Culinary

My Top 5 Roasting Tips

IMG_0103Winter is roasting season. Whether you’re planning a Valentines day rack of lamb for 2 or a simple roast chicken for a family supper, the warmth of the oven and the aromas of roast meat, poultry or vegetables will draw your family and friends together to share a meal and each other’s company. To help you along the way, I’ve summarized my top 5 tips from my cookbook, All About Roasting.

Tip #1 – Shop wisely

The best roasts start with the best quality meat, fowl, fish or vegetables. By definition, roasting exposes foods to dry oven heat, and this dry heat concentrates their intrinsic flavors and characters. This basic cooking technique allows you to transform raw foods into sumptuous meals with little effort (you merely season something and slide it into the oven), but there is not much room to hide or mask inferior ingredients. The best roasts will always begin with the best available ingredients. Choose the freshest, most carefully raised ingredients that you can find and afford.

Tip # 2 – Select an oven temperature to match the roast

Roasting is not a one-size-fits-all cooking technique; you can roast quickly in a super hot oven or slowly in a gentle oven. The best approach is to select the oven temperature to suit the roast. High-heat roasting (400 degrees and up) is best for small, naturally tender cuts of meat, fowl and fish, such as beef tenderloin, small chickens, fish fillets and most fruits and vegetables. High-heat roasting will create wonderfully browned exteriors, but anything over a few pounds will likely char on the outside before cooking though. Choose moderate heat (325 to 395 degrees) for larger cuts, such as turkey and pork loin roasts. Low heat roasting (300 degrees and lower) is the way to go when you’re roasting large, less tender cuts, including large cuts of shoulder, leg and round. And finally, use a 2-step sear-roast technique by cranking up the oven to 425 degrees to start, and then (after 10 to 20 minutes) lower the oven to a more moderate temperature (325 or 350 degrees) to get the advantages of high-heat (a handsomely sizzling exterior) and moderate heat (a juicy interior). In the end, there is no single right way to roast. As James Beard once wisely wrote, “Each is successful in its own way, and it remains for the cook to compare results.”

No matter which oven temperature you use, it’s always a good idea to let the roast sit on a cutting board for a while (30 to 60 minutes) before roasting. This takes the chill off and helps it to brown more readily and cook more evenly. Use this time to fully pre-heat the oven as well.

Tip #3 – Don’t crowd

Roasting operates on the principle of heated oven air circulating around the food, and so it’s important that you allow the air to move freely. This means choosing a pan that will accommodate whatever you’re roasting without crowding or shielding it from the oven heat. You want a pan that will hold the roast without too much empty space around it. If the pan is too large, the drippings will be too spread out and tend to burn. If the pan is too small, the roast won’t brown nicely.

For everyday roasts (things like chicken and pork loin), steer away from traditional high-sided roasting pans that will obscure a good portion of the roast, and instead use lower-sided gratin dishes, skillets or even small baking sheets. For roasting individual pieces of poultry or vegetables, spread these out on a rimmed baking sheet, allowing space between pieces, to get the best exposure to the oven heat. (Lining the baking sheets with parchment paper will mean less sticking and easier clean-up.)

And finally, to give your roast the best advantage, arrange the oven rack so that the top of the roast will line up with top third of the oven. For a super large roast, this means an oven rack near the bottom. For smaller roasts, the rack will be closer to the center.

Tip # 4 – Use a thermometer (or two)

The single most important roasting tool is a reliable meat thermometer. Use the thermometer to check the internal temperature of the roast before the suggested cooking time is up. Every oven and every roast cooks a little differently, and it is good practice to check the progress of your roast as it cooks. Don’t check incessantly – as each time you open the oven door, you lose a good deal of heat and slow down the progress of the roast, but check often enough that you have a sense of how the roast is progressing. The internal temperature will rise more quickly as it gets closer to doneness, so the last 20 to 30 minutes of any roast is always the most critical. Once you think a roast is done, use the thermometer to check it in a few spots to be sure you’re not hitting a bone or a pocket of fat that may throw off the temperature reading.

You may also set an oven thermometer in your oven to help you judge its accuracy. Many of our ovens (no matter how new or expensive) will run cool or hot. Having an oven thermometer on the shelf can help you adjust your cooking times according to the actual temperature inside your oven.

Tip # 5 – Rest

Carving into a roast the minute it comes out of the oven can ruin even the most perfectly cooked piece of meat or poultry. Every roast needs to rest – to sit undisturbed in a warm spot – for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. During roasting, the juices are driven towards the surface of the roast. When you pull a roast from the oven, it takes a moment for the juices to stop moving, but they eventually redistribute and settle to produce a juicier, more evenly cooked roast. Small roasts, like a rack of lamb or pork tenderloin, only need to rest for a few minutes, but large roasts, like prime rib and turkey, are best left to sit for at least 30 minutes. If the kitchen is cool, you can tent the roast with foil, but don’t cover too tightly or it will continue to cook. Yes, the meat or fowl will cool off slightly as it rests, but this is a small price to pay for a juicy, tender roast.

The internal temperature of your roast will climb as it rests – a situation know as carry-over cooking. The larger the roast, the greater the carry-over cooking. In other words, the internal temperature of a standing rib roast can rise as much as 10 degrees as it rests, while a petite rack of lamb may only rise 3 or 4 degrees. Keep this in mind as you use your thermometer to judge doneness.

Holiday Mashed Potatoes

051115w-01-mashed-potato-and-rutabega-gratin_xlgLike a lot of meat-and-potato American families, mashed potatoes were pretty constant on our dinner table. They were there to soak up the juices when we had a roast or a stew. They were always on the buffet for holiday gatherings. They appeared sleekly tucked into their neat compartment on “special” occasions when Mom and Dad went out for dinner. And there was a box of “Potato Buds” in the cupboard for emergencies when a meal needed a starch but there were no real potatoes in the bin or no time to boil them. I can’t say that my younger appetite bothered to discern the distinctions between good or bad (or even real or fake) mashed potatoes. They were simply there, and their bland, heaviness always comforted and satisfied.

Now these many years later I know more about mashed potatoes than I ever thought possible (this will happen when you co-write an entire cookbook on potatoes), and I have strong opinions on what I like (fluffy and flavorful) and what I don’t (dense, insipid, mealy, gummy or fake). I also have a lot to say on how to properly make and serve them (use a ricer and serve immediately). In One Potato, Two Potato, my good pal and co-author, Roy Finamore wrote a 2 1/2-page essay on how to achieve mashed potato enlightenment, and I can happily teach an entire class on the topic. When it comes to planning a holiday menu, I know I want light and tasty mashed potatoes, but I don’t have the patience for making them at the last minute. With so much else going on in the kitchen (and on the plate), I am looking for something more convenient than a classic mash, but I am nowhere near ready to reach for the box of potato buds.

My soluition? Roy’s recipe for Party Potatoes. The first thing to note is that the recipe does not show up in the book’s mashed potato chapter (yes, there is an entire 28-recipe chapter on mashed spuds alone). Instead, Party Potatoes belongs in a category of potato casseroles or gratins that masquerade as mashed potatoes. Here’s how it works: you start as you normally would, boiling and draining several pounds of potatoes (the recipe scales up and down easy, another bonus). Then you use an electric mixer to beat in the usual dairy enrichments plus cream cheese and seasoning before piling it into a baking dish, smoothing out the top and dusting it with paprika or grated cheese. You can then refrigerate the casserole for 2 to 3 days before baking and serving.

As with most favorite recipes, I like to play around with the formula, but there are a couple of keys to keeping these fluffy and good. Don’t skip the cream cheese. It adds richness and a nice tang, but its plasticity is what insures you’ll get the right texture. You could substitute mascarpone, but that’s just Italian cream cheese, so it basically the same. Also, add enough other dairy (butter, cream or milk, sour cream or cream fraiche) to make the potatoes moist but not sodden and rich without being cloying. Beyond that, I sometimes include another starchy vegetable (at a ratio of 4 parts potato to about 1 part “other”). Favorites include parsnip, rutabaga or winter squash. (The photo above is from my recipe that appeared in Fine Cooking magazine a few years back for Mashed Potato and Rutabaga Gratin). Fellow roots can boil along side the potatoes. More delicate squashes do best when cooked separately. Flavorings like dried mustard and horseradish add zing. And cheese is rarely unwelcome.

 

 

Party Potatoes

by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens from “One Potato, Two Potato” (Houghton-Mifflin, 2001)

 

Serves 10 to 12

 

3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and chunked

Kosher or medium-grain sea salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature

2/3 cup milk, warmed

Freshly ground black pepper

Paprika

 

Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with cold water by at least an inch, add a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover partway, and cook until the potatoes are very tender. Drain and return them to the pot. Set over medium heat for a minute or two, shaking and stirring so the potatoes don’t stick, until they are floury and have made a film on the bottom of the pot.

Remove the potatoes from the heat and break them up with a hand-held electric mixer on low speed. Gradually drop in 6 tablespoons of the butter and beat until it is absorbed. Refrigerate the remaining butter. Continue with the cream cheese and sour cream, beating well after each addition. Finally, beat in the milk, adding a little at a time. You want the potatoes to be fluffy and light; if they seem to be getting too wet, don’t add all of the milk. Season with salt and pepper. (If you don’t have an electric mixer, use a hand masher to start and then use a wooden spoon to beat in the butter, cheese, sour cream, and milk. Beat the milk into the potatoes one-third at a time, beating vigorously after each addition.)

Butter a 9- X 13-inch baking dish and spoon the potatoes into it. Smooth the top and then, with spatula or fork tines, swirl or score the surface of the potatoes to leave little peaks that will brown up nicely during baking. Refrigerate, covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days before baking.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Dust the top with paprika and cut the remaining butter into small pieces and scatter them over the surface. Bake until the potatoes are heated though and the top is lightly golden, about an hour. (Expect it to take only half the time if the potatoes haven’t been refrigerated.) Serve hot.

 

 

My Breakthrough Recipe: Chicken Divan

As a cooking teacher, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how – and when and where – we learn to cook. In my case, my breakthrough dish was Chicken Divan, a patently dated casserole comprised of canned soup, mayonnaise, broccoli and chicken. I don’t know why I latched onto this particular recipe, but during my early high school years it became my signature dish. I remember serving it at my first dinner party (I’m fairly certain my parents were out of town). I had no idea what how to host a dinner party, but I felt terribly grownup serving something so, ahem, elegant.

Now, keep in mind that this was the early 1970’s. There were no celebrity chefs, no Food Network, “gourmet” was not in my lexicon and canned soup was a staple in my mother’s cupboards. The only way I can explain my devotion to Chicken Divan is that it was the first time I felt as though I were truly cooking. Yes, I knew how to make toast, put together a decent sandwich, simmer a hot dog, fry an egg, and other simple ways to feed myself, but this casserole was big step above all of that. By assembling 6 or 7 ingredients in a certain progression, I made something complex that hit all my adolescent sensory receptors—rich, creamy, savory, beautifully browned and crunchy on top. More importantly, it turned out perfectly every time, people loved it, and I made it so many times that I owned that recipe.

I had all but forgotten about those early casseroles until one of my oldest, dearest friends sent me a scan of the hand-written recipe (below) that I had given her back in high school. I had copied it from a similar shorthand recipe of my mother’s (also below). I can’t help but smile looking at these thumbnail recipes now. Both bear the telltale cooking stains of a well-loved dish, and, like many old recipes, these abbreviated lists of ingredients assume a certain amount of basic kitchen know-how.  They assume you know that the chicken is pre-cooked, that the broccoli is steamed (or defrosted), that you layer these into a buttered baking dish and then stir together all the creamy elements and pour these overtop. In other words, they assume someone has already taught you how to make Chicken Divan; the recipes are a mere prompt.

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My “recipe” for Chicken Divan written out for my best friend (early 1970’s)

On one hand, these notes remind me that I’ve come a long way in my tastes and in how I write a recipe – my spelling has improved, too, although not my handwriting.  On the other, they remind me that cooking and sharing recipes is something that I’ve always loved to do. One of these days, perhaps I’ll update my old favorite by ditching the canned soup and mayonnaise. I wonder if it will be as good as I remember.

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My mother’s “recipe”, accredited to her sister-in-law and dear friend Kay, and glued onto a page in a looseleaf notebook.

 

The Making of a Cookbook

All About RoastingPeople sometimes ask me how long it takes to write a cookbook, and the best answer I can give is “it all depends”. It depends on what else I’ve got going on (both personally and professionally), and it also depends on how I measure time. For instance, I am just finishing my new book, All About Roasting, and, to be honest, this book took anywhere from five years to a lifetime depending on how I look at it. From a purely chronological standpoint, I first wrote the outline in the late winter of 2006, which means it took me 5 years from start to finish. But from a developmental point of view, this is a book that I’ve been writing my whole life.

Let me try to explain. When I set out to write a book on roasting, I approached it the way I would undertake any big project. I began by establishing a clear understanding of the technique that would form the central theme of the book. From there, I planned to develop recipes that fell into that rubric. The trouble, I soon discovered, was that the harder I looked at the definition of roasting (cooking food uncovered by dry heat), the more my vision of a strong central theme began to unravel. The standard definition was too vague to really be useful. As a result, my early efforts at organizing my recipes into a book were all over the place, which meant I had no book.

So, I did something that I never would have attempted when I was younger and more bullheaded; I took a step back and asked myself what roasting means to me. To find the answer, I turned to my kitchen and to my appetite. As I roasted and ate, I let my mind travel beyond the technicalities of the stark textbook definition, and I began to understand that it wasn’t so much the technique that mattered, but it was the goodness of the results. It was the aesthetic of seared surfaces, caramelized pan drippings, and crispy end bits that I was after.

Sure, roasting involves cooking by direct exposure to dry heat, but it means so much more. Roasting, I discovered, infers more than a generalized technique; it expresses nuance and sensibility. Roasting denotes a direct, honest approach to cooking, as it leaves the inherent characteristics of ingredients intact while enhancing the intrinsic flavors and transforming them into the best expressions of themselves. Roasting is about a sizzling, crusty exterior and a perfectly cooked interior. Roasting elevates already delicious ingredients by giving them a savory crust and maintaining their own juices and tenderness. Even the phonetics of the word influence its meaning with the seductive little “st” that you make with the flick of the tongue as you say it.

Once I sorted this out for myself, I was well on my way. The book is now in the final stages of editing and proofing.  I’ve lost track of how many recipes it contains, but I can tell you that each one has that special something, that sizzle, that sear, that appeal that comes from roasting. The expected release in October/November, but you can already pre-order it if you are so inclined. Here’s the link. All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art

In the meantime, I look forward to sharing recipes and tidbits on my blog and other writings.

How Bacon Changed My Life

It’s been a while since I went to summer camp, but last week I was lucky enough to attend Zingerman’s Camp Bacon. Yup, you read that right, Camp BACON! Now before you start imagining bacon-singalongs, bacon-wrapped marshmallows cooked over the campfire or arts-and-crafts classes where we wove bacon bracelets, this was a different sort of “camp”. On a Saturday in mid-June, over 50 bacon enthusiasts attended presentations by some of the country’s best bacon-makers, a discussion on bacon history by Jan Longone from the Longone Culinary Archive at the UM Library, several bacon-inspired poetry readings, a hands-on pancetta workshop, and, of course, a bacon cooking demo (that’s where I came in).  By all accounts, the daylong camp was a huge success (and a whole lot of fun for campers and counselors both!). Word is the fine folks at Zingerman’s are already talking about holding Camp Bacon again next year. Here’s where you can find out more. http://www.zingermanscampbacon.com/

Getting serious about bacon (photo by Angela J. Cesere for The Washington Post)

Getting serious about bacon (photo by Angela J. Cesere for The Washington Post)

In the meantime, in preparing for my role as a Camp Bacon counselor, I wrote a couple paragraphs on “How Bacon Changed My Life”. Here they are:

I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household. Our Sunday night suppers of grilled cheese and tomato soup (yes, it was Campbell’s Cream of…) were the only meatless dinners of the week (unless, of course, you count the frozen fish sticks we ate on Friday nights). Being a rebellious teenager by nature, it only made sense that I would declare myself a vegetarian the minute I left for college in the late 70’s. By sophomore year, my friends and I moved out of the dorms, and filled our kitchen with every sort of bulk grain, legume and pulse we could find at the local food co-op. We taught ourselves to transform these into meals by studying the pages of The Vegetarian Epicure, Laurel’s Kitchen and Moosewood. Our dinners often left a lot to be desired in terms of flavor and finesse, but we felt righteous and proud and stuck with it.

By the time I graduated, I determined that vegetarianism had become a part of who I was. Unfortunately, beyond this conviction to a meatless future, I had very little notion of what else I might do with my life, and so I did the only thing I could think of—I moved back into my parents’ house. Not long after, I woke one Sunday morning (after being out way too late the night before no doubt) to the unmistakable smell of frying bacon. My instincts took over and, before I could remind myself that bacon was meat and that I didn’t eat meat, I was down the stairs, slouched on a kitchen stool and ready to tuck into a heap of scrambled eggs flanked by a stack of perfectly crisped bacon strips (Mom had burnt the ends of a few strips just the way I used to like them; now I prefer my bacon less crisp, but that’s a subject for another post). And just like that, my conviction to vegetarianism vanished. No one said a word (I’m guessing my parents hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously in the first place), and I barely blinked. Looking back, I am grateful to my mother and that plate of bacon for re-opening my culinary horizons. It wasn’t long after that morning that I took a kitchen job at a steakhouse and was on my way to a career in the kitchen and at the table cooking and eating all manner of meat, fowl, fish, and even a few legumes and pulses along the way.

Roast Goose (guest blog)

This year, my husband, Mark, and I had to unexpectedly spend New Year’s apart. While I was at my sister’s house in Buffalo cooking collards and beans with ham for her brood (more on that later), Mark was in New Hampshire with two of his sisters doing me proud. He even went so far as to write about the meal he served. What follows is his “guest blog”:

Roasting a Goose for New Year’s Day

I confess, from the start, my sisters were really in charge. But let’s not jump ahead…

It all began in early November during the planning of our family Thanksgiving. We are quite fortunate (and thankful) that 18 of us (parents, siblings, spouses and grandkids) happily overlook any potential for family friction (we are not abnormally immune to such drama), and faithfully show up on my Mom’s doorstep, in the cold wilds of the Poconos, every year for Thanksgiving. The logistics of feeding this crowd for the long holiday weekend—including the big dinner—requires a bit of forethought and more than a few emails. At one point, I innocently sent out an email suggesting that, in addition to the requisite turkey, we roast a goose for Thanksgiving. Immediately my boisterous nephews, as well a chorus of others family members, summarily and loudly dismissed the idea. Their protest had nothing to do with the goose per se, they were simply saying “We love and need thanksgiving at Grandma’s, so don’t go messin’ with it!”

Back and forth the emails flew, fine-tuning our menu with no more mention of the goose and ramping up our anticipation, until one email reminded us that one niece would not be there this year due to new job responsibilities, and that she was not happy about it. “Please remove me from this email chain before I start crying,” she pleaded.  A perfect salve of sorts became evident—the promise of a New Year’s goose dinner at her parent’s place (my sister and her husband) in New Hampshire. This would fulfill my hope of bowling everyone over with something exotic and grand, and my niece could look forward to a needed dose of family fun, including the usual overindulgence, reminiscences, some off the wall proclamations and witty quips—sometimes misfired with unintentionally sharp barbs (or “zingers” in our parlance), yet knowing that nothing said or done can scratch a thick skin of unfailing love and mutual admiration.

Now keep in mind that this would never have happened if I didn’t know my talented wife was going to be watching over me, or if I hadn’t had a chance to taste what I knew was a foolproof feast which she recently authored and carefully tested for one of her regular magazine articles in Fine Cooking: Roasted Goose with Brandied Prune Stuffing and Plum Gravy. http://www.finecooking.com/recipes/goose-brandied-prune-stuffing-red-wine-gravy.aspx

The sides just followed naturally – roasted butternut squash and garlic, wild rice, roasted Brussels sprouts, and simple steamed green beans, along with a nice strong Malbec. I bought the goose from my favorite local grocer’s freezer – about 12 pounds – and started defrosting it in the fridge 4 days ahead of time. Then misfortune struck: Molly needed to be in Buffalo for an emergency on her side of the family. Helping me was the least of her worries, but I had backup. My brilliant sister Marnie, who like Molly possesses that rare gift of calmly knowing what to do in the kitchen and when, MC’d the whole affair, and, along with sister Geor’s energy, we kept on task.

The defrosting was timed perfectly as there was only a touch of ice crystals left in the body when I finally rubbed it down generously with sea salt and coarse ground pepper on the morning of the big feast. I have to admit the bird look a bit scrawny compared to a turkey, but it did look healthy, and we had generous sides to make up for it. It just so happened many of us are trying to eat less meat anyway, and this was looking like a good example of how less can be more.

The first cooking phase involves steaming the bird to render much of the fat off. I had completely forgotten the perfect pan and rack (the one Molly uses) in my rush to leave Vermont, but a little improvising and lots of aluminum foil worked fine—40 minutes as prescribed. Then came the stuffing—the prunes steeped in brandy added some moisture and bulk which nicely helped prevent the bird from drying out during the 2-plus hour slow roast.

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We didn’t have a meat thermometer (which Molly would never do without), but the cooking time called for was perfect. We opted on the low side for the cooking time since the bird was also on the smaller end of the scale and used the “doneness tests” as described in the recipe. We did have a little scare while carving – the inside of the bones were red,

"Do you think it's done?"

"Do you think it's done?"

but on closer inspection the meat was well done, moist and crazy delicious. The gravy, made with plum jelly, was just how I like it—rich, but thin, and packed with flavor from sautéing and simmering the neck and gizzards. All in all, a tremendously successful meal. The perfect amount of food (there were no leftovers of any kind), great company, a warm fire in the hearth, and another great family memory.

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Written by Mark (Thank you!)

Roast Chicken

Last spring  I set out to write a recipe for a basic roast chicken. Sounds simple enough, right? Guess again. This rather unremarkable exercise of explaining how to roast a chicken sent me into a confusing 5-month tailspin that I am only just emerging from.

At the start, I blithely set off using the system I always use for developing recipes: I cook the dish in question by instinct a few times over the course of a few days and make notes from my kitchen experiences. Then I head to my office to cross-reference a handful of reliable texts for context before typing up my final draft. Unfortunately, my system failed (or rather I failed) when it came to roast chicken. The kitchen part went well enough. I’ve roasted a lot of chickens over the years, and felt confident with my technique. It was when I turned to my library to consult what others had written that I fell headlong into the void. It’s not just that there are more pages devoted to roast chicken than to any other dish (there are), but I discovered an attitude around this simple dish that led me to question everything I thought I knew to the point where I became ultimately unsure of my own answers.

In hindsight, I realize that I had underestimated the reality that roast chicken has become an iconic dish fraught with more symbolism and cultural significance than any ordinary meal can bear. As I consulted various cookbooks, back issues of my favorite magazines, and yes, even a few web sources, I discovered countless recipes for the perfect roast chicken that made me doubt whether my simple approach was good enough. Up until this current morass, I had followed a pretty basic technique—I seasoned the chicken (ideally a day ahead) and put it into a moderately hot oven to roast—and I’d been quite happy with the results: juicy flavorful meat, glistening golden skin. But maybe I was missing something. Maybe my standards were slipping. Was it possible to improve on this reliable and satisfying dinner? Surely if my recipe was to stand up to all the other recipes out there, I have to provide more instruction than “take a chicken and put it in the oven”, so I embarked on an extensive experiment to attempt every chicken roasting technique I’d ever read or heard about.

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I pre-salted and I brined, I stuffed seasonings under the skin and filled cavities with lemons and herbs, I propped the birds up on all kinds of roasting racks, I trussed and I rubbed them with butter, I blasted chickens at super-high heat, I roasted gently at moderate heat, I used convection and non-convection, I turned them side to side and up and down as they roasted, I basted and I glazed, and in the end, I can honestly say that with very few exceptions, each method turned out a tasty roast chicken.

Some were downright excellent and some were less so, but the truth is that there is no one proper way to roast a chicken. I don’t subscribe to any gospel of the ultimate or best-ever roast chicken. There are merely different ways, each with advantages and drawbacks, and this versatility only increases my appreciation for this marvelous dish.

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It reminds me of one chef-friend I know who offered this on the subject “I don’t think I’ve ever roasted a chicken the same way twice”. I can’t say that I’m quite as inventive as my chef-friend, and I still prefer my reliable method simply because, to me, a simple dish needs to be just that. All the machinations of so many of the so-called “perfect” formulas were more trouble than they were worth. To me, a good roast chicken remains one of the finest meals I know how to prepare, but perfect, I don’t know. I reserve that adjective for the company, the mood and the experience as a whole.

Here’s my recipe for Basic Roast Chicken.

 

Porchetta

True porchetta may just be the holy grail of all pork-loving foodies (a term which is probably redundant), and for years, I’ve dreamed of making it at home. Traditionally, porchetta refers to a gutted and boned whole pig that’s boldly seasoned with wild fennel, herbs and garlic, tied up, and spit-roasted over an open fire. In Italy, porchetta is festival food, but you can also find porchetta sandwiches (slices of this insanely delicious pork tucked into crusty rolls) sold by street vendors and market stalls.

Here, the best porchetta I’ve ever tasted comes from Sara Jenkins’s amazing New York City restaurant/lunch counter called, quite appropriately, Porchettta. Up until my pilgrimage to Porchetta last fall, I had always imagined the homemade porchetta of my dreams would involve a whole pig and an outdoor fire, but that’s not the way Jenkins does it. Waiting in line for my sandwich at this always-busy little place, I watched the woman behind the counter slice meat from a single roast, not a whole pig. But it was a pork roast like none I’d ever seen. There was a large eye of juicy meat in the center, surrounded by layers of melting fat, and all encased in a crackling skin. Brilliant!

Back at home, I researched and found a New York magazine article explaining the method. “She [Jenkins] uses boned-out pork loins from contented, free-rooting Hampshire hogs, wraps them in pork bellies, and seasons them with a heady paste of wild-fennel pollen, thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic, and an aggressive dose of salt and pepper. These substantial specimens are tied up with string and oven-roasted until the meat is remarkably tender and the skin has turned to something like the color and consistency of a delicate peanut brittle.” I also found a similar recipe in Bruce Aidells’s wonderful Complete Book of Pork (he calls his David’s Porchetta: Belly-Wrapped Pork Loin).

For my porchetta, I decided I didn’t want to buy a separate belly and pork loin, but I wanted to use a loin that was butchered in such a way that the belly flap remained in tact. Without going into a full exposition on pork butchery here, picture that the loin comes from the back of the piggy – it’s that big thick muscle running along either side of the spine – and the belly comes from the other side. So if the butcher bones out the loin without separating the belly flap from the back top loin, you’ll have a pork loin with a long flap of streaky belly (fresh bacon) that you can warp around. (I’ve heard that the British refer to this cut as a “long middle”, which makes certain sense as it comes from the middle of the pig, and, well, it’s long.)

Chances are you won’t find this cut of pork at a standard supermarket. I’m lucky enough to know Cole Ward, the butcher at Sweet Clover Market in Essex, Vermont. I explained to Cole what I was looking for, and just like that, he cut it for me (from a pig raised on North Hollow Farm in Rochester, Vermont). Two days before roasting, I unrolled the roast, rubbed it with ground fennel seed, garlic, rosemary, sage, and plenty of salt and pepper, and rolled it back up. To roast, I cranked the oven up to 475 for the first 25 minutes to get the skin crackling, and then turned it down to 325 so the meat would gently cook, bathed in all that luscious fat, for a full 3 hours. Then, as the meat rested (that’s what it’s doing in the photo), I tossed some potatoes in the all the glorious drippings and returned them to the oven to roast up.

A dream realized

A dream realized

My porchetta

My porchetta

In the end, my porchetta was everything I’d ever dreamed it would be – and best of all, it won’t be a once in a lifetime experience. I will be making this again – and when I do, I’ll write up a recipe for it. I promise.

Of crispy tacos, cupcakes and breakfast pizza…

I travel a fair amount and, no matter where I’m headed, I try to always arrive with a list of recommended places to eat. While other more sensible travelers may consult weather reports in order to determine the right jacket and shoes to pack, I spend my time emailing friends and reading blogs to find out where I should eat.  The longer and more varied my list, the more eagerly I anticipate the trip.  For instance, on my recent visit to San Francisco, I had close to 20 spots on my radar that could satisfy every thing from a craving for a really good cup of coffee to a South Indian Sunday brunch.

Now the challenge with this type of planning is that there are only so many hours in a day and only so many meals one can (or should) try to squeeze into those hours. I also try to keep in mind the appetites and interests of my traveling companions. I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone wants to spend the weekend being dragged from bakery to coffee shop to deli to restaurant and market and so on. When I’m traveling with others, I try to be sensitive and temper my appetite for everything.  On this last trip to San Francisco, however, it seemed we had serendipity on our side. Aside from the big meal I had to cook on Saturday (see below), our plans for the long weekend were loose. We wanted to walk, visit a few art galleries, and explore as many neighborhoods as we could. Our little group (there were 3 of us) had decided that we wanted to eat, but we weren’t going to make it the centerpiece of our weekend. What my fellow travelers didn’t know was that along with my map of the city, I also had a number of spots scoped out where we MIGHT just stop at if we got hungry along the way, which of course we did.

We made our first food stop on our way from Pacific Heights to Russian Hill where lo-and-behold we found ourselves standing at the corner of Polk and Broadway in front of Nick’s Crispy Tacos. Now, Nick’s is not a place you’re likely to stop in unless someone tipped you off. It looks more like a nightclub/dive bar (it was daylight, so I wasn’t quite sure which) than a lunch spot, but inside, beyond the disco balls and cushy booths, you’ll find a superb taco bar. We ordered pescado, carne asado and carnitas tacos. All were excellent, fresh, and inexpensive. Not only were we fortified, but I think I earned a little trust from my companions. Maybe my “food as destination” planning thing might work out.

From there we continued toward the Marina and turned up Chestnut Street and just about the moment when we were needing a little something sweet to get us through the afternoon, we found ourselves admiring the windows at the new location of Miette, a magical little pastry shop whose original location remains in the Ferry Building.

Perfect cakes and pastries

Perfect little cakes and pastries..

Besides all the irresistible retro-candies (Violet Squares or Slo-Pokes Suckers, anyone?), Miette offers a exceptionally charming, picture-perfect and delicious line up of pastries, cakes and, our favorite, cupcakes. We sample several treats, but my favorite had to be the gingerbread cupcakes – just the right 2-to 3-bite size with just enough frosting to get a little on the tip of your nose but not enough to overwhelm the delicate cake.

The final entry on our serendipitous weekend tour came Sunday morning when, after an 8-mile walk from Pacific Heights, through parts of the Presidio, out to Land’s End, and back through outer Richmond, I realized we were right around the corner from Pizzetta 211. So I steered the group onto 23rd Street, led them the few blocks to number 211 (between Clement and California) to find a vest-pocket size storefront of a pizza place that I had heard only wonderful things about. What makes Pizzetta 211 exceptional – besides the amazing thin-crust medium-size pizzas – is the size and simplicity of it. There are only 4 tables and pizzas are made to order, so the wait can be quite l-o-n-g. But luck seemed to be on our side – within the time it took us to decide which pizzas to order (in addition to the short menu, the are daily specials), we were seated snugly in the window table, happily quaffing cold beer, and only just then realizing how incredibly hungry we were. We started by sharing an order of the daily appetizer that we had just seen the cook pull out of the oven – a deep, dense chard torta accompanied by a couple slices of ricotta salata.

Swiss chard torta with ricotta salata

Swiss chard torta with ricotta salata

From there we shared 2 pizzas. The first a light, springtime combination of asparagus, meyer lemon and fresh cheese. The second, and decidedly our favorite, Rosies’ Farm Egg, Fingerling Potatoes, Argula, Redwood Hill Goat Cheese and Prosciutto. Imagine the a classic fried egg breakfast deconstructed and served over a thin, lightly chewy, crisped edged pizza. The eggs (there are 2, sunny-side up) are perfectly cooked so the white is set but the yellow runs perfectly over the crust and you get bites of farm-fresh egg with each bite of potatoes, prosciutto and arugula. Mmmmm. I really DO love to travel…and eat.

At least it’s spring somewhere…

On the first day of spring, I headed to the Bay Area to cook dinner for 9 people. Now, why in the world would this consummate Yankee be invited to fly all the way across the continent to prepare dinner in a town where there are more great cooks per capita than perhaps anywhere on earth? Well, long story short, it had to do with an auction for charity run by my sister and her bright idea that it would be fun to plan a party 2000 miles away. In the end, it was a blast – and dinner turned out beautifully! (I did, however, make my sister come along, to help schlep and prep, which only added to the fun.)

For starters, I travel to San Francisco fairly often and whenever I do, I head to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market  to ooooh and ahhh over all the amazing produce, meats, cheeses, dried beans, flowers, breads, and so on.

Spring at the Ferry Plaza Market

Spring at the Ferry Plaza Market

It’s a cook’s paradise, but normally, I behave like a tourist and have to refrain from buying anything beyond a cup of Blue Bottle coffee and an Acme Bakery pastry because I’m staying in a hotel with nowhere to cook. But this time, I arrived with my market bags and loaded up on pea shoots, fat asparagus, the tiniest French breakfast radishes, bundles of tender spring carrots, feathery curly cress, spicy arugula flowers, plump little all-white salad turnips, green garlic, spring onions, two amazing baskets of the earliest – and sweetest – strawberries ever, herbs galore, three kinds of mushrooms, salad greens, eggs, and, oh yeah, a cup of that Blue Bottle coffee.

At the market, I met up with my friend Daphne Zepos of Essex Street Cheese who had selected three perfect cheeses for the after-dinner cheese course. Then, we headed down to Avedano’s Meats in Holly Park Market for a few pounds of heritage pork that they had just got in. The butcher pounded slices of fresh ham into cutlets that I was planned to bread and panfry to make a sort of pork schnitzel.

By the time we arrived at the host house it was early afternoon. Over sandwiches, we planned our attack, and then set to work transforming the ingredients into a lavish dinner.

Making mushoom tarts

Making mushroom-onion tarts

The menu went like this:
Hors d’oeuvres
Deviled eggs with chives and lime
Vietnamese spring rolls with shrimp and mint
Roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto

Mushroom and spring onion tart with herb and arugula flower salad

Heritage pork schnitzel with turnips, carrots, pea shoots and Parmesan pudding

An assortment of artisan cheeses

Chocolate stout cake with chocolate glaze and a perfect bowl of strawberries

Now that’s the way to celebrate the arrival of spring!