Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gnocchi with chicken and cream

Now that fall is in full swing and the temperature is continuing to drop, I've added a whole chicken to my grocery list and am enjoying the ritual of the weekly roast chicken cycle.

Roasting day is my favourite. I love preparing the bird for the oven. I take the chicken out of the fridge an hour or two ahead of time to let it come to room temperature. Then, while the oven is preheating (to 325ºF), I rinse and dry the bird, lay it in the roasting tray, and rub a wad of butter over the entire surface. The white skin feels smooth and cool, and the muscle and bone underneath is firm. I examine the fat at the tail end and remove the excess. Salt and pepper inside and out. If I'm so inclined, I'll slice half an onion or pick some thyme from the garden to insert into the cavity for extra flavour. While in the oven, the chicken roasts away slowly, eventually bubbling and sputtering, sending its delicious aroma into the air. Once finished, and having rested for a quarter hour under a tea towel, the chicken is ready to eat. This is when to enjoy the crisp, freshly roasted skin, and, my favourite bits, the wings. I eat these standing over the stove in the kitchen.

I keep the chicken in its roasting dish in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap, so that the roasting juices congeal at the bottom. Never throw these away. They are rich in flavour and nutrition and add depth to any sauce. My new favourite thing to make with leftover chicken and the juice is gnocchi with cream. This recipe is so simple, delicious, and fast with a prep time of only 10 minutes. I encourage you to try it.

Finally, the end of the chicken cycle is when all of the meat is picked away and the bones go into the stock pot. Again, glorious smells fill the house as the stock pot gurgles. I yield about a litre of stock per chicken carcass, enough to make an easy lentil soup for the next day.

Serves 2
1/2 pound gnocchi
two handfuls roast chicken, torn or cut into bite-sized pieces
roasting pan juices, fat removed
1/4 c whipping cream
chopped fresh parsley (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

In boiling salted water, cook gnocchi until they rise to the surface. Drain. In the same saucepan, add the pan juices and cream, bringing to a boil. Add gnocchi and chicken, stirring to coat and heat, 30 seconds with the lid on. Remove from heat. Add parsley and season. Serve with steamed broccoli, or a side salad.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I thought I'd share a few insights about preparing Thanksgiving dinner for those of you lucky enough to be doing so this weekend:

1) Go with the flow

In my eight years of preparing this feast, something has always gone wrong. Last year's error was perhaps the most spectacular: an exploding turkey. I lovingly made the most divine lemon-scented mashed potatoes and sealed the whole lot into the main cavity and neck of the bird. I was unaware that the potatoes expand in the turkey and create a heck of a lot of steam, and as such they ceremoniously squirted out of both ends and lined the bottom of my oven. Fortunately, my husband noticed this before they managed to burn and catch fire. We saved what we could, and stuffed the rest back inside the turkey. The result, despite the in-oven theatrics, was a delicious tender turkey and glorious lemony potatoes.

This year, I've already had to modify one of my recipes, since the directions printed in the cookbook resulted in something other than what was advertised. (Note to Nigella: In what universe does simmering cranberries for even a moment not result in gloopy sauce? Please revise your Cranberry and Cornbread Stuffing recipe in Feast.)

2) Simple food makes for great eating

Steamed brussels sprouts with butter, nutmeg and lemon juice. Baked yams mashed with butter and lime juice. Yukon gold potatoes mashed with cream and butter. These turkey accompaniments are not complicated yet are wonderful to eat. Their success relies only on the quality of the ingredients and your attention to make sure they aren't overcooked. Save the labour-intensive recipes – the ones with twenty steps and a thousand futsy ingredients – for when you don't have fifty other dishes to prepare at the same time.

3) Let your guests help you

Not only will some of your dinner guests – your friends and family, people who love you – offer their help out of the goodness of their hearts, but they will usually hover around you in the kitchen until you give them something to do. This is a sign: They want to help. My sister's fiancé is case in point. He's cleaned my kitchen, made the mustard for roast ham, cleaned my barbecue, and done all manner of chopping and dicing. Helping makes him feel great. Remember, there's no prize for slaving feverishly to bring a feast to table all by your lonesome, especially if you arrive at your place wilting with exhaustion. As a result, your guests will focus on your well being rather than the food and eachother, and that's just not fun.

4) Never criticize your own food

Even if you are eating not only the worst thing you've ever made but also the worst food in the history of the universe, never say so to your guests. I learned this from Julia Child and I agree with her completely. Again, the point of the meal is to be together, not to focus on your own culinary shortcomings. Of course, you're your own worst critic: What tastes terrible to you might be the best thing your guests have ever eaten.

5) Have fun

If you're not having fun, then what's the point? If you don't like cooking, then do a potluck Thanksgiving, have it catered, order Thai food, roast weenies, whatever floats your boat. There are no rules, so create a day that makes you happy. If you're happy, then your guests will be too.

I'm making my pumpkin cake again, soaking my turkey in brine overnight, and stuffing it with cornbread. I'm also doing as much as I can before the day of, so I'll have lots of energy to enjoy Thanksgiving as much as possible.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Goodbye Gourmet

Ever since reading Ruth Reichl's fabulous memoirs, I have been comforted by the notion that she is at the helm of Gourmet magazine as editor-in-chief. She's still out there, I think to myself, connecting ideas to food and sifting through our culture's culinary habits for the meaning of life. Alas, as reported this week, Gourmet magazine is no longer; Condé Nast finally pulled the plug on what was probably a very unprofitable subscription. The Globe and Mail featured a pair of opinions (one for and the other against) by two of its food writers on the demise of this 68-year-old publication. Much is made of Condé Nast's decision to keep Bon Appétit, its other food magazine, while scrapping the veteran. The writers' comparisons of the two magazines is entertaining.

As much as I love Ruth Reichl, I never once even glanced at a copy of Gourmet under her direction. My only memory of Gourmet is of flipping through the odd issue kicking around my parents' house and marveling at the utter insanity of some of the recipes. My thought was always the same: Who really cooks like that? In the mid 90's at least, Gourmet was about bringing fine dining to our homes, teaching us how to make the dishes requiring hours and hours of preparation, like the ones we might sample at Le Cirque if we were charmed enough to dine there. I imagine the current version of Gourmet isn't much different. Perhaps the element of fantasy was always the point; by featuring food to drool over rather than recipes to add to your arsenal for quick dinners, Gourmet lifted readers out of the everyday slogging that is feeding. By comparison, I continue to buy Vogue, another Condé Nast publication, yet I will likely never dress off the pages in head-to-toe designer togs.

I feel a little funny saying farewell to a magazine I've never read, but I feel a twinge of sadness at its loss. I feel for Gourmet's devotees. I remember my own disappointment at the recent loss of Blueprint and Domino, two similar lifestyle and home decor publications targeted to a reader exactly like me, a stylish 30-something woman, cut to improve some bottom line. As will likely be the case with Gourmet, there are no magazines in print that can replace the ones lost, none to fill the void, none that match the needs of the specific reader so perfectly.

And so, I raise my keyboard first to Ruth Reichl. Thank you for being fearless in your writing about food. And to the readers of Gourmet: I hope you find what you're looking for.