Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Roasted Chicken, Biscuits and Gravy

Four small cottonwood trees, cut and stacked, seasoning for future use.

The log cabin is a bastion of warmth along 
the cold waters of Clear Creek.

     It is cold.  It was 2°F outside this morning when I awoke.  Ruby and I are impatiently awaiting an upcoming move to southern Oregon for a wider range of employment opportunities and higher quality, local foods.  Also, I must admit there is reason enough to migrate from this cold weather.  An inch or two of very fine powder fell in overnight but the magnificent crystalline formations found along the creek made an early rise worth the effort.  Minus 30°F is the lowest I have seen the thermometer read here, although it is said to have gotten even colder than that.  It hurts to breathe when it's that cold.  Winter has arrived and I am thankful for the abundance of firewood that I cut, split, and stacked on this side of the creek.  The new temporary bridge I built in October has been helpful as well, especially for transporting the wood via wheelbarrow.  
      A hydrologist and equipment operators have been working tirelessly on the new, permanent bridge's abutments and on stabilizing the banks of the creek by redirecting the inertia created during the high-water runoff, which could erode the foundation of the house.  (The footbridge we use to access the house was washed away in June.)  Four small cottonwoods were, unfortunately, rooted where the new bridge is to be placed.  That meant that I needed to fell, buck, and stack the rounds to season the wood for next year.  Cottonwoods burn well but are very fibrous and, therefore, difficult to split unless thoroughly dried.  The log cabin, which we have called home for the last year, is heated primarily by a large Rumford fireplace (which Ruby helped build) and a Glenwood cookstove.  The crackling fire centered in the home satisfies the soul throughout the bitter, lonely winters.  It's a good thing we have so much wood too, did I mention it's cold?

     Family has begun to arrive for the holiday and a surprise visit from a friend has also helped to warm the house.  Michelle Jorgensen went to high school with me in Martinez, California.  We did not know each other well back then, but worthy relationships certainly don't always develop in such a simple manner.  When Ruby and I lived here a few years ago (before moving back to California, only to return last fall) we left a few pictures of my family and us on the refrigerator.  A family friend whom was staying at the house for a few nights had invited some co-workers over to hang out.  At the time he was working at a local dude ranch with many other young adults from around the country.  Michelle was also, at the time, working at the ranch after spontaneously deciding to relocate to the rural wilds of Wyoming.  When she recognized me in the photos and, then later my father (who was her P.E. teacher in elementary school), she must have felt some sense of cosmic warmth in knowing just how small this world can be.
     Since then, Ruby and I moved back to Buffalo last fall to work at that same ranch. Michelle and I have gotten to know each other a little and mutually appreciate each others' blogs.  She writes a travel blog showcasing her adventures here and around the country with her stunning photography and intriguing stories of a life seldom experienced.  The blog is called travel 'til my home is found.  She sent me a message the other day, which informed me that she would be in the area with her friend Andrea, and asked if I would be interested in getting together for a Blog Party, of sorts.  Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, making friendships hard to come by.  I was thrilled, not only to have a friend visit, but also to have an excuse to make delicious happen, yet again.
     I decided, considering the weather, that we deserved some good ol' fashioned comfort food.  Ruby and I have, over the years, developed a self-induced infatuation for oven-roasted chicken with biscuits and gravy.  I am comfortable stating that I don't think there is any room for improvements on this recipe; I'm pretty sure it's perfect.  Rendering the fat from the skin in a hot oven first, then slow roasting the chicken (while basting it in its own fat every 12 minutes) produces a moist, golden bird.  Saturating the bird in its own flavorful juices produces a tender meat, eager to fall off the bone.  Gravy that is chunky with gizzards, heart, liver, and neck meat provides an appropriate vehicle to truly enjoy the simplicity of a perfect biscuit.  A healthy melange of fresh vegetables to accompany everything makes this simple meal an elegantly heart-warming reach into American memory.  The meal evokes a certain magical nourishment, the value of which is often over-looked in today's fast-paced hustle and bustle.  I love gravy, so much.

     Good chicken stock is crucial in making any sauce or gravy.  It should only be made from  vegetarian, all-natural, organic (if possible) chickens free from antibiotics.  A roux, which is equal parts (by weight) of fat and flour stirred over low heat until light blonde colored, and slightly nutty to the smell, thickens the stock to a saucy consistency while the offal contributes to the gravy's savory richness.   Pan drippings from the roasting pan are a welcome addition to this wholesome sauce which is brightened by subtle flavors of thyme and garlic.  Ideally, the gravy can be made while the chicken is roasting and finished with the pan drippings.  Use this recipe interchangeably with turkey, duck or even breakfast sausage by simply replacing the meats and, if possible, the stock.
     The chicken is seasoned with salt, black pepper and a blend of ground spices including cumin, paprika, coriander, red chili pepper, onion, garlic, and dried cilantro.  The Spice Hunter makes a wonderful salt-free spice blend called Mexican Seasoningthat works perfectly in a pinch.  If utilizing the convenience of this pre-made blend I will still add some paprika for coloring and flavoring.  High quality spanish paprika lends warmth to the overall profile of this hearty dinner with a mild, spicy heat.  The biscuit recipe that I use can be found in The New Best Recipe, from the editors of Cook's Illustrated.  Unfortunately, I am not permitted to post the recipe without their permission, but if you email me, I can share our adapted version.  We have found that replacing the dairy with rice milk and all-natural butter substitute can create a wonderful vegan product.  (Soy-Free Earth Balance is probably the healthiest spread on the market.)  This book can answer many technical questions as their wealth of knowledge, obtained within a test-kitchen, comes from multiple variations of the same recipe (something far out of reach for most cooks.)

Seasoned, oiled, ready to roast.

Roasted Chicken

4-5 lb fryer chicken, rinsed and dried
Spice rub with paprika, garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, red chili pepper, and dried cilantro
Salt and black pepper
olive oil

  • Preheat oven to 425°F
  • Roast chicken on top rack for 25 minutes.
  • Drop temperature to 325°F and baste exterior of bird with fat from the pan.
  • Baste every 12-14 minutes, roast for 1 1/2 - 2 hours basting one final time 15 minutes before pulling from the oven to maintain crispy skin.
  • Rest on cutting board for at least 20 minutes before carving.

Finished chicken, ready to carve.

Country-Style Chicken Gravy

2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups water
1 Tbs dried thyme
2 cloves garlic (minced or grated)
1 Tbs paprika
114 g AP flour
114 g butter
1 chicken neck, gizzard, liver and heart
1/2 cup roasted chicken drippings
salt and black pepper

  • Braise seasoned gizzard, heart and neck in oil and 2 cups water.
  • Combine flour and melted butter in sauce pan.  Stir constantly over low heat until blonde in color and slightly nutty smelling.  Let 'roux' cool to room temp.
  • Saute seasoned liver in oil. 
  • Remove neck meat from the bones and chop with gizzards, heart, and liver.
  • Bring stock to a boil, whisk in cooled roux and simmer an additional few minutes to thicken, stirring occasionally.
  • Add meat, thyme, paprika, and garlic.  Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  • Add chicken drippings, once finished basting, stir to blend.
  • Season to taste.

I apologize for the blurry photos.  'Delicious' was more important.


Braised Kale with Bacon

1/4 lb bacon cut into small 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 lb kale (tuscan black kale, cavolo nero, lacinato kale) washed and rib removed
1 clove garlic minced
2 Tbs Cholula hot sauce, or medium-high mexican chili hot sauce
1/4 cup water
Pinch salt

  • Render the bacon by first placing it in a cold pan, then slowly cooking the fat away from the bacon, 'till crispy.  Then blast the heat.
  • Add garlic and kale.
  • Toss a few times until the kale is wilted. 
  • Then add water and hot sauce.  
  • Toss again, then cut the heat.  Toss again.

Sometimes dinner needs to be convenient for a group, so I utilize residual heat by stacking precariously.
Sometimes I spill delicious food everywhere, beware.

     Silence, broken only by scratching fork and knife, satisfactory grins after a swirled sip, clean plates and a request for more: success.  Thanks Michelle, Andrea, Renee, Jimmy, Carmen, Joe, and Ruby for such a wonderful excuse to have some fun and eat well.

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