As I'm sure you, the gentle reader, have noticed by now, I tend to eat out at restaurants quite a lot. Lately I just haven't had much of a chance to cook dinner at home. So, when the opportunity of a day off came up, I decided to break this cycle and make myself dinner for the first time in a long time. When I cook for others, I tend to go all out. Sadly, when I cook for myself, it tends to be much simpler. It's not that I feel that I'm not worth it, but more that I just don't want to exert the effort to prep, cook, and clean up after myself. Okay, okay, it's really the cleaning part I don't like doing, and that aversion does often lead me to avoiding dishes that require anything more than one pot.
Well, NOT TODAY! I have the time and I'm going to use it to make one of my favorite dishes, a roasted chicken. I have come to discover over time that I could never be completely vegetarian. While I do love a wonderful vegetarian meal, the thought of never having bacon or the smelling of a roasting chicken again just saddens me. And in fact, the smell of a roasting chicken evokes many of the same wonderful sense memories that baking bread does. Not because these are precious sense memories from my youth (clearly you've never met my mother), but because these are smells I associate with being around good friends and sharing a wonderful meal.
I only started roasting whole chickens several years ago. It was an intimidating thought to roast the entire chicken. How do I season it? Do I brine it? How do I get flavor in it? How do I know if it is done? I consulted a few books and the Internet for some suggestions and over several test batches, I finally came up with my preferred way of roasting a chicken. Although I do have several variations on it, my basic method is to create a compound butter that is pushed into the space between the skin and the chicken breast. I then stuff the cavity with additional aromatics, truss the bird if I feel like it (and most times I don't) and then roast it at two temperatures: first at a high temperature to get the skin to render some of its fat to promote browning, and then second, at a lower temperature to allow the bird to cook all the way through.
So let's talk about that compound butter. I like to have a combination of flavorings and aromatics as well as at least one salty component since I don't season the breast meat with salt directly. This time around it will be capers. I've also used Nicoise and Kalamata olives as well.
First up, lemon zest:
And capers, chopped finely:
Note that if you are using capers packed in salt, do rinse the salt off the capers first. The above capers were simply brined, so I only needed to drain them before chopping them. For my herbaceous note, I decided on rosemary. I've also used oregano and marjoram in its place and they work quite well, too.
And finally, a healthy amount of finely minced garlic:
This is all then folded into a softened stick of UNSALTED butter. I tend to use unsalted butter mainly because it tends to be fresher and I can control the amount of salt that is added.
You then want to chill the butter just slightly, hard enough that you can pinch off pieces and roll them into football like shapes that are easily inserted under the skin of the chicken, but not so hard that the butter completely solidifies.
Here is the chicken (about a 4.5 pound bird) with the compound butter under the skin, aromatics in the cavity (lemon slices from the lemon we zested for the compound butter), and the probe thermometer inserted into the breast so I can monitor the cooking temperature. I also tend to put my chickens on disposable ridged broiler pans and then on a cookie sheet (for added stability).
This then goes into a 425 degree F oven (pre-heated, of course) for 25 minutes at which point I reduce the temperature to 350 degree F and cook the bird until the breast reaches 162-163 degrees F. It comes out of the oven, gets loosely covered with foil, and sits for 10 minutes before I even THINK of carving it. This lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat.
To accompany my roasted chicken, I decided to do a barley "risotto". Originally, I was going to do a nice quinoa dish, but when I saw at the grocery store that 12 oz. of quinoa was $8 and 16 oz. of medium hulled barley was $2, the idea was quickly changed. A barley "risotto" is simply using barley instead of Arborio rice and cooking it in the same manner: sweat the aromatics, coat the grains in the fat, add a flavorful liquid a little at a time until it is done, and stirring the risotto quite often. It is quite delicious, super nutritious (because of the barley), and inexpensive.
First, some of the aromatics: yellow onion, minced garlic, and fresh thyme.
Next up, asparagus and chicken stock (my flavorful liquid in this case):
Whatever the cooking directions on the box of barley tells you, you are definitely going to need 4-5 cups of liquid for each cup of barley you want to cook. In fact, I actually used up all of my stock and then added just hot water to finish the risotto. Also, know that with medium hulled barley, you're going to need a cooking time closer to 45 minutes rather than 20-25 for traditional Arborio rice. Don't worry, though, it's totally worth it. Also, because the stock I used is "less sodium" and not "no sodium", no salt went into the risotto until after all the stock had been used up. It turns out that I did need to add a little salt at the end to finish seasoning the dish. If you are using full-strength store-bought chicken broth, you'd more than likely not need to use any salt at all (and maybe even need to cut the broth with some water). The asparagus went in right at the end and needed perhaps 2-3 minutes to completely cook in the pot.
Timing this correctly, we now had a finished roasted chicken:
And a pot of asparagus barley risotto that was finished with two pats of butter and some freshly grated parmesan cheese:
And finally, after a wonderful afternoon of prepping and cooking, dinner was served:
This was delicious, if I do say so myself. And really, after all was said and done, there really was only one pot to clean (okay, two if you count the pot I used to heat the stock in) -- the risotto pot. The chicken was baked on a disposable liner, and the cookie sheet, completely clean, just got returned to it's spot in the drawer underneath the stove.
While this is normally the kind of meal I make for guests, I'm really happy that today I decided to treat myself like a guest. And the best part? I have another plate just like the one above waiting for me for later today! Leftovers are wonderful things, too.