Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. ~ CK Chesterton

Howdy Yall! It's time to lick your lips and drool as we discuss yummy vittles and Texas testaments to taste!

I hope you enjoy your time with us. Please be sure to drop by and leave a message or a hello. We want to know how to better serve you!

~Blue Zebra

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Naked Truth About Hens - Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

Beauty is only skin deep
Never judge a book by its cover
Tough old birds

I could go on and on, but will spare you. The sayings ring clear with truth. As I stood in the kitchen slaving over an eight pound, yes, you heard me – eight pound, roasting hen, I pondered the complexities of communication. I am blessed to have a personal shopper in B. He does excellent work and he is most literal. He spends countless minutes finding and identifying each item on a shopping list and will bring back precisely what is on the list.

Because of his punctilious nature, I have learned to be wary of my tongue. I no longer ask him to bring home “a little” of this or a “tiny bit of that”, nor do I request a “ton of such and such.” Should I be so silly to indulge in these expressions, I am likely to get what I request. Upon asking for a tiny bite of something, I have received a miniscule fork full of a substance that is just barely enough to register taste on the palate. I have been given exactly two chips when requesting a couple of chips. A sip of a drink is exactly one mouthful.

So it came as no surprise to be on the receiving end of two eight pound roasting hens when I sent him to the store for whole
chickens. I told him I would be roasting them for dinner when he asked why on earth I wanted whole chickens. Further pondering the question, he confirmed that chickens did indeed come whole and not only as “parts”. It was almost as if he expected me to tell him I planned to use them as sacrificial offerings to the god of garbage disposals or Fridgidaires.

I neglected to educate B about chicken adjectives like Fryer or Broiler. Going to the store and picking out a three to four pound chicken seemed an easy thing for me. I’ve been doing it for years. A whole chicken in that weight category will almost automatically fall into one or the other and either would work fine for this purpose. No, he knew I was going to roast the birds and I can only imagine his delight upon finding something chicken-shaped that said “Roasting Hen” smack dab on the label of this tidy package. To add to the confusion, I requested frozen birds and these babies were certainly frozen! Sitting right between the turkeys and the ducks, the honorable eight pound roasting hens were ready and waiting and you know what they say about a “bird in the hand”.

Ok, so we have a bouncing big bird here; correction, two bouncing big birds. One went directly into deep freeze and one went into the open arms of the third shelf of the fridge to begin a leisurely defrost. I must admit, I needed the time to think and to research the behemoth. I plead ignorance, blithe ignorance. I’d never seen, eaten, nor cooked one in my entire life and had only heard of them in some vague recess of my useless and arcane facts database locked securely within my cerebellum. As big as Baby Huey from cartoons of old, I decided I would indeed roast this bird and treat it like a turkey since it was practically that size. The thing cost over $7.00. Gadzooks, Batman! That’s a lot of bird.

I had only one question after setting my course. Why did the package instructions advise removing the skin prior to serving? How ridiculous! Every Southerner knows one of the best things about eating chicken in its chickular-form (i.e. as a whole bird) is the crispy, golden-brown skin, rich with unctuous fat and seasoned to perfection, warm and comforting from the oven. I planned a fitting tribute of apricots and peaches for this noble creature. I poo-pooed their instructions. I knew better! Sure the skin on the breasts looked a little past its prime, but from one old bird to another, we can’t all be pageant queens.

I stuffed that moist piece of poultry with onion, celery, garlic, lemons and apricots and trussed it within an inch of its life, lovingly basting it in white wine mixed with the rendered drippings. A hint of thyme mystified as it beguiled. The neck and giblets roasted lazily with more onions, celery and a whole head of garlic in preparation of the dark gravy to be served along side the meat and mashed potatoes. Sparkly golden peach jam mixed with Country-style Dijon Mustard and a soupcon of ginger formed an enticing glaze that tempted even this jaded chicken eater to lick my lips in anticipation.

The ticking clock and stalwart timer made stern taskmasters. The bird cooked to the appointed 190°F. The timer said it was done. Julia said it was done as 8 pounds x 20 minutes per pound equals 160 minutes at 375° and the Joy of Cooking staunchly supported Julia’s instructions. I even allowed it 10 extra minutes to be generous. Removing this trophy of culinary perfection to the waiting platter, I lightly genuflected in reverence. Behold I give you roasted hen.

Gifted and talented cook that I am, I offer you the pristine perfection of a single roasted fowel. Magic. Sheer envy from other cooks. I am Creative Genius. They should pay me to cook, with my mastery of the art. This succulent scion of poultry pulchritude arched coyly for the camera, seeming to tuck its left thigh and drumstick demurely back and slightly behind its mate like a shy Southern school girl at catechism class. To look was to love this creature of beauty and to lust after its savory meat.

Then I cut it. *gulp*
Then I got a larger and sharper knife and cut it. *bigger gulp*
Then I got the electric carving knife that hadn’t seen the light of day nor inside of an electrical socket in over 15years, not since the last time Dad used it, no doubt. *three huge gulps in a row*
I felt a little queasy.

The damn thing was raw inside! Oh sure the breast was done. It had a severe case of turkey-itis; dry-as-dust breast meat, leg and thighs pink and oozing red juices. Tough ligaments and muscle fibers resisted the sharp blade of the knife as if parrying a thrust with a boastful, en guarde! The beauty of this baby began and ended with the flirtatious Southern-peach glaze, the skin so tough and foul of feather. Only the most liberal covering of gravy made the breast meat edible and only then, after the skin and the beautiful glaze had been removed per the package instructions…The dark meat was left to fight another day.

The moral of this story, you ask? Beauty is indeed, only skin deep. So please, whatever you do, practice, practice, practice those communication skills carefully lest your personal shopper bring home a roasting hen for you to roast just because it claimed to be one on the outside of its pretty package.

Peach and Dijon Glazed Roasted Chicken with Brown Gravy
By Blue Zebra
Serves 4

1 3-4lb Broiler or Fryer Chicken, Whole (not a Roasting Hen!)
1 Chicken Neck, Gizzard & Heart (do not use liver)
1-1/2 Onions, coarsely chopped
2 Celery Stalks, coarsely chopped
1 Lemon
1 Package Apricots, dried
5 Cloves Garlic, peeled and cloves left whole
1 Tbsp Kosher Salt
½ tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 tsp Thyme, dried
½ Bottle White Wine, Dry or Dry Sauterne
½ Bottle Peach Preserves
½ tsp Ginger, ground
1 Quart Chicken Broth or Stock
2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard (preferably Country-style)
4 Tbsp All Purpose Flour
2-3 Tbsp Butter, unsalted and ice cold (optional)

Method for roasting and glazing the bird:

Wash the inside and the outside of the chicken, thoroughly. Dry the bird well. Smear with 1 tbsp of Country-style Dijon mustard. Sprinkle with a tsp of salt on the outside of the skin.

Chop onions, celery and peel garlic cloves. Combine with apricots and quartered lemons. Sprinkle remaining 2 tsps of salt and ½ tsp of pepper and 1 tsp of thyme over the veggies and fruit.

Stuff the bird with these fillings trying to get as much as possible inside the cavity.

Truss bird using butchers twine.

Place any veg and fruit that didn’t fit inside the bird into the bottom of the roasting pan and add the neck, gizzard and heart to the pan bottom. Season them with a touch of salt and pepper. (Do not use the liver here. See my note under Blue Zebra NOTES).
Place bird breast side down on top of veggies or if you have a roasting rack, place bird on rack and place the pan into a preheated 450 degree oven.

Meanwhile mix ½ bottle of peach preserves with ½ Tbsp Dijon mustard and ½ tsp ground ginger. Cook in small saucepan over medium heat until preserves melt and become a glaze consistency.

Let it cook for 5 minutes then turn oven down to 350. Roast bird breast side down for 45 minutes, total. You won’t be basting during the first 30 minutes since the chicken will just be starting to cook and brown a little. At the 30 minute mark, spread the back and sides with melted peach glaze. Pour about ½ cup of wine into bottom of roasting pan. You want enough wine to give a little liquid but not so much in the bottom that you boil the veggies. You want the veggies to start browning.

At the 45 minute mark, flip bird right side up on the rack or on top of the veg. Baste with wine and pan drippings and check to see if there is wine in the bottom of pan. If not, add ½ cup more wine to roasting pan. Spread bird with glaze. Throw the remaining whole head of garlic into the bottom of the roasting pan.

Baste every 15-20 minutes with wine and re-coat breasts and sides with a thin layer of glaze. Check for doneness at about 1-1/2 hours. Yes, I know this is more than 20 minutes per pound but with the cavity of the bird stuffed with veggies and opening the oven door to baste, the cooking time will be a bit delayed. It will take about 30-45 minutes or so longer than the weight calculations of the bird to fully cook. That’s good because you want the veggies in the pan to go very dark brown.

The bird is done when the thermometer reads about 185° F. You will know that it’s done because wiggling the drumstick will cause it to move loosely up and down and you can push it to the side and see some separation of the thigh. If it isn’t done, the hind quarter will have much resistance. If it isn’t done, keep roasting and basting it with wine and the glazing liquid until it is. I usually remove my bird at about 180-182° F and let it finish coming to temp out of the oven. There is residual hold-over or heat build up that occurs.

Remove the bird from the pan and check to see if the veggies are brown.

Cover the bird with aluminum foil and allow it to rest while you make the gravy. The gravy will take about 15-20 minutes to make. No worries, mon!

Method for making the sauce:
It’s time to make the gravy. If the veggies are brown, then it’s time to make the sauce. If they aren’t, put the roasting pan back into the oven and crank the heat up to 450 ° F. Cook veggies until very deep copper penny brown but not black.

Pour off all but about 3 Tbsps of fat from the baking pan. Be sure not to pour off the liquid and juices, just the fat.

Place the roasting pan on top of the stove burners and turn on two burners to medium heat. The pan should fit on the two burners but if it is too small, then only use one. It’s important not to use a pyrex or glass roasting pan on the stove top, so it’s preferable not to use it to roast this bird.

Pour about ½ cup of wine into bottom of pan with the remaining juices, fat and veg and scrape with a spatula to deglaze pan.

The sticky bits at the bottom are called the fond. These are precious cuz they deliver a power pack of flavor. The roasted veg will also give off flavor and color as well.

Allow the liquid in the pan to reduce by half.

Sprinkle flour over the veggies in the pan and quickly whisk to incorporate, stirring out any lumps that may form. Cook the flour for 3 minutes, stirring continuously.

Add chicken broth and stir to combine. I add about 1-1/2 to 2 cups to begin with and stir. Let it cook to thicken and incorporate all the flavors and bits.

Add the last ½ Tbsp of Dijon mustard to the sauce and whisk to combine.

Taste for seasoning. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and thyme. If sauce is too strong tasting (too dark tasting), add more liquid. Don’t panic. It simply means the flavors are too concentrated. Add more broth until it’s the flavor you prefer. Cook about 10 minutes and check for correct consistency.

If necessary, shake a couple more Tbsp of flour in a jar with wine and add it to the gravy to make it thicker. Cook for another 5 minutes.

Turn off heat and pour contents of pan through a wire mesh strainer. All the browned bits and roasted neck and giblets will be strained off leaving you with a smooth, delicious and dark brown gravy.

You can return this to a sauté pan and finish with a tablespoon or two of cold butter for an extra silky mouth and rich mouth feel but that is really simply gilding the lily!

Method for Finishing Glaze to become Peach Sauce (Optional):
Combine the remaining jar of peach preserves with ¼ cup of white wine or port. Add about ½ cup of pan gravy made from the recipe above. Let simmer and correct for seasoning with salt and pepper. Add a sprig of fresh thyme during the cooking or a pinch of dried thyme. Finish with a couple of tablespoons of unsalted, chilled butter once you remove from the heat. Serve on the side.

Blue Zebra Cooking Tip: Roasting and Pan Gravies

Roasting is a core cooking technique or fundamental that once mastered opens the door to many recipes. This recipe is a classic in terms of ingredients and methodology, only deviating with the use of the peach glaze which is easily omitted if you do not have a taste for it.

There are different schools of thought on roasting: start high, finish low; or start low, finish high; and more recently, start AND finish high – a quick roast method. I personally prefer the old Joy of Cooking method of starting high and finishing low because it fully allows time to roast the veggies and develop the flavors in the roasting ingredients and meats. There is generally a time/lb element that works, but for most accurate cooking, I recommend using a thermometer, especially if you are just beginning to learn to cook. Although I have been cooking for many years, I still prefer this fail-safe method. All it takes is one over-cooked prime rib to make a convert.

The key to success in roasting is adequately drying and seasoning the meat. If the meat can be kept off of the bottom of the pan, more even browning will occur. This recipe will work for all types of poultry: chickens (yes, even roasters), ducks, geese, guinea hens and goose. The recipe would also work well on pork as well as beef, buffalo and game such as venison, elk and antelope. The sweetness of the peach and fruity bite of the apricot in conjunction with the tart saltiness of the mustard and acidity of the wine make a rich foundation for a roasted dinner.

Pan gravies are another fundamental and go hand in hand with roasting. The caramelization that develops in the juice drippings, fond and veggies just beg for a finish of deglazing with a wine or spirit, followed by some form of broth or stock and thickening agent. Multiple types of thickeners work for this, ranging from flour to cornstarch, arrowroot, tapioca powder, pureed veggies, to grains like farina and even pure butter or guar gum and xanthan gum for those low carb options.

One caveat to pan gravies and roasting!! Roast the liver by all means but only roast it for the cook! Then remove it quickly! Cooking liver overly long or as a flavor element in a sauce will only cause angst and disappointed tears from you as the cook. Liver that is over cooked becomes bitter, bitter, bitter. Let me repeat it's bitter, ok? So don't do it. However, seasoning and roasting the liver in the bottom of the pan until it is just barely pink in the middle is a perfect treat and snack for the chef! Remove it at this point, eat it with glee and move on.

Read more->