At the end of last November this box of locally grown produce was the grand prize of a raffle at a fund raiser for Waltham Community Farms. All of the vegetables had been harvested from the farm, most in the … Continue reading
I hesitate to admit being even somewhat inspired by the movies, books and blogs about cooking the oeuvre of some famous chef’s recipes. I make up my own recipes, damn it, and isn’t that skill even better than being able to follow directions?
But… I am… a little. Maybe it’s the project-lover in me. Perhaps it is that I am truly impressed by technique and talent and many famous cookbook authors have that by the bushel. It could very well be that I – gasp! – recognize that I might learn something. Alas, whichever of the above it may be, I received Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Christmas (its absence from my cookbook shelf proof alone of my above assertions) and decided to try out some of the infamous Julia Child’s impeccable French techniques – to the letter! – using local ingredients. My first foray is simple enough – roasted chicken and gravy.
I think I’m starting off on the wrong foot. Julia calls for one roasting chicken (from Chestnut Farms, check), one small chopped onion and carrot, butter, salt and oil. Already I’m chopping extra carrots, rutabegas, red and yellow onions, turnips and potatoes from my winter farm share. I do feel a bit petulant straying from the recipe before I even start warming up the oven. But still. How much could these additions affect the final product?
I must add that it is not as if I don’t ever use recipes. They are great to check for cooking times or temperatures, for the basics of a sauce to be altered or adapted based upon what is in season, or simply as inspiration for how to honor what ingredients I have on hand. I love recipes. I read them frequently. I just don’t follow them. They are, as my husband likes to say about most directives I encounter, merely a jumping off point.
But yet, this exercise is one of following a master, not proving my own prowess in the kitchen. Regardless, I leave the additional veggies in the pan and vow not to stray again.
So I: “sprinkle the inside of the chicken with the salt, and smear in half the butter.” Easy enough.
Next step: “Truss the chicken, page 237.”
I turn to page 237. I reflect upon the detailed instructions and consider whether I have an appropriate needle and white string. I know I own a crochet hook and turquoise yarn but doubt that will do the trick. I think to myself what’s the big deal? Isn’t it all for looks anyway? It’s taste that matters! and move on to the next step, my chicken floppy and awkward and decidedly untrussed. I continue to dry, butter and strew (too many!) vegetables, as directed, unfazed. I brown the chicken, breast up, for 15 minutes and baste it – “rapidly”! – before I am to turn it to… its side?
OK – who ever heard of a chicken roasting on its side? Has this ever been portrayed in movies? On the food network? Really? Plus, Julia et al., I am here to inform you that if the chicken isn’t trussed it doesn’t really STAY on its side very well. Regardless, I devise a plan, arranging the (incorrect amount and variety!) of vegetables around my sideways chicken to prop it up. I may not have a chef in the family, but I do have a builder for a father. This has certainly not been done rapidly and my oven has likely cooled off as Julia feared.
But now I have a system. Not exactly Julia’s-slash-classic-French-chef’s system, but a system nonetheless that roughly equivocates the recipe. I turn the chicken to the other side and then back again, basting with copious and directed amounts of butter and oil (no wonder French cooking is so delicious!) and eventually salt the bird when I estimate it is halfway cooked (not right away like I am often wont to do).
I am also dutifully listening for the “cooking noises” and eventual “rain of splutters” to tell me that my bird is cooking correctly and is nearing completion. Ordinarily I would…uhh… look up a recipe to help me estimate cooking time and then forget how big the bird was before I put it in the oven and then resort to sticking a meat thermometer in the thigh and pulling it out right before the arrow points to “poultry”. But Julia makes no mention of thermometers so I will listen and estimate. I thought my chicken was about 2 pounds but judging by her indication of “number of people served” I question my estimate – and having bought this from a local farmer there is no sticker indicating weight, so no amount of rooting around in the trash will produce an answer. According to Julia a 2-pounder would serve 2 or 3 people. Are these French people (whom we all known eat far more moderately than their American counterparts)? Or Americans (as we also know that Julia was cooking for our more robust audience)? If so, were these the relatively more svelte Americans of 1961? Was this number adjusted in subsequent editions as her country -men and -women all got hungrier and fatter? I press on and look for further clues. This confounds me further: what is the difference between “ready to cook weight” and “undrawn weight (dressed weight)”? I assumed that mine is not dressed as I did not stuff it with anything, but alas I am not quite sure. And I thought I was a pretty good cook. I feel a bit stupid.
For somewhat amorphous reasons I settle on an estimated cooking time of around an hour. And then I lose track of time. My husband comes home. We open a bottle of wine – a Bordeaux that someone gave us for Christmas and is noted in Mastering… as a suggested wine pairing with the chicken. I am briefly confounded because she mentions a “light red wine” such as a Bordeaux-Medoc “or a rose” and I always thought a Bordeaux was heavy. My hub and I drink a fair bit of wine, but not often French, so I allow that this is a detail I may remember wrong. But I am following directions, so I pop the cork. I shush my husband when he tries to tell me about his day so I can listen for the aforementioned splutters. I open the door and not-rapidly gaze upon the chicken whose thigh is splayed out rather unattractively from my sideways-cooking jostling. This certainly seems to support the assertion that a cooked bird’s drumstick “can be moved in its socket” when it is fully cooked. I prick the thigh with a fork and I think its juices “run clear yellow”. (Question – is it clear? Or yellow? How can it be both?) I believe the chicken has been cooking for an hour and a half at this point, seeming to recall putting it in the oven at a time in the 40s and it is now 7:20, and it certainly has been more than an hour with all the basting and flipping and propping I have done.
I take out the bird and my too many vegetables and allow them to sit and rest. Phew, I knew enough to do this anyway. My husband puts a frozen round of bread in the oven while I make what is shaping up to be a pretty fantastic gravy. I don’t mince an additional shallot as Julia directs because of all the veggie bits that are clinging to the bottom of my roasting pan, nor do I really scoop out much of the fat. But I do have some homemade broth (ha! She calls for canned! I may be wrong, but mine is certainly better…) simmering on the stove. For perhaps the first time ever I actually make chicken gravy in the roasting pan – helped in part by the new-to-me pan I picked up a few months ago at a yard sale and re-found in the back of my cupboard this morning. I scrape up those bits and reduce the liquid, but it is hard to determine whether the remaining gravy equals “about ½ cup” because of how spread out in the pan it is. And wouldn’t I want more than a half-cup of gravy anyway? Following the recipe I season with salt and pepper but don’t add the additional butter, reasoning that the fat that makes up most of the liquid is pure butter from my excessive basting. I pour this delicious-looking liquid into a bowl, not having a gravy boat to my name.
In the dining room, after allowing for sufficient resting, my husband cuts into the chicken. It’s raw on the inside! How did this happen? Maybe it was only drizzling splutters when I thought I heard rain? Maybe the juice was more yellow than clear? I throw the entire platter of further-mangled and awkwardly-splayed bird and vegetables back into the roasting pan with its remnants of gravy. I am deflated. I have never served an undercooked bird before, nor has my platter ever looked so manhandled – so amateur. As a consolation we pour a glass of wine and muse about whether a Bordeaux-Medoc is, in fact, a different wine altogether than the one in our glass. We decide that it is. Another fail. Maybe all of this following directions stuff isn’t for me.
Yet, I am starting to hear splutters now. I think. But I don’t want to get too excited. Instead we dip some bread into the gravy. Man it is good. Like best-gravy-ever good. We each eat a second piece of consolation bread and gravy. Yum.
Back in the kitchen I stick the thermometer in the bird – it reads 190 – the American temperature at which to cook chicken, according to Julia, but a bit overdone for French tastes. At least it isn’t raw in the middle.
Back on our table my first attempt at Julia’s French technique for roasting chicken is a visual disaster. We eat with our eyes first, I’ve heard again and again, and I would be chagrined if I had planned to serve this to company. But, as it is, my hub is happy to have a whole chicken on the table, despite its splayed thighs and thermometer holes. The skin that remained unmarred is perfectly browned and the gravy is out of this world. Even the meat – twice heated and overcooked by Julia’s standards – is moist and flavorful. Perhaps she has something there with the trussing and butter and constant flipping. Perhaps I still have a few tricks I could learn if only I followed directions a little more often. Perhaps there is some benefit to once in awhile allowing myself to serve an ugly bird.
Provenance of Ingredients:
Chicken – Chestnut Farms
Vegetables – Red Fire Farm except
Carrots – our community garden
Butter – Narragansett Creamery
Salt – Maine-harvested sea salt
Pepper & Olive Oil – unknown/ faraway
I tend to take the holidays off from eating locally. Not that I ever claim a 100% success rate, but when I return to my hometown a day or so before Christmas Eve I quickly realize that I would starve and/or alienate my Italian-American extended family by NOT eating the oyster stew, sausage bread, carbonara, cheese & sausage, veggies & dip, cookies etc. that populate my mother’s home. Eating, you see, is a family affair. To eat (and to cook) is to show love. If it weren’t for this reciprocal action, our familial emotions would probably be quite stunted.
Regardless, I did have a few revelations about our collective consumption this holiday, and despite my mostly NOT local eating, I feel pretty good about the decisions I make overall and how they might be helping others think a bit more about their food choices.
#1 – I actually do a pretty good job of eating – and shopping – locally. I rarely enter a major supermarket and haven’t bought meat NOT raised by someone I’ve met since sometime in 2009. Sure, when I’ve been at friends’ houses or out for a meal I haven’t been so careful. But in general I can find the farm that produced most of the products in my home on a map of New England (and stretching a bit into upstate NY). I feel really good about that. (Of course then I have to try very hard not to judge when my mother has maple syrup or honey that COULD be easily sourced locally, but isn’t.)
#2 – It’s about quality not (ok, sometimes and) quantity. Food I ate with abandon in the past doesn’t interest me. A few years ago if I was offered scalloped potatoes sprinkled with Doritos (who knew my NASCAR-loving step-brother was such a semi-homemade cook!?) I would take a helping with a smile. But this time I took a forkful to be polite and moved on to something else. Sugar-free cookies or fat-free muffins? I appreciated the cook’s resourcefulness, however I couldn’t stomach the aspartame or processed non-fat butter substitute. As often as I could this time around, I chose quality small-batch cheese over store-bought hunks eaten mindlessly. And I tried to bring the ingredients I cared about (see aforementioned “fancy” cheese) and stuck to items that I felt good about eating – even if I ate them immoderately.
#3 – Despite some incredibly sugar-laden and super-processed foods being eaten with abandon by the dad’s side of my family, in some ways they are inspirational as the original locavores. Grandma featured home-grown, -canned and -cellared pickles, sauces and roasted veggies on her Christmas buffet alongside the misnamed whipped topping and candied fruit salad “ambrosia”. Recognizing the mutual interest in local and minimally processed food – albeit for different reasons – has helped us find a way to connect. My grandma has lived in the same house for the last 50 years and didn’t finish the ninth grade, but she and I can talk for hours about how late beets can be harvested and how the caterpillars are predicting a cold start and finish to the winter.
#4 – Much of the extended family (on my mother’s side) cares about humane, local and/or sustainable eating as well. My mom’s two brothers shared a locally born and bred cow this past year (named “D” for “Delicious”) and most of my cousins, their spouses, my aunts as well and my mom and I all grew at least some of our own food and canned local vegetables, pickles and jams this past year. My cousin and step-father both hunt as well – although not exactly to decrease their carbon footprint. We had a locally caught and smoked fish on Christmas Eve and a platter of pickled and canned veggies for Christmas. This attention to local, sustainable and healthy eating by no means originated with me: my oldest cousin has long worked for a non-profit environmental agency and her sister is a vegan blogger. And while our approaches to healthy and humane eating can be quite different, what we realized over a glass (or three) of local wine was that we all want the same thing: for people to be more conscious and thoughtful about what they eat.
And that is my continued goal for the new year.