Last night was a cooking adventure. I'm working my way through Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. Beef stew? Fabulous. Braised short ribs based on the beef stew recipe? Very good. The book's a great resource for cooks that don't need step-by-step directions, but do like a yes-man of sorts in the background, reassuring them that their instincts are correct. By the way, Waters' suggestion of adding a shot of brandy to beef stew (or braised short ribs, in this case) is a good one; a few tablespoons of coffee that's been sitting in the coffeemaker since that morning adds an earthy, deep, almost chocolaty flavor to the same braise (or stew, I assume).
We've been trying to cook simple, seasonal food that we can use leftovers from lately. In part, this is because we've started getting produce from a local CSA (another post on that later), and in part because food's expensive, the economy's bad, and we're trying to save money. An easy solution to this is simple roast chicken - whole chicken's cheap, pound for pound, and i saw an easy side dish in the endless amounts of root vegetables we had gotten from the CSA. Among the weirder vegetable selections, we got parsnips and celery root in our share. Having never cooked with either before, I figured roasting each would be a good start: I could cook them in a relatively foolproof manner, while also preparing them in a way that let me taste them cleanly, so that I would get a good idea of how to use them in the future.
For the roast vegetables, I turned to Alice Waters. She recommends cleaning, peeling, and chopping into 3/4" inch pieces, carrots, parsnips, and celery root.* Following the recipe (and obvious, common roasting sense), I tossed them in a few tablespoons of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt, then spread them out on a baking sheet and roasted the veggies in a single layer at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes, stirring and turning the veggies a few times in the process.
The end result was really good - parsnips taste a lot like carrots, except they're firmer in texture. The celery root, unsurprisingly, tastes like celery, but with a milder flavor and the texture of a potato. I'll probably turn the leftovers into a mash, using milk heated up with a few garlic cloves in it to add a garlicky taste to the vegetables. I plan on serving that later this week with pulled chicken sandwiches (like pulled pork, but healthier) that I make from the bits of chicken I have leftover from the roast.
On to the roast chicken: Alice Waters' recipe looks good, but I mixed its wisdom as to cooking times and temperatures with my mother's standby method for flavoring. I cleaned the bird (pull out the giblets, wash and dry the inside and outside of the bird), and then stuffed the cavity as full as possible with a peeled and quartered onion, two halves of a lemon (squeeze the juice into the cavity), and as much thyme as I could cram in there, for lack of a more delicate term.** Then, I put dabs of softened butter all over the bird, around three tablespoons total. Salt and pepper, and then into a roasting pan and into the same 400 degree oven. I flipped the bird a few times to make sure it browned all over, but I didn't lower the temperature like a lot of recipes suggest. I'm firmly in the "don't mess with it" camp of cooking. It came out moist, well-flavored and really satisfying.
After I cleaned up from dinner, I realized I didn't have enough room in the refrigerator for an entire chicken carcass, so I made some impromptu chicken stock (we ate dinner early, so i had the four hours-plus required before bedtime to tend to it). I picked as much meat as I could off of the carcass to save for other things (chicken sandwiches, pulled chicken, etc). Then, I put the carcass in a stockpot, covered it barely with water, and added parsley, peppercorns, salt and a few bay leaves to the pot. I also cut a head of garlic in half and added both halves to the water. The carcass still had thyme, lemon and an onion wedged inside it; otherwise, I would have added them, too. Then, I brought the stock to a boil, skimmed off the foam, and lowered the heat down waaaay low. I let it simmer on the back of the stove for four hours, until it tasted good (the best judge of whether something's done or not, in my opinion). I strained the stock out, and then put it into the fridge to cool. Today, I'll lift the coagulated layer of fat off the top of the stock. I'll probably end up freezing some of the stock for some later use. In terms of the rest of the stock, I've had a hankering for some old-fashioned chicken noodle soup, and now I have the chicken bits, veggies and some noodles lying around to put into it.
In the end, one chicken will lead to at least three meals: roast chicken, pulled chicken, and chicken noodle soup. That's pretty good, I think. Here's to cooking simply!
* Celery root, I learned from Wikipedia, is the same thing as celeriac. That answered a lot of questions in my mind. I also learned that celery root is sometimes referred to as "Rastfarian turnip," owing to the tendrils coming off it that look like dredlocks. I'll leave that alone for the sake of political correctness, although I have to admit I find the nickname entertaining.
** If I knew that I was going to end up making chicken stock with the carcass, I would have saved all the giblets and other unpalatable bits and pieces that I pulled out of the cavity and then thoughtlessly tossed. I would have put on my hazmat suit (I'm kind of a sissy with the entrails, to be honest), and then put all that stuff into the stockpot. I don't have cheesecloth to wrap them up in, so I probably would have ended up rigging some sort of hydropermeable containment unit out of a tea infuser or something. Necessity is the mother of invention, especially in my bathtub-sized galley kitchen.