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January 18, 2006

I Am A Noob

Dominic Armato
When it comes to some things, anyway.

So often, I feel like a total fraud. Sure, two years' worth of Movie & Pasta Night has elevated my pasta game to formidable levels, but there are times when I feel like I have no business cooking some of the things I do. I recently compiled a list of my more unusual original dishes, mostly because I have this fear of forgetting them. But when confronted with a list of dishes such as these --

Crispy Squash and Scallop Napoleon with Butternut Butter Sauce
Lobster Egg Royale with Cognac-Lobster Cream
Bacon Goat Cheese Queso with Sweet Potato, Dates and Almond Pesto
Asian Duck Confit with Asian Pear and Citrus-Cardamom Vinaigrette
Chilled Duck and Fresh Peach with Gingered Mustard-Icewine Sauce and Basil Gelée

-- no matter how well they turned out, does it not seem ridiculous that I've never roasted a freaking chicken?!?

It's an odd insecurity. I feel like a jazz saxophonist who is scared that his fellow musicians will discover he's never listened to Coltrane. I'm not certain whether this is good or bad. I suppose it could be argued that to know convention is to be bound by it. But I do know that while I have no desire to stop the Iron Chef wackiness, with every passing month I feel more and more compelled to further explore the basics. In my head, I've been constantly reminding myself that I shouldn't feel bound to this system where I cook infrequently but on a massive, involved scale, and that I should be seizing every opportunity to prepare something quick, simple and elegant. It's something I have to force upon myself. After years of preparing mostly flashy five course meals, I find it difficult to just make a sandwich without thinking to myself, "Okay, now what can I do to make this really unusual and interesting?" But it's an exercise in self-discipline that I'm committed to, so when my future wife noted last night that she really had a craving for a good roast chicken, I decided to strike while the iron was hot. With this recent obsession in mind, the culinary troika of Quick, Simple and Elegant, I set out to tame the beast.

In this case, the beast was a chicken. There was a certain poetry to this selection that I liked. Not only is roast chicken a simple, salt of the earth kind of dish, but I've been guilty in the past of stating that it takes a lot for me to get excited by chicken. As such, I'd be challenging myself on two levels. In keeping with my three commandments, I decided to let Thomas Keller's Bouchon be my guide. For those who did not read my recent post wherein I basically fell all over myself in praise of this book, Bouchon is Keller's bistro book. And one of the things that impressed me about Bouchon is that at the very start of the book, before he even gets into any of the official "sections", right up front is his recipe for his favorite simple roasted chicken. This is clearly a man who knows the joy of a simple recipe done incredibly well, who chooses his quick and easy comfort dish to set the tone for the entire volume, and who will, I suspect, be an excellent guide on my quest to explore the basics.

Dominic Armato
Keller's recipe couldn't be simpler. Chicken, salt, pepper, maybe a little thyme, if you feel like it. That's it. No elaborate preparation, no funky ingredients, just the bare essentials to bring out the natural flavor of the chicken. He stresses the importance of trussing, but even there he provides you with a very basic method that's simpler than most others I've seen. So after a washing and very thorough drying, seasoning the cavity, a brief trussing and a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper, I had a fine-looking fowl ready for the oven.

My first lesson learned is that roasting a chicken in a cast-iron skillet makes for a lot of spattering and more smoke than I'd like. But it's hard to argue with results like these. After about an hour at 450, I tossed a couple tablespoons of minced thyme into the pan juices, basted the chicken with said juices, and set it to rest. Leaving it alone for 15 minutes without attacking it was, unquestionably, the hardest part of the entire endeavor.

Dominic Armato

Yes, it was as tasty as it looks. In fact, my lovely future wife was shocked when I relayed to her the scant four ingredients involved. But as delicious as the carved pieces were at the dinner table, they paled in comparison to the scraps left behind. Three morsels in particular, attainable only by roasting your own bird, are worth the price of admission even if the rest of the bird is pitched. It's easy to see how these three bits comprise the real joy of roasting a chicken. The first is the tail. It's basically crispy skin and fat... rich, succulent, delicious crispy skin and fat. Secondly, you've got the oysters. Though I'd never actually had the oysters from a fresh roasted chicken, their reputation preceeded them. The oysters are two silver dollar sized oval pieces of meat that are tucked into the backbone just above the thigh. They're exceptionally moist, tender, fatty, and as tasty as that description would lead you to believe. For many, they're easily the best part of the bird. And they were fantastic, but for me they took a back seat to the third morsel. The best bit of the chicken, by far, was the middle section of the wing. I'd tucked the wings under the bird so that their middle sections were against the pan, cooking the entire time in the drippings. As such, they were more deep-fried than anything, but they were fried in the fat and juices of the chicken itself. They were crispy, salty, full of an intense, reduced chicken flavor, and despite their crispy exterior, the bits of meat in the middle were exceptionally moist and tender. Many if not most recipes I've seen for roasted chicken call for a roasting rack. I say fie! If you don't sit that chicken directly in a skillet, you miss out on the single best part of the bird.

All in all, a successful evening. I come away with a full belly, a bunch of roasted bones for stock, a deeper appreciation for the simplicity of a good roasted chicken, and a successful first chapter in the quest to explore simpler foods. This particular exercise comes highly recommended.


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