to complaints. If enough consumers complain and force the comments into the media cycles, they will change formulations.
  4. Food is not a zero-sum game, where the consumer must always trade off one priority to gain another.
  5. When it comes to creating quality foods that are healthy, money is not the most significant barrier. Preparation time is the most consuming component.