Monday, December 26, 2005

Roasted Chicken

Since it was just my wife, my son, and me for Christmas dinner yesterday, I skipped the traditional turkey and went with a roasted chicken instead. This is something we eat in our house at least once a week. It's one of the most basic dishes there is, and also one of the tastiest. And it's blissfully easy to make.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Take one 3-4 pound broiler chicken. Remove the livers, necks, and other stuff in the body cavity (I freeze the chicken necks and use them for stock).

Create a rub for the chicken by combining the following: 1 clove garlic diced fine, 1 T kosher salt, ground black pepper, and about a teaspoon each of whatever spices you have on hand. I typically use minced parsley, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram. Stir in enough olive oil to make a thin paste (1 to 2 T, usually).

Place the chicken breast-side down in a roasting pan or other ovenproof disk (I use Pyrex baking pans) and smear a few teaspoons of the paste over the back and legs of the chicken. Turn the chicken over breast-up and coat the skin with the rest of the rub. Put in the 350 degree oven and bake 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours, until the cavity juices run clear. You may want to let it sit for 10 minutes or so before carving and serving.

It's about as simple as can be, but a roasted chicken is one of the those indescribably good comfort foods. My wife and I are nuts for the crispy, salty skin and usually peel off most of the breast skin well before the chicken makes to to the table.

Sidenote on selecting chickens: For years I've been using the regular 3-4 pound broilers when roasting chicken, probably because they are so cheap (less than $4 bucks, usually). The few times I've tried going upscale and purchasing one of those $7 to $10 roasters I have been bitterly disappointed. Everything I have read has said that roasters (which are larger and older birds) have better flavor than a broiler, and in a sense that is true in that the meat itself has a stronger flavor while a broiler tends to be very mild. But, my roasters have always come out with an unpleasant toughness to the meat, especially in the dark meat, which is my favorite part. I suspect it may be because of the lower fat-to-meat ratio, and fat's what make things tender and tasty.

Part of me suspects the roaster may be, like grass-fed beef, one of those things where once you get used to the difference you begin to appreciate the tougher texture and stronger flavor. It's twice as expensive, after all, so surely it must be better? Perhaps in the name of gastronomy I should go for the roaster and teach myself to like it.

But I'm not going to. I'm sticking with the broiler. It's just so damn good.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Beef Misinformation

I know nothing about Ingrid Newkirk, and the animal rights movement interests me very little. But, while while searching the web as part of my ongoing (and slow moving) research on the history of barbecue, I came across this gem from Newkirk's book Making Kind Choices: Everyday Ways to Enhance Your Life Through Earth- and Animal-Friendly Living. Newkirk, the President of PETA and a militant animal rights activist, wrote the following:

I don't know if it is true that the very first barbecue took place during
the Depression, when a man named Henry Perry put ketchup on some
cow ribs, dug an outdoor pit, and cooked them over it. What I do know
is that times have certainly changed.

The interesting thing is that in the midst one of the most colossally ignorant sentences that I have ever read, Newkirk actually mentions a real person from barbecue history. Henry Perry was born in Shelby, County, TN (the county in which Memphis is located) in 1875. He bounced around the Mississippi area for a while, working as a steamboat cook and kitchen hand, before settling in Kansas City in 1907. Long before the Depression (which Ms. Newkirk may not realize took place in the 1930s), he opened a barbecue stand in a Bank Street alley, where he cooked meat over a wood-filled pit dug into the ground, selling ribs wrapped in newspaper for 25 cents per slab. As his operation grew, Perry moved several times, winding up in an old trolley barn at 19th and Highland. Several of Kansas City’s legendary barbecue men apprenticed under Perry, including George Gates and Charlie Bryant. In the 1940s, Gates took what he learned and opened his own restaurant with a partner; he later passed his knowledge down to his son Ollie, who opened Gates & Son Barbecue at 47th and Prospect, which is now one of the legends of the Kansas City Barbecue scene. Charlie Bryant purchased Henry Perry’s restaurant and ran it along with his brother Arthur. In 1946 Charlie retired, and Arthur took over the restaurant, renaming it Arthur Bryant’s, covering the sawdust floors, and replacing the wooden tables with Formica-topped ones. It is today perhaps the most famous barbecue restaurant in the world.

So, how in the world did Newkirk get the name Henry Perry into this offhand statement that is otherwise blissfully free of any historical fact whatsoever (barbecue, for example, extends well back into the 16th century and was a key part of 19th Century American political and social culture)?

Judging from the few pages before and after that quote (all that Google Print will let me view--and I'm not about to shell out any cash to read more), the book also appears to subscribe to the notion that if we just really knew what it was we were eating we would swear off meat. Newkirk tells an anecdote about visiting a farm with a photographer from New York who finds out that the tongue in tongue sandwiches actually comes from--get this--a cow's tongue. ("I had a feeling things would never be the same again for her at lunchtime in Manhattan.") Who the hell over the age of 13 doesn't know that "tongue" is tongue? And where did we get this notion that if we only knew where our meat comes from we would all stop eating it? How many cattle farmers are vegetarians? How about all those people in the 19th Century who slaughtered their own animals and ate them?

In the midst of this story, Newkirk states that on that cold morning at the farm she was rubbing her fingers "over Willis's [the bull's] warm brisket, that thick, tufty bit of cow that juts out of their chest way under their chins." This is, of course, patent nonsense. The brisket comes from the front of the cow, but way down on the breast--part of the pectorals. It's as much a part of a side of beef as any other cut (not some dangly appendage), and there are two briskets per cow.

One could forgive a committed vegan like Newkirk for not knowing this and for not having a handy cuts of meat chart to look it up on. The problem is that she uses her misinformation to further "enlighten" the hapless photographer Jill who, apparently more clueless about all things meat than even Ms. Newkirk, stammers, "That's a brisket . . . That's what you see in the deli case!" And somehow this carnival of ignorance is supposed to make us less inclined to eat meat.

All of this is presented very straight-faced, and I can only assume she's serious. It's Newkirk's way of setting up a couple of recipes that offer simulations of barbecue and grilled meats, including a "Faux Brisket" concoction that starts with "a nice big glob of wheat gluten" and continues on with blending up "whatever veggie meats you have in the fridge" along with rice, beans, and other starches. You mold all this into something vaguely brisket-shaped, soak it in barbecue sauce, and grill it. (Which leads to vegan question #3: if veggies are so good and meat so horrible, why take all the trouble to simulate meat?)

The mind reels.

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