I was recently reminded of the power of food to soothe and heal when, earlier in the fall, I had to put down my 17-year-old cat, Miles. He'd been slowing down, and very early one morning I was wakened by his crying and found him crumpled in a heap on the laundry room floor; he'd lost power over his back end, and I knew in a heartbeat it was time to let him go.
It was an agonizingly long morning, waiting for an 11:30 appointment with the vet for a lethal injection. I tried to comfort the old boy as best I could; he managed to sleep some, but when he woke he was bewildered and in pain. Once it warmed up enough outside, I carried him out to a soft expanse of grass and let him bask in the warm sunshine one last time. At the vet's, TJ and I stroked him and cooed while he calmly took his last few breaths. Then we drove him home and found a safe and lovely spot in which to bury him.
When I finally went back in the house it was close to 2 in the afternoon, and I suddenly remembered I hadn't eaten a thing – I was famished. I set about making a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches for TJ's and my lunch. The very act of preparing food was familiar and calming, and the simple basic smells of bread, butter, and cheese were as soothing as a prayer. I can't recall a sandwich's ever being so satisfying and delicious; I realized it was starting to fill some of the spiritual emptiness I was feeling.
My friend Daphne is leaving Vermont and moving out to Napa to immerse herself in the wine business. She's spent the last month packing up her little house, and the moving truck came this week. Her intention was to spend her last night in her empty house, tucked in a sleeping bag in front of the fireplace. I suggested we have dinner together at a local restaurant, since she wouldn't have any cooking options...but then I came to my senses and offered her a home-cooked meal and a warm bed. Moving is one of life's most disruptive events, and packing is not just physically exhausting – the emotional toll of making contact with every little thing you own is enormous. That girl's spirit was going to need some shoring up.
To my mind, no food has more power to set the world right than an honest roasted chicken. Like bread and butter and cheese, it's simple and elemental and subliminally satisfying. So, while Daphne perched on a stool beside me and drank a couple of medicinal gin-and-tonics (I had a couple, too), I dressed up a bird and bunged it in the oven.
I know everyone has their own fail-safe for roasted chicken; mine is pretty straightforward. I prefer to roast small birds, 3.5 or 4 pounds. That'll feed 2 – 4 people just fine – if I need to feed more people, I just cook more birds. I rub the inside of the cavity with lemon juice and salt & pepper, then stuff it with a small quartered onion, 3 or 4 peeled, halved garlic cloves, and the lemon I squeezed the juice from (I squeeze more in as I stuff the cavity). I'm a dedicated trusser, and use a long single string to secure the legs together over the opening, then loop it down under the thighs and around the wings. I'll do a demo sometime, but not today. If you've never bothered to truss a bird, try this next time you roast one: pull the legs together, crossed at the ankles, and tie them with a piece of string. Then bend the wing tips down toward the back of the bird and tuck them underneath it. It's my contention that the bird roasts more evenly when trussed. If nothing else, it looks tidier.
I like to rub the chicken all over with olive oil, then give it a generous coating of salt & pepper with some herbs or spices. Herbes de Provence are ideal for a roast chicken, as is smoked paprika, but my current obsession is fennel pollen. It gives the chicken a haunting, earthy aroma and flavor. You can probably find it at upscale food markets, but I order it online from Market Hall Foods.
I start the chicken roasting at 425°F for the first half hour, then lower the heat to 325°F until it's done (1.25 – 1.5 hours for a 4-lb. bird). I baste if I'm around the kitchen while it's roasting; if not, I don't. I prefer it when I do – the skin seems richer. I don't fuss about crispy skin – I like it, and my chickens end up fairly crisp, but it's not my grail. I'm much more interested in succulence, and this method produces a very succulent (and flavorful and fragrant) bird, even when I happen to overcook it. I shoot for about 160° at the breast (and I do use a thermometer!), and I let the chicken rest before carving.
I don't generally bother with sauce beyond the pan drippings, but this time I had some leftover reduced braising liquid from some pork belly I'd cooked. I deglazed the pan with some red wine and stirred in a few tablespoons of the sauce, then poured all of that over the platter of carved chicken.
I roasted a couple of our delicata squash along with the chicken, with just a sprinkling of salt inside. That's all they need. If your standard for winter squash is acorn or butternut, you owe it to yourself to try delicata – they're sweet as candy and have a richness the others can't touch.
I'd bought asparagus without any specific plan for it. I usually roast or grill it, but I had some nice fresh shallots in the house and some lovely fresh eggs, and I got it in my head to do cold asparagus with chopped boiled egg and shallot vinaigrette. A little fussy, maybe, but so damned good. Daphne'd brought a very nice Nuits St. Georges to drink with dinner, and TJ'd lit a crackling good fire for us.
I suppose the fire and the wine alone might set a body right; whatever it was, by the end of dinner Daphne was happy and sleepy and seemed greatly relieved of a weight. So Daph: go chase that dream, honey, and enjoy the ride. We'll catch you in Napa.