mirrorshard: Grass stalks against a summer sky (Summer grass)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
Yesterday, I roasted a chicken, and I want to talk about that for a while.

I've been trying to eat more vegan, partly for health reasons and partly because that's the easiest way to opt a little way out of the dietary Omelas of doing harm to animals and ecology and communities, but I'm not about to give up free-range chicken, for personal as well as ethical reasons. (It's a very resource-light meat, very low opportunity cost compared to other meat, and whilst I don't have the numbers it's comparable to processed vegan food.) Mostly, though, it's a family history thing - my mother used to cook roast chicken or lamb every Sunday, and whilst I'm not so bothered about the days of the week it's a nice thing to do. It still feels special, it gives another couple of days' food with the leftovers, and it actually works out quite cheaply.

There's another reason, too, which is that this is the bar that the DWP use to decide whether I'm entitled to DLA or not. Can I reliably and repeatably cook a meal? Specifically, a roast dinner with all the trimmings? (A Sunday roast, that is, not a Christmas one.)

So. If you're anything like me, you'll need to start by clearing a workspace and finding the pans. Use your best knife; mine is an ugly-looking square ended spring-steel blade made in Vietnam and bought in Milton Keynes, with an epoxy-resin handle I made for it that looks like it was pulled out of a bog. You don't need anything special, though - so long as it goes through vegetables and not fingers, you're doing well.

Take many potatoes, King Edwards for preference but Maris Piper or a red-skinned variety will do nicely, and the "basic white potatoes" that a supermarket sells are just fine. Wash off any dirt, or peel them if you don't like the peel - I prefer to leave it on. Chop them to about the size of a toddler's hand, and put them in a large pan. Ideally, you should be thinking "how on earth are we going to eat all those potatoes?" at this point. Cover with cold water, throw in a teaspoonful or two of salt (sea salt if you can, because it does make them taste better than "table salt" does), and boil them till they feel "almost done" when you stick in a fork.

While they're cooking, it's time to make the stuffing. Turn the oven on to heat up, and put a couple of slices of bread in there, to get crispy but not toasted. There are a few different kinds of stuffing I like to make, but it's always based around the bread (cut into tiny squares), a couple of eggs to bind it together, and an onion chopped small. Sometimes I'll add a bulb of garlic, chopped small; sometimes a lemon, chopped into eighths. (If you don't have "unwaxed lemons", give it a thorough scrubbing. And yes, put it in peel and all.) This time, I used about a metric shedload of parsley, because I was passing by a Turkish supermarket and took the opportunity to get some. Put in some more salt, and some black pepper, and anything else you feel tastes good, mix it up, and spoon it inside the chicken, shoving it down hard. Unless you're some kind of kitchen demigod, you'll spill a lot of it, but so do I.

Chop a few parsnips, too. I feel they should be cut into long thin batons, quarter-round, rather than chunks - they don't need boiling first, so you can do this at your leisure.

Put the pan you're going to roast things in in the oven for five-ten minutes, with some vegetable or sunflower oil in, to heat up. Drain the potatoes well, and pour them in the pan - doing this helps them crisp up, especially if you bash them around a bit and get them well covered. Chuck in the parsnips, too, and balance the chicken on top. When I had a rosemary bush, I used to put a couple of branches from that across the chicken. I like to cover it with foil (or do it all in a lidded pan) but if someone's asked for extra-crispy potatoes then leave it open, and if you're worried about the chicken drying out then drape a few slices of good bacon over it, or at a pinch a bit of greaseproof paper.

After all that, leave it to cook till you can smell it throughout the entire house. This is my personal metric, and it's worked for all the houses I've lived in!

These days, I usually steam vegetables in the microwave, instead of cooking them in a pan. A head of broccoli in a Pyrex dish, with a few splashes of water and a plate on the top, works perfectly - so do leeks, and carrots, and almost anything else. The way my mother used to do carrots is to slice them into thin rounds, lay them in a baking tin, and sprinkle sugar across the top - they'd go in about 15 or 20 minutes before the chicken came out. I tried that myself last month, and my test subjects were delighted.

What's left? - gravy, of course. I don't make gravy, because I'm not nearly as good at it as [personal profile] kindjourneys is, but theirs is based around roux, red wine, and Marmite. That'll take about half an hour, so start it well before the vegetables.

If you open up the roasting tin and leave the chicken to sit on the stove-top for five or ten minutes before you carve it, it makes things easier - and your guests get the opportunity to admire it, too. Take it off the pile of potatoes before you carve it, and start by slicing down at about 45 degrees to remove a breast, then ideally you should be able to slice off the leg neatly. Personally, I usually end up fumbling around and separating it by a combination of guesswork and forks. The important thing is that the meat gets onto plates, and frankly mediaeval noblemen would sneer at us for carving meat on a plate rather than held up in the air on a fork anyway, so impressing them is a lost cause.

Traditionally, I'd make apple pie for pudding, with shortcrust pastry and custard, but I never have the energy for that these days.

So: can I do this reliably and repeatably? Not yet, no. It's a good day when I can manage the energy and coordination to get everything in, get ready to cook, and get started on it. But I've done this enough now that it's a simple one-thing-at-once, I-know-what-comes-next recipe, and it always works well enough.
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