Category Archives: Basics

Simple Roast Chicken

Many times I feel that people making cooking much more complicated that it needs to be.  Roast chicken is the perfect example of this phenomenon.  A brief search of roast chicken recipes online and in my cookbooks gives a bewildering array of procedures and complications.  I have seen procedures for turning, basting, trusing, shoving butter and herbs under the skin, a bewildering array of oven temperatures, etc.  Frankly, most of them are worthless.  The most sensible roast chicken recipe I have seen comes from (of all people) Thomas Keller in the Bouchon cookbook.  Chicken, salt, pepper, roast.  That is it.  In my experience, good technique and a good chicken are what make a successful roast chicken, not complicated preparation.  I do sometimes break my own rules and insert tasty things (lemons, onions, herbs) laying around my kitchen into the cavity before roasting.

While we are discussing chicken, I’m not sure I really understand the very unusual relationship people have with chicken.  Perhaps one of you can explain it to me??  I have the impression that every evening, millions of people all over the country carefully don hazmat suits, unwrap packages of tasteless grocery store chicken as though an army of salmonella are preparing to leap out of the package and into the souls of their children, cook  the chicken until it has the consistency of a rubber band, and then congratulate themselves that they have consumed something resembling a healthy meal.  In my  mental caricature they then proceed to hose down every surface in their home with industrial strength disinfectants and antibiotics as though they just handled a biohazard that in a sane universe would only be contained in a biosafety level 4 lab…

Caricatures aside, I have never understood this mentality.  I can hardly imaging sitting down to eat a steaming plate of something I feared would kill me mere moments before.

On that happy note here are the details…

1) Start with a good chicken – grocery store chicken will taste like…..grocery store chicken.  Free-range, organic chicken from your local farmer’s market will taste 1000x better.  Use it.  You can thank me later.

2) Preheat the oven to 450 C.  Carefully dry the chicken inside and out, sprinkle the cavity and the skin liberally with salt and pepper.

3) (optional) Insert an onion, herbs, lemon, or any other tasty flavoring that you have into the cavity of the chicken.  Throw some veggies under the chicken if you would like (potatoes, onions, carrots, fennel,etc. are all good choices).

roast chicken - raw

4) Roast the chicken until it is done.  Do not overcook the chicken.  Do not overcook the chicken.  Do not overcook the chicken.  There are various guidelines for how to determine when the chicken is done available around the net.  I am not going to recommend a specific temperature here.  I will say that I prefer to err on the side of juicy chicken rather than government approved chicken leather.  Don’t forget that the internal temperature of the chicken will continue to increase after it is removed from the oven, so let the chicken rest at least 10-15 minutes before carving.

roast chicken - done

Mmmmmm.  Crispy skin, juicy meat, minimal effort…delicious!!

P.S.  Sorry for the mediocre pictures this time around – the lighting was bad and I was too lazy to get out my tripod 🙂

Next time: Heirloom tomato salad

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Homemade Pasta

There are few things better than fresh, homemade pasta.  It has a vastly superior texture and flavor when compared to that dried stuff from a box.  I suspect that more people don’t make it because it seems somewhat intimidating if you haven’t done it before.  While it does take a bit of time to complete, it isn’t difficult at all.  However, it is somewhat difficult to give a procedure with precise measurements because the exact size of eggs and the hydration of flour can vary with time and location.  Making pasta dough is definitely one of those kitchen activities that requires some on the fly adaptation to the conditions at hand.  If the dough looks dry add a bit of water or oil; if it is too sticky, knead in some flour.  Below I give directions for making the dough by hand – you can also throw everything into a food processor and whirl it around until clumps of dough form.    

Before attempting fresh pasta on my own I did a survey of all the recipes I could easily find and they ranged from a ratio of 3/4 egg per cup of flour to recipes with a ratio of slightly more than 1 egg/cup flour with extra yolks added as an enrichment.  As a sensible compromise I chose to use 1 egg per cup of flour – this has the added benefit of being supremely easy to remember. 

Fresh Pasta

Ingredients

1 cup flour

1 egg, lightly beaten

large pinch salt

Procedure

1.  Mix the flour and salt in a bowl.  Make a well in the center of the bowl and add the eggs.
pasta-1
 2.  Working outwards from the center, slowly stir the flour into the eggs until it becomes difficult to incorporate more flour.

3.  Dump the contents of the bowl onto the counter and knead the dough until a smooth, elastic dough is formed (about 5 minutes).  

4.  Wrap the dough in plastic and rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

5.  Cut the dough into pieces and use a pasta machine to roll it, typically the pasta sheet is rolled 1-2 times on each setting, decreasing the roller spacing one notch at a time until the desired thickness is reached.

pasta-3

6.  Cut the dough into the desired shape.

the homogeneity of my cutting leaves something to be desired...

You can cut the dough by hand into large pappardelle as I have above, or any other shape you like.  At this point it helps to let the pasta lay on the counter to dry slightly before handling it, this will prevent clumping.  A light dusting of flour is also helpful.  If you want to be really fancy you can buy one of those spiffy pasta drying racks with all the arms (this would be really helpful if you don’t have lots of empty counter space).

Next up:  Christmas candies

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Cheese plate

 cheese-plate2

A Cheese plate is one of my favorite things to serve at at party or before dinner.  Why? A few reasons: 1) I can assemble it before everyone arrives and they can munch away and chat while I finish cooking, 2) the only work on my part is to buy things from the grocery store and arrange them, and 3) almost everyone loves cheese, not everyone loves things like chicken liver pate (until they try it).  I’m pretty sure that having everything (or at least almost everything) planned out and in place before your guests arrive makes them think that you are some kind of domestic deity (or that you are a hyperanal freak show of a host).  

I am lucky enough to have several specialty stores with tons of cheese to choose from at my disposal.  If you don’t have a cheesemonger around, try your grocery store, several smaller regional grocery chains I’ve been in have nice selections of high quality cheeses.  Target even has a few nice cheeses in its grocery section.  If all else fails check out some online retailers.

Here are a few of my rules for putting together a cheese plate

1) No more than three kinds of cheese (for a small group anyway).  Three varieties of cheese is enough to have an interesting mixture of cheeses; I find that more can be overwhelming.

2) Try to have some kind of theme or progression.  For example: pick three cheese from Spain such as Manchego (probably the most famous cheese from Spain), Cabrales (a blue cheese), and Garrotxa (a goat cheese).  A selection of different goat cheeses of varying texture could also be cool.  When in doubt, pick something soft, something hard (or semi-hard), and something blue.  The axiom is: something old, something new, something stinky, and something blue.

3) Make it really good cheese.  Please don’t serve your guests slices from a block of Kraft swiss cheese.  Not only will they hate you, they will talk about you behind your back once they leave (if they were raised right; if they weren’t they might tell you to your face)

4) Have some tasty accompaniments.  Good french bread is a must.  Don’t use any bread that is too highly flavored, it will compete with the cheese.  Olives, cured meats, nuts, and fresh fruit are all good choices.  If you are really good, whip up (or buy) some membrillo, a sweet paste made from quince.  

5) Make it pretty.  No one wants to eat ugly food.  Arrange the cheese on a slate cheese board or a pretty wood cutting board.  An attractive plate or tray would work too.  Make sure that all of the cheese are easy to access so your guests can cut off pieces without struggling.  Also make sure that there are enough utensils to cut the cheeses.

6) Throw away the wrapper your cheese came in.  As convenient as they lovely sheet of plastic wrap is for your grocer, your cheese doesn’t love it.  Rewrap your cheese in parchment paper and throw it in your crisper for storage.

7) Feel free to break all of these rules.  You’ll notice that in the photo I have brie, ricotta salata, and emmenthaler.  It may be a slightly odd combination, but I pulled it out of my fridge in about 5 minutes before some people came over.  Note the domestic deity/hyperanal freak comment above.

 

Next up on Chez Travie: Christmas candy (I think)

 

 

 

 

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Duck Part Two: Duck Confit

That’s right folks, today we’re cooking pieces of duck in a pool of duck fat. At this point you are either revolted or salivating, either way take a moment to regain your composure before proceeding. Just in case anyone was revolted, cooking duck (or other meats) like this does have a (historical) purpose. Before the advent of refrigeration, people would use a process similar to what I’ll show below to preserve meats. First the meat would be salted to extract much of the water, it would then be slowly cooked in fat, and finally stored totally submerged in the fat to protect it from spoilage. If properly made and stored in a cool place, duck confit can be stored like this for months; I’m not sure I am brave enough to test that part out for myself…

Duck Confit

adapted from “Bouchon” by Thomas Keller

Ingredients

1/4 c kosher salt

2 T parsley

1 T thyme

1 bay leaf, crumbled

a few black peppercorns

duck legs

duck fat 

Procedure

1.  Place the salt, thyme, bay leaf, parsley, and peppercorns in a coffee/spice mill, food process, or mortar and process/grind until the herbs are incorporated.

before...

before...

confit-salt-2

after

2)  Coat the duck legs with about 1 tablespoon of green salt per pound of duck.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 18-24 hours (if you go more than this the duck will be overly salty).

confit-salted-legs

3) Heat your oven to 180 F.  Completely rinse the salt and herb mixture off the duck legs, pat dry, and place the duck legs in a small ovenproof container.  Cover the legs completely with melted duck fat.  Cook the legs, submerged in the fat, for 6-10 hours, until the duck is meltingly tender.

they should be completely submerged, oops

they should be completely submerged, oops

confit-confited

after 8 hours

4)  When the duck is done cooking allow it to cool to room temperature in the fat, transfer the legs to a storage container, strain any meat juices from the fat (they will settle to the bottom of the cooking container), cover the duck legs in the fat, and refrigerate.

Ok, so now we have some duck legs packed away under fat in the fridge.  What do you do with them?  There are lots of potential uses (google is your friend here); here is one example from the Bouchon cookbook.  I won’t go over it in exhaustive detail (I think this post is long enough and there is already an excellent blog post about this recipe at The Paupered Chef), so I’ll just tell you that I plucked the confit from the fat (scraping off any extra that clung on), heated a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, and placed the confit skin side down for about 7 minutes to crisp the skin.  The idea here is to contrast the crispy skin with the very tender meat…confit-cooking

 After that I boiled some brussels sprouts, whipped up a sauce of shallots, thyme, garlic, chicken stock, dijon mustard, and creme fraiche (you can use sour cream in a pinch; remind me to write a post on how to make your own creme fraiche sometime), and served it like this:

confit-plated

Next up:  Warm duck breast salad…

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Duck! Part one….

Ok, so maybe I have too much free time…  I was at the farmer’s market on saturday and had a flash of inspiration… I was going to buy a duck and use every last scrap for something.  If a cute little quacker had to die for dinner, I would enjoy every last bit.  In about 10 seconds of brilliance I came up with an ad hoc plan:

1) buy duck

2) cut up duck into 2 half breasts, 2 legs, 2 wings, fat/skin, and carcass

3) render fat

4) confit legs using the fat from the previous step

5) roast one breast and make a salad

6) grill the other breast for a second entree

7) turn liver into pate

easy, right?  

So over the next week or so I’ll detail my adventures here at Chez Travie.  Today I’ll focus on dismembering the duck and rendering the fat. At this point you might be wondering “Why would I want to render and keep duck fat?” I’m glad you asked! Duck fat is amazingly useful and flavorful. The obvious use is to make duck confit, which I’ll detail in my next entry. Duck fat is also great for roasting potatoes, frying french fries, and maybe even to start sauteing the onions for a risotto. Now that we have that out of the way we can get started.

Cutting up the duck was actually the most intimidating part for me.  Anyone who has seen me carve a roast chicken can tell you why – it isn’t a pretty sight.  I’ll apologize now for the lack of pictures while I cut up the duck.  I didn’t have the energy to wash and dry my hands after every step so I could take photos without turning my camera into a poultry related biohazard.  The process is really quite straightforward; if you have ever cut up a whole chicken this process will be very familiar.

Here is the starting material:

Quack!

Quack!

Here is the procedure:

1) Remove the wings: Flip the duck breast down and remove the wings; your knife should slide fairly easily through the joint.

2) Remove the legs: Turn the duck breast up.  Slice along the side of the duck (don’t cut the breast) until you reach the joint where the thigh meets the body (analogous to our hip joint).  At this point it is best to reach in and break the joint with you hands (you aren’t squeamish are you?)  Wiggle your knife to slide through this joint and cut the rest of the way through.

3) Remove the breast:  Slice along each side of the breastbone (one cut on each side) to detach the breast.  The only trouble spot here might be the wishbone, be sure to slide your knife under it when you get there.

4) Skin/fat:  Trim the pieces you have removed of any excess skin/fat.  Go over the carcass and cut off any large pieces of skin and fat.  Don’t forget all the skin on the back of the duck.  Also be sure to get all of the yummy fat from the neck as well.  Be thorough, duck fast is like liquid gold in the kitchen.

Ok, so after you go through that (it is much easier than it sounds) here is what you get (I don’t think I did too bad 🙂 ):

duck-cutup

breast, legs, and liver

skin and fat

skin and fat

At this point, I packed up the legs, breast, and liver to work with later this week.  Onward to the fat!!

Rendered Duck Fat

Procedure

1.  Place the fat and skin scraps into a saucepan.  Add water to cover the scraps by about an inch.
unrendered duck fat

unrendered duck fat

 
2.  Cook the mixture over low heat, adjusting the flame to keep it at a simmer.  Stir occasionally.  The fat will melt and the water will slowly boil off.

it gets better, i promise

it gets better, i promise

 3.  When the water is completely gone, the bubbling will seem to almost stop (only small bubbles will be seen), any pieces of skin will be crisp (like pork cracklings), and the fat will turn a light golden color.

4.  At this point remove the fat from the heat and strain it into a heatproof container several times.  The cleaner you make the fat at this point, the longer it will last.  A cheesecloth lined strainer would be ideal for this.

duck-fat-3

5.  When the strained fat has cooled to room temperature, transfer the fat to the refrigerator or freezer for storage.

Other than the fact that I’ll have to burn down my apartment to get rid of the duck smell everything went very well. I now have one cut up duck and 12 oz. of so of rendered duck fat to play with. Not too shabby for the fairly minimal amount of work involved.

Up next: Duck confit

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Mmmm…saucy

Just imagine them with tiny legs and arms...

Mmmm...tasty tasty apples...

Along with all the ‘gourdy fun‘ this weekend (thanks for coining the phrase Christine)  we also stopped at a nearby orchard.  We didn’t pick our own apples since we tired from our fabulous day in the country.  Well, the myriad insects were decidedly less than fabulous, but I suppose they provided wonderful opportunities for interpersonal bonding via nit picking (think chimps, minus the eating).  I’m assuming there aren’t many exotic diseases spread by the various flying and biting critters of central IL.  Anywho… after careful deliberation I purchased a 1/2 peck of Jonathan apples.  A normal person’s thought process might have gone something like this:

‘Goodness this is rather a large bag of apples…how does one eat this many apples…mayhap I should purchase fewer….why yes, that seems quite right indeed.’

My thought process was more like:

‘Wow!  Apples!!  Yum!! Apples are good!  I like apples!!  Hmmm….I can’t carry a whole peck…oh look….I can totally carry the 1/2’

This is how I came to be the proud owner of roughly 784 ± 1.3 apples.  What does one do with this many apples? Eat them?  Drink them?  Use them as props in denture adhesive commercials?  What if they grow tiny arms and legs and go on the attack before you can use them all (a la Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)?!  Clearly this threat had to be neutralized; I was not about to die an ignominious death at the hands (stems? fangs?!) of  4.404884 L of apples.  Hence the big batch of applesauce I made last week (take that pomaceous terrorists).

Ingredients

About 3 lb. apples

1 c water

about 1/4 c brown sugar (feel free to adjust the amount to your taste)

1/2 t cinnamon

Procedure

  1. Clean, peel, and core the apples, then cut them into approx. 1/2 inch pieces
  2. Add the apples, water, and brown sugar to a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  3. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer the apple mixture for 20 minutes, or until the apples are tender.
  4. Remove the cover and simmer the mixture until most of the liquid is evaporated (feel free to crank the heat up here, just be careful to stir frequently if you do so).
  5. Remove from heat and the add cinnamon.
  6. After the mixture is partly cooled either a) for a chunky texture: mash the apples with a fork or potato masher or b) for a smooth texture: puree the apple mixture in a food processor.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the finished product, so I’ll leave you with this final shot…

PA few of my tasty apples.

Just imagine them with tiny arms, legs, and fangs...

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