Totally Legal

My pops was the chicken-cooker in our house. My mom made the (horribly dry, sorry mom) meatloaf, the holiday fixin’s, kickass potato salad, and plenty of things that are escaping my memory right now. But pops – he was in charge of poultry (and steak, for that matter. this worked to our advantage since she was the only one who ate leather instead of red juicy meat.).

There must be a genetic alteration linked to having an affinity for cooking fried chicken – my gramma had it, my aunt Faye has it, my pops has it, and by golly, I think I do too. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but since not all Southerners can cook a can of beans I’d be willing to bet it’s a little of both. Maybe I’ll ask someone who knows a thing or two about genetics :).

But Pops wasn’t just a master of the fried variety; he has a killer barbeque chicken recipe too, and I’ve made it a time or three. Thinking about that dish just made my mouth water (and I finished my over-processed-but-low-calorie lean cuisine an hour ago. i guess that isn’t saying much, eh?). I think I may procure the ingredients for said dish soon; we’ll see.

Above all the cooking of said chickens, it was my pops who first taught me how to wield a knife into the bones and joints of the little birds, cutting them into 8 or 10 or even 6 pieces. I remember him grabbing a chicken from the market a few years ago, not too long after I went away to college (ok, 10 years ago, not a few); I think he felt it was his responsibility to teach his little girl how to cook, and cooking starts with cutting.

Sure, culinary school really helped me nail down the technique, and Thomas Keller’s pictures in Ad Hoc at Home are pretty helpful too, but it all started with Pops. These chicken butchering skills were never quite as helpful as they’ve been this past year though, as I’d guess we’ve gotten a dozen whole chickens from our CSA over the past few months; so as you’d imagine, we’ve eaten a lot of chicken lately. Usually, I butcher them, usually into 8 pieces, and usually it’s a pretty quick process. But sometimes, no matter how quick the process, I like to just toss a chicken, intact, into the oven, or onto the grill and now, almost by habit, into a brine before all of that cooking stuff even happens.

Roasting a whole chicken has to be one of the easiest processes on earth. You toss a few spices or herbs together in some butter or oil, you rub it all over the chicken (underneath the skin, too!), and you toss it into the oven and walk away. As Ina Garten would annoyingly say, “How easy is that?!”. But she’s right, despite her permanently bad hairdo and her fancy house and weird husband.

And while that simple herb rub is sure to win some points, I’m choosing here to go a step further and say that a toasted spice rub and a sweet & sour sauce from none other than my chef-crush Michael Chiarello is perhaps a little more time-consuming, but easy-peasy and probably, no definitely, the best dish I’ve eaten at home in a few weeks – hands down.

We all have our mediocre weeks in the kitchen, and lately the food I’ve been producing hasn’t been ‘knockin’ my socks off’, so to speak, which is probably ok since it’s so damn cold here. But this recipe, this recipe knocked it outta the park Barry Bonds style. Ok, I take that back a degree or two – Barry Bonds style, without the steroids. It still packs a punch, but it’s totally legal, I promise.

Roast Brined Chicken with Raisin and Pine Nut Agrodolce
Adapted from Michael Chiarello via Food & Wine, October 2010; serves 4

time commitment: 24 hours (for brining, dry rub marinating, and roasting); less than 2 hours active time (1 the night & morning before; 1 the night of)

agrodolce is Italian for awesome. Ok, really – it basically means “sweet&sour”. this recipe is definitely that, and I loved the grapes with the nuts. in fact, I could think of lots of other things to do with the agrodolce, so it’s not limited to chicken, that’s for sure!

this is definitely a multi-stepper, so prepare in advance. I brined the chicken and made the spice rub and the agrodolce the night before. in the morning, I removed it from the brine and rubbed the chicken with the, well, rub, and let it sit in the fridge until i got home that night. all that was left was roasting. You can certainly skip the brine if you want, but it’s worth the extra effort, if you’ve got it!

printable version
printable version (basic brine only)

10 c water
1 c kosher salt
1/4 c light brown or granulated sugar
5 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 T black peppercorns
4 cups ice
1 3-4 lb pastured chicken

toasted spice rub
2 T fennel seeds
2 t coriander seeds
2 t black peppercorns
3/4 t crushed red pepper
2 T ancho chile powder
1 T kosher salt
1 T cinnamon

3 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1/2 c raisins
1/2 c warm water
1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
1 c Sherry vinegar
1/2 c sugar
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 t fennel seeds
1/2 c seedless red grapes, halved
2 T extra-virgin olive oil

brining the chicken
In a large pot, combine the water with the salt, sugar, garlic, bay leaves, & peppercorns. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the salt. Transfer the brine to a very large bowl and add the ice. Let cool to room temperature. Put the chicken in the brine, breast side down, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

toasted spice rub
In a medium skillet, combine the fennel and coriander seeds with the peppercorns. Cook over moderate heat, shaking the skillet a few times, until the fennel seeds turn light brown, about 2 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper and toss until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Transfer to a plate to cool completely. Put the toasted spices in a spice grinder and grind to a powder. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the chile powder, salt and cinnamon.

In a bowl, cover the raisins with the warm water and let stand until plumped, about 10 minutes. Drain. In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, red onion and fennel seeds. Simmer over moderate heat until thickened, about 20 minutes. Pour into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Stir the raisins, pine nuts, grapes and olive oil into the syrup. Season lightly with salt and set aside (or refrigerate) until ready for serving.

rubbing the chicken
Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Put the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle all over with the spice rub. Be sure to get underneath the skin as well. Set the chicken breast side up and tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Refrigerate the chicken, uncovered, for at least 4 hours. Let chicken sit out at least 30 minutes before roasting.

roasting the chicken
Preheat the oven to 450 (yes, 450 – this is not a typo). Brush the chicken with the melted butter and roast in the upper third of the oven for 25 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 and roast the chicken for 25 minutes longer, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 155 when inserted in the inner thigh. Remove from oven, and let the chicken cool down, or come to room temperature if you want. Carve into 8 pieces, transfer to a plate and serve with the agrodolce.

Sorry John, I’m 5 Years Late on the Chicks!

spice rubbed cornish hens
I’ve talked about my best friend a few times before (like here, and here, and oh, here too). I think she holds the record of “blog nods”, not counting the hubby of course because mentioning him just sorta, well, it comes with the territory so to speak. Have I ever talked about her husband though? I didn’t think so.

So here goes: Kris & John were married 5 years ago (yeah, 5!). As if you had to ask, I was the maid of honor. Well sorta, I was a “half” maid of honor, since I had to share the title. Begrudgingly, I did it. What are best friends for, anyway? (and plus, I knew deep down I was the real MOH anyway, right Kris?!) So yes, 5 years. I remember the days of their wedding planning just as vividly as I remember that dog chasing me on my bike years ago. Not for the same reason, of course. It was great fun. The wedding planning, I mean. The dog-chasing not so much.

chris me kris john in cancun

If you’ve ever been involved in these events, you’ll know that, in general, the dudes kinda sit back and chill. Sure, if you’ve got a good one, he’s obedient when prompted. If you’ve got a real good one, he’ll even plan most of the music and burn 200 CD’s. John, he’s a good one (and so’s mine – he burned those CD’s like nobody’s bizness) – he was around when needed, he gave his opinion (usually only when asked, which is key), and he kept his mom outta our hair as much as possible. But when it came to the food, he would. not. shut. up. He insisted on Cornish game hens.

cornish hens

This should come as no surprise, but Cornish hens were not eaten at that reception. I don’t remember what was, but there were no baby chickens to be had, that’s for certain. So this post, this is for you John.

Having recently eaten Cornish hens, I am now, 5 years later, inclined to agree with John. That sure would have been scrumptious for that reception. And if any creature without a head can be elegant, un jeune poulet would be. No doubt.

Outside of culinary school, this is the first time I’ve made Cornish hens. One of their best qualities is that they cook in half the time it takes to roast a chicken, so you can have these on a weeknight with no problem. But maybe because they’re half the size, and half the age of your standard chicken. You see, Cornish game hens are not game birds at all. They’re young chickens, and can be either male or female, so they aren’t even always hens. Whoever gave them the name must have been a bit off because quite frankly, nothing about the name is accurate. Nevertheless, these little buggers are tasty. Especially made this way.

cucumber mint sauce

The little chickies are rubbed in a blend of fragrant spices (cumin & coriander), and then they’re roasted in the oven. They come out with a great tan and are moist and succulent. And while the little chicks are roasting, you can make the sauce. It’s a sauce not to be forgotten. I was a little sneaky, and didn’t tell Chris it was primarily a cucumber sauce. And whatdya know, he loved it. So I’ve found one kind of cucumber he likes – pureed and incognito. But the sauce, really, is a great compliment to the sharpness of the spice rub. It’s cool and fresh, and leftover sauce would go great with pita bread or grilled veggies, I bet. As a side item, serve up some Israeli cous cous, which, to keep with the theme here, isn’t cous cous but is pasta. But so yummy – almost like the texture of tapioca pearls in bubble tea.

So John, if you haven’t gotten your Cornish hen fix since your attempts 5 years ago, try this. I think Kris might like it. Plus, you can use that Magic Bullet thing to puree the sauce – score!!

And the rest of you? Any Cornish hen recipes, thoughts, suggestions?

Spice-Roasted Cornish Hens w/ Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce
Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2009; serves 4

2 Cornish hens, split lengthwise
2 t cumin
2 t coriander
1 t salt
3/4 t black pepper, fresh ground
olive oil
4 oz cucumber, peeled, cubed
1/3 cup plain lo-fat yogurt
8 fresh cilantro sprigs
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 heaping T sour cream

  1. Position rack in top third of oven; preheat to 450 F. Arrange hens, skin side up, on large rimmed baking sheet.
  2. Brush hens with oil. Rub spice mixture (cumin through pepper) over both hens. Roast until cooked through, about 30-35 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile (or up to a day before), combine all remaining ingredients in food processor (mini size is perfect). Blend until almost smooth, and season with salt and pepper. Serve with hens.

Last-Minute Israeli Cous Cous
Serves 4-5; NOT gluten-free

printable recipe

olive oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 t cumin
1 box Israeli cous cous
2/3 cup of mixed dried fruit (I used apricots & currants cause I had them)
1/4 chopped nuts (whatever you have, I didn’t use any this time)
salt & pepper

Pour about 1/2 T olive oil into saucepan on med-hi. Saute onions until browning, about 5 minutes. Cook cous cous according to package (2:1 water to pasta ratio, bring to boil, blah blah). One the mixture is to a boil, add in fruit and nuts. Season once cooked through.