Birds of a Feather

Every Thanksgiving, someone says something to the effect of, “Why don’t we cook turkey more often?” Usually, I think it’s left at that, but for us, a few years back, we started to and we still do: Often enough, however, we find a turkey of any size just a bit too much for the two of us, so we’ve taken to downsizing with a nice chicken. I’m sure most of us have walked into the store and seen the ubiquitous pre-cooked chickens sitting there getting old, but since they’re on sale for $3.99, (Such a bargain!), we buy one, right? The problems with these things are myriad, but among the chief violations are these:
1. We have no idea where this bird came from or how good it is as raw product, and
2. We have no idea when it was cooked, and
3. The ‘seasoning’ is commonly barbaric

So, next time you’re tempted, pass the pre-cooked crap, head over to the poultry section, and check out whole roasting chickens.

We have a very nice, natural, no weird crap injected or fed, non-antibiotic filled brand available here and I’d bet you do too; that takes care of concern number one. You’ll notice, while reading the label to assure quality, that a very nice sized bird goes for roughly the same price as the pre-cooked junk, so there’s your bargain.

We’ll cook this ourselves, with fresh herbs and citrus, and that’ll take care of concerns two and three.

One other common concern we’ll address here is this: It goes something like, “OK, I get one good meal and maybe some sandwiches, but that gets boring after a few times…” This, of course, is the absolute wrong answer; stay with me and I’ll explain why.

First off, yes, you should start with a really nice meal. That bird is simply divine, as far as I’m concerned, and the joy of the whole shebang as we do it, a la that Thanksgiving feast, with turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry, Brussels sprouts, crème brûlée, is just too good to only do once a year. Light that menu up any month you like and you’ll have diners lining up at your door. That said, you needn’t go so whole hog to do a really great fresh chicken dinner; simple is best, so start there.

Unwrap, rinse and unpack your bird when you get it home, (how many embarrassing tales of cooked birds with the giblet packet tucked neatly inside must we hear, anyway?).

Follow all your standard safety precautions for handling poultry – Use separate tools, cutting boards, etc, and wash everything, including you, thoroughly afterwards.

Preheat your oven to 375º F.

Now raid the fridge; grab whatever citrus you have, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit all work great. Use maybe a large orange, or a couple of smaller lemons or limes, as you like and have on hand: Cut the fruit into 8ths or thereabouts and throw ‘em into a large mixing bowl. Add a splash of olive oil, a few more of white wine, half a rough chopped onion, then rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Mix all that up, put your bird on a rack in a roasting pan and stuff the bird with it. Grab the ends of the bird’s little legs, (AKA drumsticks), and tie them together with kitchen twine, (You DO have kitchen twine, right?!)

Now take a couple tablespoons of butter, a couple more of olive oil, a little more rosemary and thyme and salt and pepper, and mix ‘em all together. Slather the skin of your bird liberally with the mix.

Anything left over from stuffing or slathering? Throw it all in the roasting pan along with 3 or 4 cups of water.

Throw that sucker into the preheated oven.

OK, now a few words about cooking poultry, (Actually, damn near any flesh, truth be told). If you’re a seasoned pro who cooks for a living, I will believe that you can look at and touch a hunk of protein and tell when it is not only done, but properly done to rare, medium, well, etc. If that sentence does not describe you, then you can’t tell just by looking or poking, OK? One of the greatest crimes against good food is improper cooking, so get a leg up, face facts, jump into the 21st Century and buy a decent cooking thermometer. Actually, get several, seriously… I have a candy thermometer and an instant read, both of which are dirt cheap, as well as a nice, probe-equipped digital beast that reads both internal food temp and oven temp; got the latter online for about $20 and it’s well worth it.

Going back to that pre-cooked store bird, let me ask another question; with all the potential; liability of selling cooked poultry, which side of done do you think they’re gonna lean to? If you answered “Grossly, obscenely overdone,” then in the words of Ed McMahon, you are correct sir! For properly cooked whole poultry, we’re looking for an internal temp of 165º F, measured in the thickest part of the bird; once again, take the guesswork out, get a good thermometer and start cooking chicken that makes folks’ mouths water, OK?

Pull your bird out when it hits 165 and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before you cut it; second greatest crime with the preparation of good meat is carving into it right after it’s pulled out of the oven; what that does is virtually guarantee that all the juices are gonna pour out, and you end up with nasty, dry flesh, just like the store bought version – Be patient, let it rest, and you’ll get the juicy, tender stuff you’re after!

Serve this bird with whatever you like; you can’t go wrong with a nice, crisp salad and some spuds. You really must, however, make gravy, right?

Heat a sauté pan to medium high. Pour in an ounce or so of bourbon, and let the alcohol flash off. You do NOT need to light the stuff on fire, gang, just let is simmer and use your nose; when you smell the nice, smoky smell without the booze smell, you’re there. With a baster or ladle, take some of those lovely pan drippings out of your roaster, (And yes, we do want fat, gang, that is what makes gravy great), and pour it into the sauté pan. Let the liquids incorporate and get nice to a nice low simmer; adjust your heat accordingly. Add a couple tablespoons of flour, slowly and gradually, and whisk constantly as you do, to blend everything smoothly and avoid clumps of flour. Stop adding flour when your gravy is a bit thinner than you care for and allow the mixture to thicken by heat alone. Add a little salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste and bring it on!

The variations for this kind of thing are endless – How about southwestern style, with cilantro, onion, garlic, green chile and apple for stuffing and rubbing? Italian, go with shallot, basil, thyme, and balsamic vinegar – Get the picture? As with spice rubs and blends, pick some flavors that you like and that seem complimentary and experiment – The next great blend should come from YOUR kitchen, OK?

Now, place yourself in the not-too distant future. That wonderful meal has been eaten, the leftovers wrapped and boxed and stuffed in the fridge – What happens now?! Well, as we mentioned back a ways, there always is sandwiches; Warren Zevon, shortly before he died, gave this advice: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Indeed we should, Mr. Z… My dad was a sandwich artist, and I like to think I inherited some of his passion and talent – There are few things better than a chicken or turkey sandwich with fresh cut bird, fresh bread, crisp veggies and homemade pickles; do the sandwiches and thank me later.

But there is so much more waiting in the wings, Gang! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). First and foremost, you have the perfect source for stock, and stock means soup or stew, and, well.. Nuff said, right? Take that carcass out, remove the remaining meat by carving or, as I prefer, simply ripping big old chunks off. Throw the remains into a big ol’ pot. Add water to cover, a volume of mirepoix appropriate to the size of your bird, (Remember mirepoix? 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery, rough chopped), a couple bay leaves, salt, pepper, and put it all on a simmer. Let it do its thing for as long as you can, the better part of a day as a good measuring stick. When you can’t stand the incredible rich smell any more, strain out the remaining carcass and mirepoix, and return the stock to a large pot on medium low heat.

Raid the fridge again, and add what floats your boat; carrots, potatoes, peas, green beans, black beans, cilantro, garlic, corn, white beans, (or kidney, red, pinto, garbanzos – Get the picture?), rice, small pasta, (Boil first and strain well), chicken meat, a little bacon – Viola; homemade soup that puts everything else to shame. Maybe do up some French baguettes while it’s simmering, or fresh corn bread, (More on those later if that thought gave you a ‘Huh?’ moment…)

If you don’t feel like soup, fine – Let the stock cool, pour it into glass containers or plastic bags if you must and freeze it for later use – Nothing makes homemade soup, stew, or gravy better than homemade stock. Pour some of it into ice cube trays and freeze it; then when you’re ready to do up some great green beans you found at the market, pop out a cube, melt it in a sauté pan, add a little butter, and coat your steamed beans in that prior to serving – that’ll generate a wow moment for your diners, guaranteed!

Finally, how about what do afterwards if you DO do the whole Thanksgiving enchilada? How does one avoid the boring doldrums here? Easy, and one word for ya; terrine… The art of Garde Manger is the art of creatively using leftovers, and this is one of my favorites; I think I came up with this one, but I doubt it, frankly; it’s too easy and to good not to have been done before.

Preheat your oven to 350º F. Grab a loaf pan and lightly oil it. Now pull out all your Big Dinner leftovers; spuds, carrots, Brussels sprouts, dressing, cranberry, turkey, the whole shebang. Take your dressing and, by hand, line the loaf pan all around with a thin layer of that wonderful stuff. When you’ve done that, start layering the goods inside; turkey, spuds, carrots, everything except gravy, (Which will make things swim – Not good…) When you’re all layered up, cover the whole shebang with dressing. Pop it in the oven and let it do its thing for 30 minutes. Pull it out and let it rest for 15 minutes, minimum. Carefully cut a slice of the terrine and using a spatula, throw ‘er on a plate; add gravy and maybe some more cranberry; yum yum noises are optional but likely.

P.S. to loyal readers: Notice a diff on this entry? No standard recipe formats with exactly this much of this and that? Exactly; we’re starting down the road to cooking intuitively. Go with peace in your hearts, friends and neighbors! Look, if you’re not up to winging it 100%, OK, but you want to be and you will be and you have to get there somehow – Dive in, use your best judgment and trust that you’ll do fine; worst case scenario is a few learning experiences followed by a lifetime of joy and pleasure.

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