On the Plate
ONE Buying the cheapest chicken in the store – you know, the store brand that’s been fed every anti-biotic that’s legal? If you want to know, it’s lived a very crowded life and it’s never seen the light of the sun.
That’s not dinner! Buy a chicken that has lived and eaten well. Look for these labels: “USDA Organic,” “Humane-Certified,” and “Never Fed Antibiotics.” Don’t be fooled by “Natural,” “USDA Process Verified” or “Hormone Free” labels. They don’t mean a thing.
TWO Cooking your chicken when it’s icy cold – straight out of the refrigerator.
Don’t do it! Let your chicken lose its icy chill by setting it out on the counter for 30 minutes to an hour before you put it in your hot oven. A cold chicken doesn’t cook evenly.
THREE Putting the chicken in the oven wet, with un-oiled skin.
For crispy, beautifully browned skin, before you put your bird in the oven, dry its skin with a towel and then rub it with plenty of butter or oil. A generous pinch of salt is the finishing touch.
FOUR Cooking the bird in a giant roasting pan.
Why do so many cooks do this? There’s no need to use a giant roasting pan for a small chicken. You’ll retain those delicious juices better if you use a cast iron frying pan instead.
FIVE Roasting your chicken in too cool an oven.
Go hot! Roast the bird fast in a super-hot oven for crispy skin and juicy meat. Unless I’m cooking a bird larger than 6 pounds, I keep my oven at 400ºF. For a big bird, I’ll start at 450ºF. and turn the oven down to 350ºF. after 30 minutes.
SIX Leave the bird in the oven until it’s positively falling apart and the breast meat is as dry and coarse as the Idaho desert.
Instead of just leaving the chicken in the oven until you’re sure it’s got to be done, use a thermometer and take the bird out of the oven the moment the dark meat is done. Alas, dark meat and white meat have such different textures when cooked that although the whole chicken is safe to eat at 160ºF, the dark meat won’t look or feel cooked until it reaches 175ºF. Test with an instant read thermometer or cut into the joint between the thigh and the leg, looking for clear, not pink juices.
SEVEN Carving the chicken on a cutting board the minute you take it out of the oven.
Relax. Let the chicken rest on the counter for 5 minutes after you take it out of the oven. Forget the mess of a cutting board -- carve it in the pan you cooked it in and make a simple pan sauce by de-fatting the juices and then adding a little cream, white wine or vermouth, herbs, salt and pepper.
Summer. Rib Season. The best ones you eat might just be the ones you cook yourself.
I'm partial to a baby backs, which are smaller and relatively lean. So-called St. Louis style ribs or your basic spare ribs are bigger and fattier. Fat is a always a good thing when it comes to meat. Whatever you choose, what really matters is where your pig came from, what it had to eat, and how fat it managed to get itself before it was all over. Sure, you can add flavor in the form of smoke from your hardwood fire and you can add flavor in the form of rubs, marindades and mops. But no matter what you do, the flavor of the meat itself will come through. Buy the freshest, best quality meat you can find. Anti-biotic-free is always better than "natural," which means preciesly nothing. USDA certified organic is the gold standard. Knowing your farmer is pretty great, too.
When you cook ribs, the key is long and slow heat. The low temperature (200 F.) slowly breaks down the connective tissue in the meat between the bones. (You can cook them at 200 F. in the oven or on the grill/smoker or you can use a combination of the two by cooking them for a few hours in the oven and moving them to the grill.) It's difficult to overcook spareribs, but it is possible to dry out baby backs in under 5 hours. Just watch and wiggle. Your ribs are tender when you can pull one off with your fingers.
I love to make Asian style ribs with a marinade that doubles as a mop made of fish sauce, soy sauce, chili paste, peanut oil and ginger. Throw on a handful of chopped cilantro before serving. I also like to empty out my spice cabinet with improv dry rubs that might including paprika, smoked paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, celery seed, ancho chile powder, chile flakes, a pinch of sugar, plenty of salt and a load of black pepper. I coat my ribs with a slick of peanut oil after I cover the meat with my rub.
Be sure to remove that pesky memebrane on the underside of the ribs. It keeps the rub or marinade from penetrating the meat on that side. It's shiny, very thin, and difficult to see. Obviously visible to you or not it's almost certainly there because it's never removed by the butcher except in really great butcher shops. I don't have one of those near-by and I bet you don't either. Here's how to do it yourself.
There's nothing like a kimchi hot dog for spicy, fatty, deliciousness with an icy beer. If you've never had one, make one. Simple hot dog bun, mayonaisse (crucial), grilled or pan-cooked all-beef dog, even layer of kimchi (Tobagi is a good brand), squiggle of Sriracha, dots of ketchup, finish with cillnatro leaves, (Or use blossoms and leaves if you've got a bolted cilantro in your garden.)
I'm enough of a snob not to own a pressure cooker and, as much as I'd like to, I'm too cheap to buy expensive, tempting gadgets like this sous vide calculator from Williams-Sonoma. Maybe that's why I love Melissa Clark's steak recipe/video that made the rounds about ten days ago via The New York Times. In it, Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cusine fame, demonstrates a brilliant technique for cooking a biig, thick steak.
First, freeze the steak for 20 minutes or so. Next brown the exterior to get the flavor that the famous Maillard reaction produces. (Read: yummy crusty browned bits.) You can use a blow-torch (fun!) or a plain old cast-iron pan. Next, take your still semi-frozen steak and put it in what is basically a warming oven (he recommends 200 F. or as low as your oven will go). The magic? After about an hour you end up with the pretties, most perfectly rare, evenly cooked steak you can imagine.
If I could, I would go back and rewrite the instructions for cooking all the big, fat steaks in my first cookbook, The New Steak. (I'd leave all that lovely Skirt steak alone, it cooks perfectly in a cast iron pan.) Why would I do such a thing? Because when you've got a thick-cut T-Bone or a big, meaty Porterhouse it's almost impossible not to get a little of that gray, overdone meat just benath your browned surface, even if you're cooking the steak to just 125 F. -- or rare.
I strongly receommend trying Myrhvold's method. It's weirdly effortless since there's no splattering fat or painful anxiety about overcooking your meat. (Damn! I hate an overdone steak.) Whip up some Montpelier Butter for a Rib steak (recipe is in my book) or some other lusty sauce and give a try. You won't be sorry and it might just change the way you cook a steak -- forever. Now that's what I call The New Steak.
A FEW TIPS: Test the steak after 30 minutes with a digital thermomter. The first time I used this method, the meat cooked faster and to a higher temperature than I expected. It was still outrageously delicious. Variations in oven temperture, thickness of the steak, fat content and how frozen your steak are will change the cooking time. That said, the beauty of the method is that it's very forgiving even if you do leave it in the oven too long.
Why is it so difficult to cook a turkey? Because -- in a scenario that is equivalent to roasting a chicken squared -- the thigh and leg meat need to cook to at least 170 F. to have the texture and look of cooked flesh. (That is, NOT slippery and shiny.) The breast, on the other hand, is beautifully done at 160 F., which means that if you take it out of the oven at 155 F. and let it rest for 10 minutes, it will be lovely, moist and flavorful.
How to solve this problem or at least mitigate it? I have 3 suggestions that, taken together, will add labor to your day but will -- I promise -- produce a memorably tasty bird.
1. Brine the bird. Most people are familiar with this procedure and it does help get a moister, more flavorful (saltier) bird. I think brining is a good practice. I have a basic brine in my book, but there are any range of brines: Herbs, 1 cup or more of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar, plenty of cold water to cover. Let it soak for 24 hours. Keep it cold.
2. Stuff the bird's breast with herb butter. In "Poulet" I give a couple of recipes for stuffing the breast -- one involving truffle butter. For a turkey, I'd suggest combining a stick of butter with fresh thyme, parsley, black pepper, and shallots. Loosen the skin and work your fingers across the breast under the skin. Once the skin is loosened, use a paring knife to make a slit right along the top of the breast bone, creating a pocket. Stuff that tasty butter down in the slit on each side of the breast. Press the skin back in place. Be sure that the bird is dry and that you've coated it all over with butter.
3. Use a deep roasting pan or a large Dutch oven and cook the lower-half of the turkey in chicken stock. The liquid conducts heat much more effeciently than air, which means your dark meat (legs and thighs) will cook faster. The internal temperature of your bird's breast and thighs will reach their respective temperatures as measured in the oven at much closer to the same moment (155 F and 165 F), with a 10 minute rest on the counter bringing them to "done" (160 F. and 170 F).
BASIC ADVICE ON COOKING A TURKEY:
*Buy a great bird -- USDA certified-organic or anti-biotic free. "Natural" means next-to nothing when it comes to food labels. If you buy your bird from a farmer, great. You know (or can ask) where it came from and how it was raised and processed.
*Let the bird lose the chill of the refrigerator before you cook it. I'd say at minimum an hour on the counter before you dry it off and rub it down with butter and then give it a good coating of kosher salt and black pepper. (Crispy, gorgeous skin involves dry skin, fat and high temperatures.)
*Start the turkey at a high temperature -- 400 to 425 F. Leave it there for 30 minutes or until the skin has gotten a little color. Turn the oven down to finish the cooking. If you haven't taken any of the steps above, consider starting the bird breast down and then turning it upright after about an hour. This will help with that uneven cooking issue as well.
*Be sure the bird's flesh measures 160 F. before you eat it. Whether it seems cooked or not, it will be safe to eat at this temperature.
May your table be happy and your turkey ridiculously delicious!
*Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.