Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thomas Keller & The Perfect Roast Chicken

Thomas Keller's Favorite Simple Roast Chicken
and my awesome new Fig tablecloth

A couple of days ago I went on a food-literature binge.  I was about 4 issues behind on my Food & Wine and Bon Appetit subscriptions because of the holidays, and my cookbook collection (a small but varied selection of choice pieces of food lit) had been sorely neglected for months.  Besides the magazines, I pulled out two books on French cooking that I hadn't used in ages: Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten and Bouchon by Thomas Keller.  As far as French cookery goes, the two are almost diametrically opposed to each other with Ina Garten, of Food Network fame, favoring French recipes simplified for the home cook often with a New England twist and Thomas Keller espousing the authentic and sophisticated French and French-bistro foods he is so well known for at Bouchon, Ad Hoc, Per Se, and The French Laundry.

I was flipping through the books because I'd been craving - positively craving - a good roast chicken for weeks.  I kept seeing ridiculously appetizing pictures of them all over Pinterest and decided to narrow down my top selections and then make the one I deemed most roast-worthy.  After I'd chosen my favorite among the pictures and recipes online - something labelled "Thomas Keller's Favorite Simple Roast Chicken" - I went to look through my French cookbooks to see if I could find anything better.

Open the book and there it was.  The first recipe in Thomas Keller's Bouchon: his favorite simple roast chicken. Seriously?!

Up until that point I had no idea who Thomas Keller even was, much less that he'd written that giant French cookbook my mother had given me 5 years ago or that he was the same chef referenced in the online chicken recipe I'd found.  But there you have it.  It was a match made in heaven, destined for completion on a cold January Sunday in Portland, Maine.  And here I am, like many other bloggers and amateur foodies post-Sunday dinner sharing my pictures of what could possibly be the perfect roast chicken.

The things that elevate this simple roast chicken to the realms of perfection are: the simplicity of the seasoning (salt and pepper only), the scant use of fat (no butter or oil on the chicken itself, though I did throw some in the skillet for the sake of an awesome pan-sauce), and the lack of basting until post-roasting (you throw some thyme into the pan juices and baste a couple of times only AFTER taking the bird out of the oven).  It's so simple I am amazed it tastes as good as it does, and yet, as we always seem to conclude, the best things in life do tend to be the simplest ones.  

Some might complain that it's overly simple.  Some might say that chicken is not sophisticated enough for the carefully cultivated palates of real gourmets.  To them I say: try this chicken.  It is a shocking combination of juicy meat and utterly crispy skin, and the unadulterated chicken flavor really hits you.  In short, roast-chicken-wise, it's about as close to perfect as I've ever tasted.  Why not be bold in our statements?

* * *

For the sake of voyeurism, here are my original top five roast chicken picks, mostly from my pins on Pinterest, in list form (click links to check out the mouthwatering pictures):

Top Five Roast-worthy Roast Chicken Recipes
good anytime but best on a cozy winter day

5. Lemon-Garlic Roast Chicken (no recipe) from
This looks to-die-for but, alas, it's just a picture.  I would have had to whip up this one from my own imagination and that's a no-go on a lazy Sunday.  What's with that Katie?!

4. Cardamom & Yoghurt Roast Chicken from
Matt doesn't like Cardamom, but I love it.  This gets points for including spatchcockage and skillet roasting.

3. Spanish Roast Chicken with Citrus & Chorizo from
If only we had good Chorizo in Maine!  Needless to say, this is right up my alley.

2. Lazy Sunday Roast Chicken from
I'm not huge on rosemary but I love it paired with chicken and citrus.  The skin doesn't look crispy enough for me but those potatoes might make up for that.

1. Thomas Keller's Favorite Simple Roast Chicken from
What would you eat at your last meal?  I have no clue off the top of my head but Thomas Keller unequivocally said this chicken. Well, that's a recommendation :)  Get the recipe and story behind it at the link above - a great little blog too.

Sunday Dinner: Thomas Keller's Simple Roast Chicken and Grilled Brussel Sprouts
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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Plenty of Ottolenghi & A Word to the Sage

Mushrooms & Herb Polenta from Plenty by Ottolenghi
I have something to confess.   A relatively major thing, as foody confessions go.  There's something I've been keeping to myself for several years now that I dared not utter but was forced to the forefront of my mind a few months ago when I randomly purchased a new cookbook.

I'd been wanting it for a while but I decided to finally just go out and buy Plenty when I saw it at a highly aesthetically pleasing little shop on the main street in Camden, ME on a whimsical weekend getaway in the fall.  I ordered it off Amazon as soon as I got home.  I just couldn't stand not having that picture of the eggplants (slathered in some sort of deliciously light yoghurty-sauce and sprinkled with thyme, zatar and pomegranate seeds, if you must know) as part of my daily visual binge.

I flipped through it voraciously as soon as it came.  And I oohed and ahhhhed over the lovely, intensely creative vegetarian recipes which literally jump off the page at you.  I'd heard of Ottolenghi for so long.  First, just because I lived in London, of course (they're in Kensington, Notting Hill, Belgravia...).  Then because it was somewhat of a rival to Melrose & Morgan, the place across the street from the bakery I worked at in Primrose Hill where I generally got my lunch (to this day I often dream of their beef wellington).  And finally because a friend of mine was obsessed by their style of cooking and was going on about the new book coming out and how she'd pre-ordered it.  I scoffed.  All-natural ingredient-driven delis with modern lighting, bright white platters and on-the-edge-of-acceptable-vegetarian-salads are kind of "a thing" in London.  They're almost common, ironically.  It's like they're the British upper-crust's answer to the working man's pub on every corner: "So, you dare to serve microwaved cottage pie with frozen chips?  Take THAT scoundrels!"  

Vibrant Vegetable Recipes - as Ottolenghi's Plenty is described - have arrived.

* * *

Yottam Ottolenghi is Israeli and, surprisingly, not a vegetarian (as Plenty's recipes and his weekly column in The Guardian would suggest).  I don't know much about Israeli food, though I do know a fair bit about the Mediterranean and I'm guessing he's going for a fusion of those two with light, modern British cuisine.  I admire the use of local, fresh ingredients and the fact that everything is made from scratch by them every single day.  The only problem I often find with modern, all-vegetarian takes is that they often look better than they taste.  It seems to me that in an effort to use as many fresh, raw, unique ingredients as possible, the flavor combinations can often cross the line a little too far into the purely "artsy-fartsy" side of food, straying every-so-much from the purely "tasty-wasty" side of things.  (I mean, in all honest, I have never tasted a dish where plain quinoa featured prominently that I loved.) 

Despite my misgivings, I must admit that I was spoiled for choice with Plenty.  It covers all the seasonal bases and I had no problem finding  a warm, inviting Fall or Winter dish.  In the end I settled on a deceptively simple recipe: Mushroom and Herb Polenta.

I had all the ingredients in the fridge and any recipe that includes more than one type of mushroom in copious amounts makes it to the table at my house.  I was also especially taken by the idea of creating a beautiful slab of polenta.*  Just so aesthetically appealing.  But anyway, the only thing I was missing was the chervil.  After a quick google search I realized you can substitute a combination of parsley and sage for it and felt happy that I finally had a reason to cut into that giant, beautiful sage bush growing in my backyard before the first frost.  Except for one thing - and here's where the confession comes in - I hate sage.

What possessed me to grab it anyway?  What made me think that instead of using the 1/8 tsp the website suggested I cold use the 4-5 full sage leaves I greedily grabbed?  Was it my hopeful trust in Ottolenghi's magic chef wand?  Was it that I thought maybe this would be the dish that converted me?  It's all beyond me.  I grabbed it anyway.  Yes, I'm a beast.  

I poured my heart into that recipe, chopping up a fragrant herbal storm, conjuring and channeling the spirit of London's most sophisticated, most natural eateries - and what resulted was beautiful.  Truly beautiful.  A purely aesthetic masterpiece of creamy polenta with roasted, autumnal mushrooms.  A delightful thing to look at, and one which Matthew found me gleefully photographing in the backyard as he got home from work.  

But back at the dinner table, I knew something had gone awry.

I don't know why I don't like sage!  I never have.  Maybe in a minute quantity I can kind-of stand it but to me it just tastes like badly-cooked liver.  Badly-cooked liver in the deceptively enticing form of a lovely, velvety leaf.  A perfectly shaped leaf that is iconic for many dishes such as Saltimbocca alla Romana in which it serves as a garnish and seasoning, or traditional Christmas sausage stuffing.  And yet, I just don't get it.  It ruined the dish for me and I am convinced the chervil would have done the same.  If I ever cook this again (which I might), I'd leave it out altogether.

Ottolenghi prides itself on bold, fresh flavors.  This polenta certainly delivers that and a little too much more.  I can't say I agree with this particular flavor combination but...I can't wait to try another recipe.  And maybe even get the first cookbook. :) 

*In the book it's served on a wooden board (which, if I'd had a big enough one I would have done).
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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kickin' in 2012: New Boots & New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ; interior

And we're back.

The yearly holiday pilgrimages have been made.   We hit Connecticut.  We hit Texas.  It was wonderful and exhausting and bountiful, good food was had in both locations.  There are so many culinary adventures, in fact, I am absolutely spoiled for choice in writing this blog.  I almost feel like I'm cheating on someone by choosing just one to focus on! Alas, the infidelity will be rampant, my friends.

* * * 
Real Men Wear Boots.

Good ol' Cavender's
Going to Texas is always a mix of nostalgia and excitement for me.  Despite its warm familiarity I always find that there are facets of Texan culture that are utterly foreign to me.  This year, Matt decided to dive head-first into one of the ones I'd always avoided like the plague: cowboy boots.  

I suppose that nowadays maybe boots have come back into fashion for non-cowboy / western / boot-wearing people in today's pop culture, but growing up in Texas, people who wore boots were considered a subculture of their own, akin to "preps" or "nerds" or "bangers."  They were country people - "kickers," as we liked to call them - something that angsty teenagers such as I tended to avoid, fashion-wise anyway.  Well, as my luck would have it, somewhere along the way - between my mom and James getting a couple of pairs and Matt's business trip down to Denver where he caroused with all-sorts of cowboy types who wore boots with suits - Matt decided he needed to own a pair of cowboy boots.  

Initiation night for Matt's new boots.
He insisted that the afternoon we arrived into Texas we should go (almost directly) to Cavender's to get fitted.  He walked out of that place feeling (and admittedly, looking) like a million bucks in a beautiful new pair of Lucchese - boots.  They sure are mighty fine.  

My sister looked over at me and smiled and, encapsulating the great, wonderful irony of my life, said, "I don't know how you did it Brenda, but you found a cowboy."

* * *

Real Men (also) Eat BBQ While Wearing Boots.

Yes, this is the entrance.  We almost drove right by.
But back to the food (yes, I am a total truffle pig).  In keeping with the southwestern spirit Matthew had invoked, this year we finally made a long-awaited pilgrimage to a place I had only heard of in passing but my brother-in-law and step-dad had been dying to try for years:  New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ.  A mouthful - and in more ways than one.  And wouldn't you know it, just a little over a half an hour ride from my mom's house, so not too inconvenient.  The Church of Holy Smoke.
view into kitchen area from dining table

The place is beyond country.  The one-room white wooden house sits next to its namesake Baptist Church and literally sits atop concrete cinder blocks.  The paint has seen better days and so have the screen doors.  Upon approaching the front door, you are met with several bbq pits and smokers of colossal size.  The inside is no-frills, no-nonsense and old fashioned.  The bathroom can look a little intimidating but it's shockingly clean.  The seats are fold-out chairs and the decor is a charming combination of nostalgia-meets-souther-baptism.  
Good old Annie Mae Ward opened the place up by accident 20 years ago; her husband was painting the church and she was cooking him some lunch.  The smell reportedly had cars stopping off the highway and it all went from there. She has been giving most if not all her profit to the church ever since.

The story's good but the food doesn't disappoint either.  Chicken, Sausage, Brisket and Ribs.  The holy Tetralogy.  Choose your poison - they come in a 1, 2 or 3 meat plate which includes sliced white bread, potato salad, bbq beans and pickles.  If you're still hungry after the monster helping, you can have some homemade pie: pecan or buttermilk when we visited.  Delish.  The ribs and brisket were my favorites - both melt in your mouth and smokey to boot.  And their homemade bbq sauce.  There are no words.

I wouldn't call myself a BBQ connaisseur, but by simple virtue of having lived in Texas for an extended period, I have had the good graces of eating lots of it.  Some good, some bad, and some divine.  New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ falls into the latter category.  

Of course it does.

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