Real French Roast Chicken

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Roast chicken

Roast chicken, prepared as described. Serving suggestion; results may vary [photo by M.Goldthwaite]

There are two things said about roast chicken with regard to the French. One, this is one of those quintessential dishes of French cuisine. No one in France, least of all a professional cook, can call him or herself that without being able to make a perfect roast chicken, and in less than 90 minutes. I said, “perfect” and I said, 90 minutes.

Second, there is sometimes only one test of the chops of a cook, in France, or anywhere else (unless it’s certain parts of China, where I believe they have their own magic ways with chicken), and that is, to roast a perfect chicken.

Here’s how it’s done. At least here’s how I do it. Works every time. I’ve done it dozens and dozens of times. The stove is immaterial, as long as it works, and it can reach at least 450 degrees fahrenheit. Forget convection. Forget broilers. Forget any prep, except a sink big enough to rinse the chicken with clean cold water.

You need:

1 3-4 pound chicken, preferably free-range, with no additives (no hormones, no drugs), but fresh air, sunshine, and whatever chickens naturally eat, which includes insects, grubs, and their larvae. Don’t use a smaller chicken or a larger one.

I currently get my chickens from Lancaster County farmers, who raise them entirely naturally and slaughter them humanely and get them to market very quickly after they’ve been knackered.

2-3 Tablespoons of vegetable oil. You can use EVOO, but what a waste. Use canola, or even better grape seed, oil, either of which add no flavors of their own to adulterate the natural fats of the chicken that will render out as it cooks.

Semi-coarse sea salt (Celtic salt from France is best; really, no kidding). Get the unadulterated kind, with no additives.

A good adjustable pepper grinder, set to semi-coarse, and filled with a good kind of peppercorn. You can never go wrong with Tellicherry. And it’s food, for God’s sake, and you don’t use much, so spend a little money on it.

2 Cups of chicken or vegetable broth. Use any of the really healthy brands from, say, Whole Foods Market (their own brand is cheapest). Best to use low-sodium or no sodium versions, but no really big deal if you don’t. If you buy a brand that says it’s “organic,” you’ll be safe. Rachel Ray also markets broths that are amazingly good, and as far as I can tell, not hazardous to your health. Who knew? I can’t attest to the rest of the celebrity/tv chefs with their own brands. Avoid Swanson, Campbell, or any of those huge conglomerate vendors. They’re packaging chemicals in a can. In fact, don’t use it if it comes from a can. Look for those hermetically sealed boxes that hold about a liter of broth. Incidentally, “broth” or “stock” on the label makes no difference for our purposes.

A bulb baster

[optional] instant reading mini roasting thermometer (analog or digital… doesn’t matter); “roasting” means it has a probe that you can stick into roasting meat or fish

That’s it for ingredients.

Set a rack in the middle of the oven, with no racks above it. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Even if you’re not certain it gets to that temperature, use that setting. You’ll be cooking by looking (and touching), plus, if you’re really a very careful person, using a small instant reading thermometer, so too much precision is not called for. If your oven can’t reach 450 degrees, no crime either, it will just take longer and won’t turn out quite the same way, in which case you can tell your guests or family it’s “nearly perfect” chicken. If your oven can’t reach 350 degrees (and you’re unaware of this obvious deficiency) you shouldn’t be cooking.

Put the two cups of chicken broth or stock in a saucepan on the stovetop and bring to a simmer, and then set to very low heat. You’re just keeping it hot, but not too hot. Don’t boil it.

Rinse the chicken inside and out under constantly running cold water in the sink. Remove all objects, including those the chickens was born with, but separated from by the butcher, from the inside of the chicken. Set aside all these residual objects. You don’t need them to roast the chicken. Pat the chicken dry all over with paper towels, and set on a bed of paper towels on the counter.

First salt and pepper the inside of the chicken through the cavity in the rear end. While you’re doing this you can pull away from the carcass all extraneous gobbets of chicken fat, and set them aside with the goodies the butcher stuffed inside.

Turn the chicken over, breast side down, and drizzle about a tablespoon of oil on the chicken and then rub it all over the bottom. All surfaces. Turn the chicken over, and set it down on the paper towels and repeat with the breast side up. You should end up with a fully oiled chicken, including all crevices.

Salt and pepper all readily accessible surfaces of the chicken, top and bottom.

In a low-sided metal roasting pan, large enough to accommodate the chicken with at least an inch or two around it, but no more, on all sides, put the remaining oil and spread it on the inside of the pan. Place the chicken breast-side up in the pan, more or less in the center.

Place the chicken in its pan in the oven, in the center of the rack.

Ideally, in about five minutes you should begin to hear sputtering sounds emit from the oven.

Fifteen minutes after you started the chicken, remove the pan to the stove top, and then pour in enough of the stock (careful it will spatter a little at first) to surround the chicken in about an inch, or a little more, of the liquid. With the bulb baster, quickly baste the bird all over the top with the liquid. Replace the pan in the oven, and once you’ve closed the door, lower the temperature of the oven to 450 degrees.

Every 12-15 minutes, without fail, open the oven, and if you can do it with the pan in the oven, baste the bird all over. If not, take the pan out, close the oven, and baste it on the stove top. If the liquid goes below the one-inch level, add some more from the saucepan.

The chicken will brown very quickly and evenly (unless your oven is a total disaster), and will have started visibly to do so the first time you take the bird out to pour in the broth. After about an hour (you should have basted it by this point four to five times), grab hold of the leg and move it using the thigh joint as a fulcrum. If the bird is done (which is possible, but unlikely) the joint will feel kind of loose. If it’s not moving at all, the bird is not done. Go ahead with the basting that’s due at that point, and put the bird back to cook some more.

After another fifteen minutes, the joint should feel loose, especially compared to the first time you tried. If so, or even if not, this is when you should use your thermometer. Carefully insert the probe into the fleshiest part of the thigh, and try to avoid touching a bone. Inserting it about an inch is sufficient. The bird is ready to remove from the oven if the temperature is at least 160 degrees (for you sticklers, I’m aware that USDA safe minimum recommended temperature is 165°, it will reach that temperature). In all events, the bird should not cook for more than another five minutes.

Remove the pan to the stove top and place a tent of aluminum foil over the top of it.

After five minutes, remove the bird and its tent to a serving platter or cutting board. In the process of removing the bird from the pan, you will discover that there are cooking liquids that have accumulated in the cavity. Upend the bird as you move it and allow these to pour into the pan with the rest of the juices.

Using the bulb baster, one of those special fat skimming cooking spoon, or even, if you want to get fancy, a fat separating graduate [this is a good one, also available from other online retailers, and most kitchenware stores: http://www.cooking.com/2-c-good-grips-fat-separator-strainer-with-lid-by-oxo_411711_11/]. remove all but about 1-2 tablespoons of fat from the liquid left in the pan. Put the ban on a burner and turn it to high, and the liquid should be boiling turbulently in about a minute. Add a bit more of whatever stock or broth is left, and add, maybe, an ounce or two of dry white wine. Let the added liquids boil off and allow the sauce to reduce until it coats a spoon, all the while scraping with a heat-proof (wood or silicone) spatula or flat whisk. You should end up with ½ to ¾ of a cup of sauce.

And you’re good to go.

If you’re really good, I’ll tell you how to prepare some pan roasted potatoes at the same time the chicken is cooking, potatoes that you might just consider perfect, of their kind, as well.

I can’t swear that an American chicken, even as good as those in Lancaster County, will measure up to a Poulet de Bresse, but as far as my taste memory serves, it will be as good as any other chicken I’ve roasted in France.

Eat it while it’s warm. And as the wait staff at a local restaurant back in Philadelphia, kids with not an apparent ironic molecule in their bodies, insists on saying, “bone appeteet!”

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Measuring My Life in Mustard Jars

Reading Time: 9 minutes

I was returning cleaned glassware and silver, as well as plates and cups, from the dishwasher to their appointed places. Somewhere short of the proverbial shock of recognition, certainly less than “revelation,” and even somewhat more homely and less self-congratulatory than an intellectual’s aperçu, what occurred to me was an insight that had never before registered. Enough time has passed in these dozen years that, in the course of a routine that I have followed almost unfailingly since acquiring my small maison de village in the south of France, I have bought a great quantity of one particular object as part of a fundamental list of staples. These are items so necessary they require a brief stop of our rental car even before arrival in the village for the first time in months, since the last sojourn, at a local supermarket. It is a very short list, and includes bottled water, milk (for milady’s coffee, as I drink it black), perhaps a 250 gram block of sweet butter (not wholly necessary, because never needed immediately), and finally, a jar of Dijon mustard, always the same brand, the prince of such condiments, Maille, and always in the original, undoctored, and very strong version. It is this jar, or I should say its many empty pristine brethren, that I found myself reshelving this morning.

The preferred size of mustard jar (preferred because I have never run out, with visits lasting as long as nearly three months) is the smallest sold in the local groceries. Packed in the same container it has been for years, a heavy glass cylinder, with thick walls, they can withstand a drop to the floor as long as it’s not tiled. They are incised deeply with a not too bad simulacrum of cut crystal design in a semi-scallop. In short, it is, once empty, a rather short vessel, fitting nicely in the hand, the perfectly old fashioned old-fashioned glass, 9 oz. capacity, for the manly drinker. It’s best not only for the eponymous cocktail of a rare venerability, but as well for the bracing shot of a 1½ ounce splash of good bourbon, or rye, or Scotch, with a cube or two that may, modestly, predispose the palate before dining. I say this despite what the French say about strong spirits before a meal. With galling illogic they think nothing of sucking down 3-4 cl of Pastis, a decoction of the same potency as the average grain spirits, no to mention reeking of herbs, prevalent among them being anise, and usually consumed in nearly the same volume, just before tucking in to the very same meal they say is spoiled by the typical modest American pick-me-up. Yet a pastis is still considered “the national drink of France.”

However, whatever our usual contrived cultural deviations from the habits of our French cousins compared to ourselves, I was speaking of the complement of glassware in my kitchen buffet/vaisselier. The glasses number about a dozen, and I wonder how this can be. It’s true I’ve owned the house, first with my late wife, and now with my new one, and there have been years of visits solo, whatever my marital status, for nearly 13 years. It’s a matter to give me pause, however old and original the realization, the passage of time noticed less in my consciousness of the actual passing, but in the accumulated evidence of the life occupied by the act of living during that interval. However, on average, there have been more than two trips a year on average during that period, and so, for one thing, there should be many more cocktail glasses clogging the shelves.

There are many glasses long gone to the recycling plant for sure, because as often as not, instead of emptying the jar and cleaning it in one last cycle of the dishwasher before pulling closed our great oaken front door for the last time that particular visit and turning the great skeletal key in its ancient lock, I have packed up the remaining condiment along with all the rest of the salvageable items from our larder, both sitting on counters, ripening, or keeping in hopes of consumption in the recesses of our small but serviceable refrigerator. These left-overs (or “remains” as the French call them) plus raw produce, butt-ends of cheeses, and a frozen steak or fish filet go to our friends, usually the innkeeper and his wife, Rudolf and Nicole, just across the way. If not for this particular token of largesse, the collection of glasses would overflow the capacity of the pine cupboard in which they are stored. I know this because we are clearly perpetually to be overrun by yogurt containers—the French seem to have a way of creating packaging that is as attractive as its contents, and as reusable as if intended for sale in their own right to begin with; we simply can’t bring ourselves to dispose of them, even as we despair of finding a suitable use consonant with our habits. If we were, say, more the herbal cultivators than we are, they would be ideal, for example, as pots for meal size portions of tarragon or parsley or thyme. I might add, for the edification of Americans who are used to buying their yoghurt in disposable or recyclable thin-walled polystyrene cups, French yoghurt worth bothering with is sold in glass jars or, even more enticingly and pleasurably, in actual enameled terra cotta pots—of a quality and heft that would command a reasonable price in an artists’ cooperative.

The point remains, returning to those mustard jars that have accumulated as the months and years have passed. Thoughts of time, time spent, time passing, and time to come are all somehow embedded in all these common, otherwise ordinary objects. The accrual of them, the easy unconscious charm of collecting is what it is. Whether labelled with some term of disparagement, like “pack rat,” or even with the seemingly neutral “collector” the fact to be addressed is the same. We are all collectors.

What is memory but a collection? And who are we if not our memory?

Whatever I may be, the thought strikes home looking at those mustard glasses that, conscious of it or not, my life has passed before me and it does, unconsciously every time I stand at the rustic buffet that holds my complement of housewares, silverware, everything but plates and cups, and draw spring water from a mammoth reservoir sitting on its countertop to fill the espresso maker every morning. However, this morning, as I pivot, glasses in hand, four of them, one to each of as many fingers, to the buffet from the small utility closet that houses staple items, groceries, booze, the hot water heater—all of what the French consider the cave, by which they mean what we would most likely call the pantry—plus our two major appliances in the kitchen, the fridge and the dishwasher, I am suddenly, as I started out saying, aware, almost tingling with the reflexive consciousness we call thinking. The next thought is if I am to imagine my life amounts to more than consumption of what the world has offered me, I’d best be mindful of what is no longer visible. Quite unmistakably, those mustard glasses are tokens, however ordinary and mundane, of the great negative capability of which Keats spoke.

I hint at a kind of transcendence, and I mean it. However, in the most mundane of senses, and I say this hoping I am not causing the bones of Keats to revolve a time or two wherever they might lie, my life has been boundless dollops of mustard. At the risk of being cute, I mean, nevertheless, there is a spice to one’s life, that reverses the polarity of any moment: seen the right way, even the banal—and what is so much of life, despite ourselves, but banal?—can be, if only for ourselves, sublime. And what sublimity is there in mustard? In this instant, as I prepare a typical light lunch of a salad niçoise a blob of the good dijon is the customary enabler of that fragrant emulsion dispersed in wispy spurts across what number, accounting for all the anonymous days in la France profonde, countless salads of the local bounty, purchased hours before at the week’s marché, and plucked from the earth merely a day or two before that. And in that instant, another typical lunch, determined by an increasingly frequent disinclination to cook, the golden sauce, straight from the jar, spread across two uneven slabs of a crusty sourdough loaf—the precise piquant counterpoint to the velvety squares of comté blanketed in random mounds of delicately fragrant aged ham, cut as thin as butterfly wings with a tracery of veins of fat gone translucent with age and smoke and time. Like the banal raised to the heights somehow, all that melting goodness is pierced by the sharp pangs of the spice, so the flavors move from the mouth to occupy every sensible cavity in one’s head.

Lest I be mistaken as another arriviste memoirist, of impoverished imagination, I want to be clear that one thing that does not happen is I am not sent soaring on Proustian flights of verbose recollection. Wordy I may be, but this morning, I am somewhere short, but not by much, of being overcome with floods of feeling. If we are nought but memory, and memory is nothing but collections of the flotsam and jetsam of singular and private ephemera, carriers, like mammoth storage containers, what is contained but feeling, felt and somehow stored, to be recalled each time we ramble in our minds, eyeing the stacks of boxes of remembrance piled higher and higher with the passing years into the impenetrable darkness?


 

What happened since that morning, when I was briefly jolted out of the stultifying quotidian ritual of keeping house by keeping clean and organized, is I found myself at times simply sitting and staring, as I sat in whatever room in the house I happened to light. One afternoon I sat on the sofa in the salon and surveyed the meager, if yet ample, stock of furniture—it’s a small house, after all—two floor lamps, with plain functional conical shades on bulbs at the ends of articulated arms, two small oriental rugs, and a third hanging like a miniature tapestry on one wall, a small ur-modernist sofa, though designed for Ligne Roset by a well-known contemporary designer and of a size and intended use so as to be called, in French, a canapé (a word whose derivation I have never been sufficiently curious to research in one of my copies of the Petit Larousse), that is, longer than a love seat, but smaller than a couch, then two armchairs, which have grown prematurely dowdy somehow, purchased also from Ligne Roset at the same time as the sofa, and now expropriated by Artemis, our dog, who has taken to both—at first it was the one I usually favored, closest to the single casement window—in a proprietary way.

And as I stare at nothing particular sitting there, I think of the friends who have been entertained in that space, as we enjoyed one another’s company, and not just a few flutes of champagne on festive occasions, some as formal as New Year’s, but most no more than celebrations, spontaneous at that, of camaraderie and the unshakeable solidity of simple close deep bonds of love. I think of all the guests who have passed through this ancient space—and are we not all fleeting guests in this life?—and my thinking reverberates involuntarily in some barely conscious sense of the spirit of the place, almost mythic, with imaginings of all the souls that have passed through here before us. The house is, or parts, at least, are, 600 years old. The core of it, the original humble space, appropriately, is where I sit and muse, and the kitchen, of course, where sit all those unwitting palimpsests of memory, mainly air and transparent glass, sit and wait to be filled.

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Welcome to the nearly normal

Reading Time: 1 minute

I’m Howard Dinin. This is a new blog, though I’m not new to writing a blog. I’ve had blogs since 2004. I needed a new one.

This one will be more personal, more philosophical. Given my propensity to be wordy (the other blogs would run entries with as many as six or seven thousand words: essays in other words), this blog will have posts much more brief and focused.

I’ve given it the name 1 standard deviation because I hope it will be seen for what it is, a slightly askew, certainly personal view of the world, but not that far from what most people see when they look around. It’s the way we learn to make our way in the world. That is, by paying heed to hearing what others say when they account for what they see when they look at the very same things we do. Sometimes the real truth is in the differences.

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