Lately I keep giving people the impression that I know how to cook. Okay, I kind of do, but I don't do anything hard. All my cooking is extremely simple and only uses common ingredients. So I really don't get it when people say, "Oh wow, you roasted a chicken!" or, "You made macaroni and cheese from scratch?" Seriously, these things are way easier than they look (or taste).
John was laughing at me the other night because I was talking about how simple it was to cook something. "You women are all alike," he said. "One of you says, 'This tastes good,' and the other has to say, 'Oh, but I only cooked a simple reduction sauce with an Italian white wine and then braised a single peacock's feather along with the unicorn steak.' It's like you think taste and effort are supposed to correlate in any way. How it tastes has nothing to do with how much work it took."
Anyway, so I've decided to share a few of my simplest dishes. Rather than impress with the originality of what I'm making (which I hardly ever can), I just want to be really specific so that anyone who does not yet know how to do these easy things, can do them tonight for dinner in 20 minutes. I'm starting with roasting a chicken, because it is a delicious company meal and takes barely any effort at all. Honestly, the hardest part is taking the chicken out of the freezer.
Step One: Take the chicken out of the freezer. Ideally you'd do this about two days before you need it so that it's completely thawed. If you miss this timeframe, you can thaw it in one day in a bowl of lukewarm water on the counter, or (like me) hasten it along still further by holding it under a warm tap. Yes, that's me, always holding a slippery, cold raw chicken under the tap and sloshing warm water around in the cavity. I like to be glamorous when I cook.
Step Two: Decide when you want it on the table. Do you want dinner at six? Then a five-pound chicken should go in the oven around four. The rule is 20 minutes per pound (more if it isn't completely thawed), plus 20 minutes for resting and carving. 10 minutes before oven time is when you need to get started.
Step Three: Prepare the chicken. Before you start, take a moment to think about cross-contamination. Anything that raw chicken touches will have to be washed. So a good place to unwrap it is in your sink or on an easy-to-clean surface. Sometimes I put it on some kind of tray so that I can just wash that instead of trying to disinfect the counter. During the process, you'll probably have to wash your hands several times, so make sure your soap is handy and everything else you need is ready to hand (your dish, seasonings, scissors).
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Or 375. Either's fine.
Unwrap the chicken from its packaging. You'll probably need scissors for that. Once it's out you can just dump the scissors in the sink to wash later; you won't need them again. Go ahead and dump any juices that come out with your chicken; it's usually just added "broth" or water. Reach up that poor chicken's behind and see if there's a bag of giblets inside. Take it out. If you want the giblets (I do; such a waste to toss them!), open the bag and see what you've got. You probably have the neck, some big blobs that are heart and gizzard (sometimes more than one of each; the manufacturers just throw 'em in at random) and a floppy, dark-colored liver. Cook the liver separately or it will share its taste with the chicken. I just tip it into a saucepan to cook on the stove. The other giblets can roast in the pan along with your chicken.
Some people say to rinse the chicken inside and out and then pat it dry. I don't, because I figure someone had to do that already when they took the feathers off. And anyway, I'm going to cook it.
Plop the chicken in your cooking dish. Here are my two extra-special super secrets that make my chicken the best I've ever had: I don't use a roasting pan, and I don't put it breast-up like everyone tells you to. I put it in a Pyrex dish. Any casserole will do. An 8x8 Pyrex will hold a 5 lb. chicken if you put it in diagonally. For a bigger bird, like a turkey, those big 9x13 pans are good. And, for the special C. family touch, put it upside-down. Or rather, the way the chicken would sit if alive, breast-down. The breast is the squishier side, and the wings will look like they're nicely folded.
There are two reasons you're supposed to put it breast-up: it's easier to carve that way, and you get crispy breast skin. But I've never had any trouble carving it breast-down (and if you do, you can always flip it over once it's cooked), and I don't care if the breast skin is crispy. (If you do, you can pull off the back skin and drape a bit over each piece of breast you serve. No one will mind, or likely even notice.) The reason I cook it breast-down is because the breast is much moister. The breast cooks faster and is drier than the rest of the chicken, so when you put it facing up, it can cook too fast and dry out. When it's facing down, it cooks more slowly and sort of braises in the juices. The white meat ends up deliciously moist and not at all overcooked. No basting or shielding or tinfoil or paper bags necessary.
Once you've got it in your pan (which probably took you about five minutes) you can season it if you want. I often dump a little olive oil on it and then sprinkle on some seasonings: salt, pepper, sage, garlic, and rosemary. Whatever seasonings you like are good. Just salt and pepper is fine -- or nothing, if you're short on time. I generally wash my hands, and then use my clean left hand for dumping stuff on and my right hand for rubbing stuff into the chicken. You can just spread your seasonings over the back, legs, and wings. It takes two minutes but does make the skin super-delicious.
Step Three: Put the chicken in the oven. Then immediately turn the oven down to 350. The extra heat will help crisp the skin a bit, and then the lower heat will do the actual cooking. At least, that's what the Joy of Cooking told me. If you're concerned about the time, you can use a higher heat, but you'll have to look elsewhere for a chart that will tell you how long you need. I only know 20 minutes per pound at 350. If I use a higher heat, I generally just have to poke at it a bit to know when it's done. Also, if your chicken's still a little frozen, you will need more time or a higher temperature.
Step Four: Take the chicken out of the oven when the cooking time is up. To know if it's done, cut into the thigh (which takes the longest to cook). If it bleeds and the meat looks raw or pinkish, it isn't done. If clear oil comes out and everything looks white, it's done. (Sometimes there's a slight reddish tint on parts of the meat that touch the bone. This may be just a stain from the bone marrow. If you're unsure, just cook it longer. It's hard to overcook a chicken.)
Or, you know, you could use a meat thermometer. I don't have one.
Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes or so (this helps it absorb its juices and be moister) and then carve it up. A serrated knife seems to work best. I generally cut it into drumsticks, thighs, wings (these are usually quite small, for a kid perhaps) and two or four breast pieces. The delicious marbles of meat on the back are the cook's treat to eat in the kitchen.
And then you eat it! There are usually a ton of drippings in the pan afterward. Pour them into a jar or measuring cup and put them in the fridge. When they separate out, scoop off the fat (schmaltz) to cook your eggs or onions in, and save the broth for soup. Have everyone save their bones, and after dinner you can start some chicken stock going to be ready by tomorrow's dinner.
To make this a full meal, you can start some rice or potatoes and a vegetable a few minutes before the chicken comes out of the oven, and they should all be ready at the same time.
Preparation time: about half an hour. Total time: two hours and change. If you make it for company, you can pop it in the oven before they come, spend a couple hours eating hors d'oevres and chatting, and then when the house begins to smell delicious, you bring out this fantastic chicken and impress everyone.
At which point, I guess, you tell them, "It's so simple; I simply caught a phoenix on my way to the grocery store and then braised it in the milk of a minor goddess." Something like that.