10 November 2014

Food Lab 30: Chicken

In which the Food Lab Crew attempts to convince your humble correspondent that I am wrong.

I've long agreed with Anthony Bourdain on the subject of chicken: it's what people order when they don't know what they want.

Don't get me wrong. I have no objection to curry chicken stir fry, or Indian butter chicken, or a spicy, complex chicken mole. The thing is, those dishes are not about the chicken - the chicken is the blank slate protein on which the delicious sauce is crafted.

And don't even get me started on the current popular abomination that is the boneless, skinless chicken breast. That, to reference another of this weekend's activities, is definitely NOT "good eats," despite the fact that I spot so many in people's carts at the grocery store. What is wrong with you people?

So I am not really a chicken eater - pretty much EVERY other animal protein tastes SO much better, why would I bother?

Do you spot the problem?

No chicken = no chicken bones = no homemade chicken stock.

Now chicken stock, on the other hand, is incredibly useful as a soup base, for risotto, for pan sauces, for reheating items, or to boost the flavor of your rice or quinoa or barley. And while commercial chicken stock is not nearly as dreadful as, say, commercial beef stock (OH MY GOD NEVER EVER USE THAT FOR ANY REASON I AM NOT KIDDING), it definitely pales in comparison to a good, homemade chicken stock.

Also, pate. You need whole chickens to get the livers to make pate.

So Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee laid out the challenge: prove me wrong on chicken. No tricks, no ethnic spicing, no fancy sauces. Chicken that, pace Julia Child, tastes of the chicken and nothing else, and IS good eats.

So Chef Spouse procured five birds from the poultry guys at Eastern Market, and the Labbers, plus the Eggman and a VERY pregnant Die K├╝nstlerwranglerin, assembled to make them good to eat.

But first! Pate!

As you may recall, we've already labbed pate, but Chef Spouse still has not been 100% satisfied with his. The taste has been fine, once we realized that simpler is better - a little allium, salt and pepper, cognac, a SMALL amount of juniper and/or allspice - but the texture has not been pleasing to him. Too dense/stiff. He decided that this weekend was the time to fix that. The key? Obvious and simple (but not easy): some heavy cream and a tamis. Adding heavy cream lightens up all that liver. Pressing all the pate through the tamis takes time and you do lose some product, but the difference in the texture is dramatic. Totally worth it.

OK, on to the chickens.

The Executive Committee had gone to the source - Mastering the Art of French Cooking - and chosen four methods for us: two oven (roasted and roasted casserole style in a Dutch oven) and two stove top (saute and fricassee). Since Chef Spouse had purchased FIVE chickens, we opted to add a brined, butterflied roast chicken to the mix.

The process for cooking chickens is relatively simple. You want to get your Maillard Reaction going, and you need some aromatics, and you need to baste. Which is pretty much what we did - the oven varieties got basted with butter and turned regularly, the fricassee followed Julia to the letter, and the saute got a nice even browning and then some quality time with some leeks, carrots, and celery.

There were several vaguely obscene moments, including comments about "bondage-ing" and the apropos arrival of Dinah Washington singing "I've Got You Under My Skin."

Bondage chicken

In the meantime, cocktails. This ended up being the summer of shrubs for us, so we decided to play around with various shrub-tails.

What is a shrub?

It's a Colonial era method of preserving fruit that involves the fruit, vinegar, and sugar. Shrubs have recently enjoyed a renaissance in cocktail culture, and the Washington Post food section did an article on them early this summer that proved to be excellent timing, as we made a large variety over the ensuing months to help us deal with the bounty of the CSA and the garden. They're excellent taken neat, as a base for a vinaigrette, with club soda, or, of course, in cocktails.

We've done several "fun with garden produce" evenings with the Food Labbers and Food Lab visitors over the past several months (all of which were good fun and good eating, but none of which amounted to a full lab) that featured various incarnations of shrub-tails, but this was the first time we included them as part of a full lab.

In the traditional 3-1-1/4 (or so) cocktail ratio, we experimented with:
  • Mad Kitchen Scientist's latest batch of kitchen gin - lemon bay shrub - limoncello
  • Silver tequila - pineapple/pineapple sage shrub - orange bitters
  • Mount Gay rum - pineapple/pineapple sage shrub - Angostura bitters
  • Vodka - Thai basil/ginger shrub - ginger liquer
  • Rye whiskey - Thai basil/ginger shrub - absinthe (dubbed The Shruberac)
  • Kitchen gin - pomegranate shrub - rhubarb bitters
We also did a 1-1 with the rye, orange/fennel shrub, and whiskey barrel bitters, and a 1-2-3 mix of amaretto, peach/ginger shrub, and Mouth Gay rum with a little Angostura bitters. (Hey, we had plenty of time while we waited for all the chickens to be done.)

And no, we didn't use all the shrubs we have - the cucumber, strawberry balsamic, cherry, mixed berry, and watermelon mint varieties never made it out of the fridge. Told you it was the summer of shrubs.

They were all quite good, although I must admit that I favored to two rye-based drinks, probably followed by the rum-based options. 

In the end, despite The Executive Committee's observation that "two delights make an epiphany," I remain unconvinced on the merits of chicken. All of the chicken varieties were totally edible and even tasty. The only one that was better than the decadent mashed potatoes Chef Spouse made to go on the side, however, was the saute:

And that was mostly due to the excellently crispy skin and the sauce.


Chef Spouse made six quarts of really excellent chicken stock with the bones, trimmings, and veg slag, so he's happy.

And while I'll eat chicken if presented with it, Chef Spouse just needs to get in a regular cycle of buying bones (and containers of chicken livers) from the Eastern Market poultry guys like he does with the butcher and his veal bones. Because I'm never going to eat enough to keep up with the demand for stock around here when there's duck, pork, lamb, beef, fish, shellfish, game birds, venison, etc. in the world.

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