[Inverness, September 2011.]
Fall is settling in though the calendar promises a few weeks more of summer — but look, the apples hang fat and heavy and ripe, leaves are turning brittle and drifting across streets and deserted paths in the Seashore alike, blackberries are coming into their waning days (though there are a few left, lingering until October perhaps), tomatoes silently beg to be used now immediately in great pots of sauce seasoned with freshly-picked bay leaves and the last of the basil, in soups with the last of the season’s oregano, or in feta-infused salads, the sun is making more of a regular — if late-breaking — appearance. In these in-between days I am drinking cups and cups of green tea, eating bowls of dried cranberry-studded oatmeal, and crunching on handfuls of salty pistachio nuts as snacks. I am wistful, wishful, pointing my thoughts ahead to mid-October when I shall have all the free time in the world I could ever wish for — yet at the same time I’m wishing time could s-l-o-w down.
Oh. Autumn. The cool breeze, the bluest sky, the ruffled bay subsiding back into its placid, Indian Summer shimmer. I have packed up the camping gear but a little red tin canister of fuel for the stove is still kicking around my bedroom because I am too
busy lazy to haul the backpack down and stow it neatly away — or maybe it’s just that I am in full acceptance that summer is practically over and I don’t want to be reminded too much that it’s so. Or maybe I’m just lazy.
Not too lazy to cook, though, and thank goodness. No matter how hectic life can get, and no matter how few minutes I may have, there is always time for the kitchen. Even if I’m producing the usual pots of quinoa with assorted veg, or quesadillas with home made (and not by me) tortillas, or vegan chocolate cupcakes with chocolate buttercream and not being particularly adventurous, the kitchen — in all seasons, though particularly during fall for some reason, could it be all the glorious produce? — is my place to be.
[Sebastopol, September 2011.]
In the midst of the blackberry picking-and-jamming week, I cooked a lot. I split my time between Marin and Sonoma Counties, spending a good portion of that time outdoors madly gathering berries and swimming in Ives Pool (I’ve finally conquered the one-and-a-half mile, hallelujah), as well as behind the stove. There were sweets — a Guinness chocolate cake for one, as well as a strawberries and cream-laden Victoria sponge, a batch of chocolate cupcakes, a vegan mixed-fruit crumble — and roasted cauliflower, big salads and corn on the cob. And there were also roasted chickens. Several of them, in fact, which has this vegetarian cringing slightly at the moral implications (though they were all raised locally, and supposedly humanely) though much more confident — and less squeamish — about preparing them than she used to be.
I am, and probably always will be, strictly vegetarian. I don’t miss meat, never crave it, disdain seafood (always have), and even the supposed ‘vegetarian downfall’ — i.e. bacon — doesn’t tempt me in the least. But I do feel as though I somewhat limit myself as a cook — and also I am marrying someone who, while not a meat-fiend, certainly enjoys it — by infrequently cooking meat. So I’ve been dipping in a proverbial toe into the meat-cooking waters, and not the smallest one either. I do try always to buy the animal of choice from a reputable source (by which I mean employs the words ‘free-range,’ ‘grass-fed,’ ‘local,’ ‘sustainably raised,’ etc.) which soothes my conscience a bit and also it’s important to me. Mostly I’ll do wild-caught fish either baked or sauteed, which is pretty easy and makes everyone happy. I’ve yet to purchase and/or cook a steak or other red meat — and that’s something, strangely, I’m itching to do and may attempt this weekend after a long-awaited visit to my farmers’ market. But mainly, lately, I’ve been roasting chicken.
What is it about roast chicken that feels homey, comfortable? Well, I don’t really known except for it does. And it’s easy to make — rub with olive oil (or butter) and salt and pepper and a variety of fresh or dried herbs, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the top (and put the other half inside, along with an onion), slip some sliced heirloom tomatoes into the roasting pan and add a decent glug of white wine, and stick in the oven for an hour or so while you make the rest of the meal. It is a lovely thing to make for fall, too, because it’s a good excuse to turn on the oven to warm up the house a bit as the temperature starts to cool down and is simple enough so you don’t have to think about it much; that means of course that you can turn your attention to your vegetable side dishes. This is the time to wallow in late-season corn, summer squash, rainbow chard, beets. You know what I’m talking about.
I wanted to share my new fail-safe for roast chicken. I do think most cooks have their standard roasted chicken recipe, and even though I’m a die-hard (it’s true) vegetarian I’m glad to finally have solidified mine. I’ve done chickens the Zuni Cafe way, which turn out tremendously, but that recipe involves a bit more work (you must dry-brine the chicken for a day or two before you plan to cook it, and need an oven that can perform well on a high-heat setting — ahem, not my crappy little apartment oven). Zuni’s isn’t the recipe you’d make on a Wednesday night after a long day when you’d like to use that hour the chicken is roasting to throw together a salad and bake a few potatoes and then enjoy a glass of wine during the 20 minutes you have left before you eat dinner. But mine — mine is.
I made this a few weeks ago and served it with a large pot of well-buttered mashed potatoes, still-snapping green beans and zucchini, roasted cauliflower, and a big salad. I made it again (mom’s request) a few nights later and served it with a bowl of barely wilted spinach, chopped red onion, and toasted pine nuts, roasted red and baby potatoes, and numerous cobs of corn. (I ate slabs of baked tofu, in case you were wondering.) It’s not on the agenda any time soon but it could be; it’s nearly fall, after all, and I feel like cooking comfort food. This is, for sure, comforting in both the act of making it and the way it tastes.
If you’re feeling extra ambitious — or have a surfeit of plums — while your chicken’s roasting, consider baking this brown butter blueberry plum bread I wrote about for the Point Reyes Light (to help out a friend of a friend, and also for fun). It’s delicious for breakfast, afternoon snack, or post-dinner, and is a perfect complement to fall’s shifting light and cooling breeze.
Simple is best here, and the tomatoes really elevate this dish beyond the usual. You could roast some fingerling potatoes in the pan, too, if you don’t have a vegetarian dining with you. Make sure to watch near the end — you want, of course, for the chicken to be cooked through but you never want it to end up tasting dry.
1 whole, large chicken (about 4+ lbs), or two small chickens
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs — may include oregano, basil, parsely, thyme — or 2 tablespoons herbs du Provence
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 lemon, halved
1/4 cup white wine
2 cups water
2-4 heirloom (or regular) tomatoes, quartered
Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in middle. Lightly oil a roasting pan.
Pull off excess fat around cavities of chickens and discard, then rinse chickens and pat dry. Brush (or rub; I just use my hands) the chicken all over with the olive oil. Season the chickens inside and out with 1 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Place chicken breast side up in the pan and squeeze one of the lemon halves over it. Tuck a sprig of rosemary under the skin, one on each side of the cavity, and place the remaining sprig inside.
Place the tomatoes in the pan. Add the white wine and water, and swirl pan slightly. Sprinkle the fresh or dried herbs over the chicken and tomatoes.
Roast chicken, basting with pan juices using a spoon (remove pan from oven and tilt if necessary) every 20 minutes or so, rotating pan, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into fleshy part of a thigh registers 170°F, about an hour. Transfer chicken to a cutting board (reserve pan) and let rest 15 minutes before carving.
Arrange the roasted tomatoes around the chicken on the serving plate.