Sunday, September 30, 2012

A little chicken

Ina Garten was in San Francisco last week, and I'm only a little offended that I didn't make it onto her social calendar during this visit.  I guess there are at least twenty or thirty thousand gay men in San Francisco, so she can't possibly have time to meet up with all of us every time she goes on vacation.  I did my best to find her, making a Friday-afternoon circuit of every florist and artisan supermarket in the Castro, hanging out for hours in the window of Twin Peaks sipping Irish coffee, only later to discover that she had hopped up to Napa for the day.  Oh Ina, you would.

If I had met up with her, I would have asked her about the famous roast chicken at Zuni Cafe, which she reportedly ordered on Wednesday evening.  Not to inquire about whether she enjoyed it, or if it's worth the fifty-two dollar price tag, or if it inspired any new recipes for Barefoot Contessa, but to ask if she feels like she's being unfaithful to her husband Jeffrey if she eats chicken without him.  After all, anybody who has watched her show for more than three episodes knows that it's pretty much her mission in life to feed Jeffrey roast chicken every time he sees him, and spend the interim either roasting chickens or thinking of new chicken-roasting recipes.  It's beautiful.  You wonder if you will ever know a love as deep as that between Ina, Jeffrey, and chicken.  When you see two of them without the third, you wonder--what happened?

"Everyone knows Jeffrey loves chicken."  I had thought that this was something Ina Garten famously remarked on that one episode where she makes chicken, but upon googling for the exact quotation, I discovered that most variations on it lead back to a blog entry that I wrote five years ago.  So apparently it's something that I made up and it's only famous in my head.  Anyway, after a brief survey of the 3.7 million peripheral hits on Google, I get the impression that everyone does, indeed, know that Jeffrey loves chicken, it's just never been codified in any single, definitive statement.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have a complex relationship with Ina Garten.  Exhibit A would probably be the previous blog entry I wrote ("deep, hypnotic, tremendously sexy voice, like melted butter on velvet"), and Exhibit B would be my dinner plans on Thursday night.  Upon discovering that Ina was in San Francisco munching on roast chicken at Zuni, my first instinct was to roast my very own chicken for my very own Jeffrey.  And, hey, as long as I was roasting a chicken, why not serve it with a takeoff of the famous bread salad that Ina enjoyed the night before?  I put a few autumnal twists on the recipe, and didn't bother to skim off the chicken fat from the pan juices, but other than that I think I came pretty close.

Well, let's just say that I understand why Ina strives to repeat this every night of her life, her own little Groundhog Day of poultry and marital bliss.  Savory, earthy chicken, its juices soaking into bread inundated with grainy mustard, dressed with little accents of sweetness and acid.  It is, really, what you would want to eat every night if you had unlimited time, unlimited resources, and unlimited gay friends.  And, if you're not trying to replicate Ina Garten's life, you could also make the bread salad on its own as a great vegan dish--just don't saturate it with chicken fat.  But Jeffrey might not love that.


Chicken for Jeffrey

This was inspired by Judy Rodgers' recipe for roast chicken with bread salad from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook; my recipe is just a little bit simplified from that five-page short story, but definitely read through it to pick up some of her great tips on chicken roasting and cooking in general.

half a loaf (about 8-12 oz) airy sourdough bread
1 lb butternut squash (a small one, or use part of one)
2 pears
half a bunch of lacinato/tuscan kale, washed
4 scallions, white and green parts, sliced finely
a three-pound chicken
2 tbsp whole-grain mustard
2 tbsp vinegar (champagne, rice wine, or apple cider)
olive oil
kosher salt
sugar, white or brown
black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  You have to do a lot of roasting in this recipe, so it's helpful to have two different roasting pans.  All of the roasting steps can overlap.  If you have a cast-iron pan, use it to roast the chicken.

Peel the butternut squash and cut it into 1/2-inch chunks.  Toss the chunks with a little olive oil, salt, and black pepper.  Roast in the oven, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 15-20 minutes.  Set aside in a small bowl.

Meanwhile, slice the pears in half, remove the cores, and cut into 1/2 inch chunks.  Toss the chunks with a little salt and just a few pinches of sugar.  Roast in the oven until the pears are just starting to turn dark and have concentrated in flavor but are not at all mushy, about 7-10 minutes.  Set aside in a small bowl.

Cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes, toss with olive oil, and roast in the oven (you can do this in the same pan that the squash roasted in).  Roast, stirring occasionally, until the bread is completely crisp and golden, about 15-20 min.  Set aside in a deep mixing bowl.

Remove the stems from the kale and tear each leaf into 3-4 pieces.  Toss with just a dash of olive oil and some salt and roast just until they start to become tender and their dark green color becomes more pronounced, about 2-3 min.  Set aside in a small bowl.

Now, roast the chicken.  If you have any tricks for roasting a perfect chicken, feel free to implement them--stuff the cavity, brine it, dry it, cure it, truss it, flip it upside down halfway through, put ice packs on the breasts, whatever.  I prefer to adapt Mary Risley's method for Thanksgiving turkey:  I just sprinkle about a tablespoon of coarse salt over the top, stick it in the oven, and turn the pan once during cooking.  Roast for 40 minutes to an hour, until the skin is brown and crispy, and when you take a peek into the thigh meat, it looks cooked through and the juices run clear.  Don't worry about slicing into it; you'll be cutting up the chicken anyway.

While the chicken is roasting, make a mustard vinaigrette by combining the 2 tbsp of mustard, 2 tbsp vinegar, and enough olive oil to round out the flavor, about 3-4 tbsp.  The vinaigrette should be spicy and tart, but not so bracing that you can't eat it off of a spoon. Depending on the mustard you use, you may need to adjust the flavor with a little salt and sugar (or honey!).  I think the easiest way to make a vinaigrette is to shake it up in a mason jar.

Add about half of the vinaigrette to the bread pieces in the mixing bowl and toss to combine.  They don't need to be evenly coated.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan to a cutting board, and turn the oven off.  Place the roasting pan on the stovetop (or pour off the juices into a separate pan).  Add a few drops of vinegar, warm over low heat, and stir so that the fat and juices are combined, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.  Drizzle a few spoonfuls of the chicken juices over the bread cubes, to taste.

Add the squash, pears, kale and 2/3 of the sliced scallions to the bread cubes, and toss gently to combine, taking care not to mash the squash and pears.  Add a little more vinaigrette and chicken juices, if desired.

At this point, the chicken has rested for about 10 minutes.  It's time to cut it up.  Locate the leg and thigh bones.  The legs should pull away easily from the chicken, with just a little knifework required to separate them from the body.  Take each leg, locate the joint connecting the drumstick and the thigh, break or cut it, and use your knife to separate them.  Next, remove the wings, which should also pull easily from the body.  Finally, make two long cuts along the top of the chicken, and then cut diagonally down each side to remove the breasts.

Set aside the wings, thighs, and legs.  Cut the breasts into 1/2-inch chunks, keeping the skin attached as best you can, and add them to the bread salad.  Toss gently to combine.

If you like, you can heat up the bread salad in a roasting pan in the still-warm oven.  Flip the bread salad into a serving bowl and tuck the other chicken pieces into it.  Garnish with the remaining scallions.

Serve to someone named Jeffrey.

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