Coq au Vin, or really ambitious and somewhat disappointing adventures in amateur meat preparation. Also: how to break down a whole chicken into pieces

mmmm frenchy

I wouldn’t normally cook two chickens in back to back weeks, but last month I ordered two chickens from a local farm with a stand at the farmer’s market and then basically forgot all about it. The day after I roasted Larry, I got a call letting me know they’d killed my birds and I could pick them up Saturday. We were still working on Larry’s leftovers, so I decided to do something other than simple roasting with at least one of the local birds.* I’d been wanting to try Coq au Vin, the "classic" French treatment for old roosters, and even though my just-butchered birds were relatively small, young chickens, I decided to give it a go. many, many hours earlier

The reason "classic" gets scare quotes is that there’s some debate about whether Coq au Vin is actually the ancient, peasant dish it’s often alleged to be or something more modern. The most compelling evidence on the side of "ancient": the ingredients and methods are typical of many other age-old European cooking traditions—it’s basically a fricassee in wine with mirepoix (onions+carrots+celery), mushrooms, herbs, and some salt pork or bacon. There are also dozens of regional variations based on different varietals of grapes and mushrooms. For example, in the Alsace region, there’s a recipe for cooking roosters that uses Riesling, morels, and cream (the epicurious version is here). Additionally, since it’s basically a time and labor-intensive way of salvaging a tough piece of meat, it seems to exemplify the ideals of frugality and resourcefulness associated with old, "peasant" traditions.

But those traditions are often invented rather than discovered. What makes Coq au Vin questionable is that despite the long history of French culinary publications, the first written reference to "Coq au Vin" doesn’t show up until 1913. A decade later, when the first recipe for "Coq au Vin" appeared in print, it presented the idea as a truly novel. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, aside from the cockscomb, which was prized as a garnish, the cock was historically regarded as indigestible.

Whether or not it’s ancient, it’s certainly a "classic" in that it’s become part of the popular canon of French cuisine, on par with other dishes like ratatouille and coquilles St. Jacques, if not quite as iconic as the baguette. In The Next Iron Chef Season 2 Episode 2 earlier this month, Coq au Vin was one of the "classic inspirations" contestants had to use as the basis for an elimination challenge (along with things like boulliabaisse, pasta puttanesca, and Greek dolmas). Although its modern popularity is a little ironic, given the difficulty most cooks would have securing the titular rooster, it’s easy to see why it would be a winning flavor combination. What wouldn’t be delicious after marinating overnight and then simmering long and slow in a lot of wine infused with the richness of mushrooms, bacon, garlic, mirepoix, and fresh thyme? I’m almost tempted to try it with an old belt or pair of worn out shoes.

That gets at the main reason I was ultimately dissatisfied with the results: it was tasty enough, but the chicken is basically expendable. As a meal, it was no better than this mushroom bourguignon and way, way more time consuming. It’s not that it’s hard, but it just doesn’t quite seem worth it. So unless I happen into some old rooster meat, I’ll stick to roasting my chickens—which is not only easier, but tastes better and takes advantage of their juicy, tender, young meat better.

*I will never get over the delightful double-entendreness of birds and women, and because I am intellectually thirteen, I will never give a chicken a classically feminine name. The idea of a "bird named Larry" just tickles me on so many stupid levels. I named this one "Biff."

Recipe and pictures below the jump

Recipe: Coq au Vin, adapted from Alton Brown

  • ~20 pearl onions
  • one whole 4-lb chicken, or 6-8 servings worth of pre-cut chicken pieces
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 2 T. water
  • 6 oz. salt pork, chopped into 1/4" cubes
  • 8 oz. cremini mushrooms (also sold as "baby bellas")
  • 1 T. butter
  • 1 750-ml bottle red wine, preferably cheap**
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped in 1-2" chunks
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped in 1-2" chunks
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 T. dried thyme or 6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • 4 cups chicken stock

Boil a small-to-medium pot of water (large enough to submerge the pearl onions), cut off the root ends of the pearl onions, and cut an "ex" in each one (I’m not sure the "x" is necessary, but it probably takes less than a minute for the whole bunch. Then, blanche the onions in the boiling water for 1 minute and remove to an icewater bath. Let cool for a minute or two and then drain. The skins should slip right off. I suspect that frozen, peeled pearl onions would be a completely adequate and way more convenient substitute if you wanted to skip this step entirely. possibly-unnecessary "x"blanched and denuded

Cut the chicken into 6-8 pieces. I was nervous about this and tried to find a guide online, but after wading through a guide to butchering chickens en masse starting with the kill and gutting, which suggested that the actual carcass breakdown was "pretty intuitive," I decided to basically start hacking at it with a sharp knife at all the places where it seems natural to hack at it. That actually worked pretty well.

I started by removing both of the wings, which separate from the body at a joint and then the legs and thighs—also connected at a joint. I had a harder time finding the hip joint, but after wiggling around with the knife a little I managed. Then I sliced the breast meat off as close to the ribs as possible, a lot like you do when you’re carving a roasted bird. And that’s it—you’re left with six pieces of meat and a carcass. Amazingly easy and indeed, pretty intuitive. Good to know, given that whole chickens are often cheaper than buying already-cut pieces, and you get a bonus backbone with enough meat on it to make a nice soup or stock sometime.

 this is biff. de-winged   de-leg/thighed biffde-breasted biff Biff is soup of the future

Season the chicken pieces all over with salt and pepper and then coat with flour by placing them, a few pieces at a time, in a plastic bag with the flour and shaking. Remove and set aside.

wheee FLASH

Meanwhile, cut the salt pork into small cubes and add to a large skillet along with 2 T. water. Cover and cook until the water evaporates. Apparently this step removes some of the salt, and perhaps a little bit evaporates, but especially if it’s covered, most of it would stay in the pot, so I’m not sure if that step was necessary either. But you do need to render the fat, so water or no, cook until the pieces are crispy and brown and sitting in a pool of hot grease. While the pork cooks, you can prep the other vegetables: quarter the mushrooms, chop the celery, the medium onion, and the carrots into big pieces, and peel and crush the garlic. The mushrooms and pearl onions are the only things that remain in the stew for serving, so you really don’t need to worry about making the vegetables bite-sized. A very rough chop will do.

When the pork is crisp, remove it to a container large enough to contain the pork, onions, and mushrooms (the latter two will cook down—a 2-3 cup container should be big enough). Next, saute the peeled onions until golden brown and remove those to the same container. Then, fry the chicken in batches for a couple of minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Does this matter when it’s just going to get simmered for hours? I don’t know. The skin is not going to end up crisp in the final dish, but perhaps the browning adds some depth to the flavor. It’s probably not strictly necessary.

 bitsy onions half of Biff, browning

As they finish browning, put the chicken pieces in a large oven-safe pot (preferably enameled cast iron according to AB, although a very well-seasoned Dutch oven or other covered casserole dish might work as well).

The last ingredient getting the saute treatment in the pork fat is the mushrooms. If there isn’t enough fat left in the pan, you can add a tablespoon of butter. Once the mushrooms start to release their liquid, remove them to the same container as the bacon and onions, cover and refrigerate.

Pour about 1 cup of white wine into the skillet and stir well to deglaze, meaning dissolve all the brown bits remaining in the pan. Add the tomato paste and stir to dissolve, adding more wine if necessary. Add the deglazing mixture to the chicken, along with the rest of the bottle of wine, the other vegetables, the herbs, and the stock. AB calls for two bottles of wine but my pot wasn’t nearly big enough and that seemed excessive for one little chicken. I did double the amount of stock he uses, though. The idea is to have the chicken and vegetables entirely submerged/floating in a pot full of liquid. Cover it and refrigerate overnight.

the dream of the hoover administration deglazing

The next day, preheat the oven to 325F, place the pot in the oven and cook 2-2 1/2 hours or until the chicken is done through (155-165F). When the chicken is done, turn the oven down to warm, remove the chicken to a separate casserole dish, cover and place in the oven.

Then, strain out the vegetables and aromatics and discard them (you’ve already gotten as much flavor out of them as they have to give). Bring the remaining liquid to a simmer on the stovetop and reduce by at least 1/2, which will take about a half an hour. Assuming you’re serving the meal with a starch (egg noodles seem standard, rice or potatoes would also be good…eh, as noted, almost anything drowning in this sauce would be good), try to time it so it’s ready around the same time as the sauce.

When the sauce is reduced and thickened, add the pearl onions, bacon, and mushrooms and cook just until heated through. If the sauce isn’t as thick as you’d like it, whisk together equal parts flour or cornstarch and water or stock, and add that to the sauce. Start with 1 T. each and increase if desired. Let the starch heat through before deciding if you need more.

to strain, I just spooned the solids into a colander held over the pot finished stew

I added al dente egg noodles directly to the pot to finish cooking in the sauce, which may have improved their flavor slightly but made for somewhat gummier leftovers than would have been ideal. In the future, I’ll keep the noodles and sauce separate. Well, and I’ll also omit the chicken entirely.

Here’s the pared-down version that I think would hit most of the key flavor elements with minimal time and effort, very similar to the mushroom bourguignon linked above and easily made vegan.

Recipe: Coq-less Coq au Vin

  • 1 bottle red wine, cheap**
  • 1 package frozen pearl onions
  • 1-2 lbs mushrooms, any variety, cut into 1/2" pieces
  • 2 cups stock, vegetable, chicken, beef, or mushroom
  • 4-6 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 t. dried
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 T. butter or vegetable oil or ~6 oz. salt pork or bacon, diced
  • 2 T. cornstarch or flour

Either cook the bacon and remove, or heat the butter or oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sweat the garlic and onions in whatever fat you’ve chosen until the latter are golden or browning. Add the mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid. Add herbs, stock, wine, and tomato paste and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until liquid is reduced by more than half. Add the pearl onions and simmer another 10 minutes or until they’re tender. Whisk cornstarch into 2 T. water or stock, add to pot and stir well.

**The reason to use cheap wine while cooking is that, much like delicate or aromatic oils, the subtle flavors aren’t going to survive the heat, especially when cooked for a long time the way they are in this dish. A few years ago, Julia Moskin reported for the New York Times on the results of a series of experiments she did to test the theory that you should "never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink." Even in double-blinds, she and her tasters consistently preferred classic dishes made with cheap wines rather than expensive ones:

Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.

It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.

Things That Won’t Kill You Volume 3: MSG

From Flickr user "The Other Dan" taken in Corktown, Toronto 

Unlike juice, which has sort of a mixed reputation even among contemporary nutritionists and doctors, MSG has been consistently demonized. Most people can’t tell you why, they just know that it’s bad. If pressed, they might tell you that it’s "unnatural," that food manufacturers put it in processed foods to con people into eating "junk," that it’s basically salt (which I’ll address in a future post in this series), or that it gives some people headaches. Or they might just gesture to the fact that it’s common knowledge that MSG is basically some kind of poison—after all, why would Chinese restaurants be so eager to reassure you that they don’t use it if it were completely benign?

A recent commercial for Campbell’s New Select Harvest Light (which is the sort of self-satirizing product name I’d expect to find in David Foster Wallace’s fiction) suggests that even if people don’t know what MSG stands for, they know that it’s bad—potentially bad enough to deter people from buying a particular brand. Reading from a Progresso Light can, blonde #1 gets through "monosodium" but stumbles on "glutamate"—fortunately, the rainbow coalition includes an Asian woman who can translate that jargon into something we all understand: "That’s MSG."

Although people may still associate it primarily with Chinese restaurant cooking, the Campbell’s ad hints at its broader prevalence—MSG and other forms of glutamic acid are omnipresent in processed foods. They’re especially likely to be found in foods designed to taste like things that have a lot of naturally-occurring glutamate (or similar molecules like inosinate or guanylate). Stock, broth, and bouillon often contain MSG, as does anything cheese-flavored or ranch-flavored, like Doritos, which actually contain five different forms of glutamate. I taste it the most in instant ramen and Chex Mix, but even though I know what it tastes like on its own, I can’t always tell when something contains it or not. When used sparingly, it may not even be possible to discern because whether the glutamate in a dish comes from a mushroom or a salt, once it’s dissolved in liquid or on your tongue, it’s the exact same molecule:

from Wikipedia, showing up weirdly gray here

So even people who think it’s "bad" and expect to feel bad after eating it probably eat MSG, at least from time to time, without even knowing it, and without suffering any negative effects.

The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Myth

The first person to suspect that MSG might be unhealthy was a Chinese-American doctor named Ho Man Kwok, who complained in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 that he experienced numbness radiating from the back of his neck down his arms, weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He had never experienced those symptoms after eating at restaurants in China, and hypothesized that they were due to either an excess of alcohol, sodium, or MSG in American Chinese cooking. The MSG explanation caught on, with one of the response letters estimating that as many as 30% of Americans regularly suffered bad reactions to MSG. The NEJM ran the letters with the title "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," and by the next year, articles in Science and The New York Times were referring to the syndrome and its MSG etiology as verified facts:

"monosodium glutamate, which has been pinpointed as cause of ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ " (NYT May 10, 1969 Page 33, Column 1)

Last year, the New York Times ran an article that attempted to set the record straight. They quoted the daughter of Chinese restaurant owners in New York City in the 1970s, who remembered the publicity around "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" as a "nightmare":

“Not because we used that much MSG — although of course we used some — but because it meant that Americans came into the restaurant with these suspicious, hostile feelings.”

From Flickr user Chinese restaurants were among the first in the U.S. to use MSG, which was mass-produced in Japan beginning in the early 20th Century after a scientist named Kikunae Ikeda isolated glutamate from seaweed-based soup stocks. In the 1940s, it had become increasingly common in a number of processed foods and cooking styles around the world, including in the U.S. American soldiers who’d tasted Japanese army rations generally agreed that they tasted better, and the difference was widely attributed to MSG. As the war industries were refitted for peacetime manufacturing, including the greatly-expanded industrial food system, there was a greater need for flavor enhancers that would make food taste good even if it was canned or wrapped in plastic and transported long distances. MSG was great at that. It was also sold for home cooks to use under the brand name Accent, which is still available in the spice aisle of many grocery stores, and as a major component of Maggi sauce, a Swiss brand, and Goya Sazon seasoning blends, popular in the U.S. primarily with Latino/a and Caribbean immigrants.

It’s not entirely clear why Chinese restaurants were singled out, aside from the random chance of Kwok having weird feelings after eating at them. MSG was then, and still is, everywhere in American food. I suspect that it has something to do with a latent or repressed xenophobia. However, the success of Chinese restauranteurs and the fact that MSG didn’t really cause any physical symptoms were probably just as important—Cuban restaurants, where pork shoulder is often rubbed with a mixture of spices including MSG, weren’t nearly as common as Chinese restaurants. And if it had been called "chicken stock, Doritos, bologna, and Stove Top stuffing syndrome," that would have been far more difficult to accept for all the people who ate those things regularly without experiencing strange numbness and heart palpitations.

Which, of course, they generally don’t.

That’s Exactly what Forty Years of Research Has Found

No study has ever been able to find statistically significant correlations between the consumption of MSG and any of the symptoms associated with what was eventually re-named "MSG symptom complex" in 1995. According to a review article published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy in April 2009:

Descriptions of MSG-induced asthma, urticaria, angio-oedema, and rhinitis have prompted some to suggest that MSG should be an aetiologic consideration in patients presenting with these conditions…. Despite concerns raised by early reports, decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.

Even studies involving self-identified "MSG-sensitive" subjects failed to find a significant increase in the frequency of MSG-attributed symptoms. In one study, only 2 of 130 self-identified "MSG-sensitive" subjects responded to MSG in 4/4 treatments. Additionally, no one’s ever found any clues as to why MSG, which is just the isolated form of a naturally-occurring amino acid salt, would cause numbness or heart palpitations.

The Fat Rat Caveat

Peanut & Missy, from Flickr use "a soft world" 

A decade before Kwok’s letters on "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" were published, some scientists began doing research on the effects of MSG on mouse brains. In 1968, a neuroscientist named John Olney, also known for his work on aspartame, attempted to replicate earlier studies where mice were fed massive amounts of MSG via feeding tube. The most dramatic result wasn’t in the brain, where he was looking, but their bodies: the mice fed MSG became "obese" (which had a different medical definition in 1968 than it does now, but still referred to unusual fatness). Given that glutamate registers as "deliciousness," one might assume that the difference was that the MSG-fed rats just liked their food a lot more and ate past satiety, but the MSG was administered by feeding tube, so taste shouldn’t have had anything to do with it. Based on his work, manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using MSG in baby food.

Subsequent studies have repeated the finding: mice and rats fed large amounts of MSG gain weight, and it’s not entirely clear why. As far as I can tell, the amount of food they consume is generally controlled, although if they have free access to water, perhaps they’re drinking like crazy to make up for amounts of MSG as high as 10 g per day, out of 100 g food total. However, the mice in most of the studies are fed amounts of MSG that far exceed what a human even surviving on instant ramen and Doritos alone would consume. There’s no evidence that the amounts typically consumed as a flavoring do any damage to people, no matter how young. People all over the world eat MSG all the time, both in processed foods and home-cooked foods, seemingly without suffering any negative effects. The growing consensus among people who’ve looked at the research is that

"toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts" (Harold McGee On Food and Cooking 2004).

But it does seem like vast amounts of MSG can cause weight gain, sluggishness, and brain lesions in the retinal and hypothalamus regions. I’d advise against getting 10% of your daily intake of food from MSG.

 A Nutritional Yeast Connection?

from Flickr user A random suspicion I haven’t been able to confirm is that MSG might be similar in many ways to nutritional yeast, the worst-named ingredient in the world. Nutritional yeast, also known as "nootch," is primarily used by vegans and some vegetarians as a flavoring agent that adds a slightly cheesy, deeply savory flavor to things ranging from popcorn to sauces to seitan. It also makes a tasty breading for tofu.

According to Wikipedia, "Modern commercial MSG is produced by [bacterial] fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses." Nutritional yeast, on the other hand, is "produced by culturing yeast with a mixture of sugarcane and beet molasses, then harvesting, washing, drying it." Obviously whatever bacteria they use to ferment MSG results in a different product, but I wonder if they aren’t just different iterations of the same process. Ferment some sugar and molasses; in one case, extract the salt composed of sodium cations and glutamate anions and ditch the bacteria that do the fermenting; in the other, keep the yeast. Perhaps? If anyone knows more about the similarities or differences between the two, let me know.

From Flickr user "Fenchurch!"It definitely seems like MSG doesn’t have any of the nutritional benefits of nutritional yeast, which is full of vitamins and minerals and protein, but it would still be a delightful irony to discover that the maligned substance behind a million Chinese restaurant disclaimers is related or comparable in any way to a crunchy, natural food bulk bin staple.

I don’t use MSG often, largely because I prefer the yeasty flavor and nutritional benefits of nootch, but I don’t think homemade chex mix is nearly as good without a teaspoon or so of MSG, and a little bit can perk up lackluster soups and sauces. Most grocery stores still sell Accent, and increasingly carry Maggi sauce and Goya Sazon as well. You can also buy giant bags of it at Asian markets. If you use too much, it will make food excessively salty and overpower subtler flavors, so use a light hand and taste as you go.

More tips on how to use MSG and recipes in future entries.

Oatmeal Chocolate-chip Cookies: righting institutional wrongs

charming compensatory cookies and crumbs

I usually don’t find the store-bought baked goods or catering tray pastries at University functions appealing enough to eat, not because they’re likely to taste bad, but because they’re so vastly inferior to their homemade equivalents it just doesn’t seem worth it. Which is to say: I usually know better than to get excited about the food at campus meetings. But last Friday was kind of strange—it was grey and wet outside and I had eaten a pretty light lunch and was feeling generally tired and overworked. All of which added up to really wanting something, anything that would fall into the category of a "treat." And suddenly, the plastic bins of cookies next to the sign-in sheets and stack of auto-generated powerpoint presentation handouts at a late-afternoon meeting I had to attend weren’t just appealing, they seemed potentially redemptive. For a moment, I was actually genuinely glad to be stuck on campus for this stupid meeting which was virtually guaranteed to be a waste of time. 

It didn’t last, of course. The meeting was even stupider than I’d anticipated—consisting primarily of one person summarizing the contents of an article that had been attached to the e-mail demanding my presence, adding only that this information was "very interesting," and then another person summarizing a bunch of information covered in a different series of e-mail messages. Both of them made a brief  show of asking for "feedback," but thankfully had the good sense not to really let people give them any because there were 80+ academics in the room and if they’d let them start talking, we’d have been there all night. And through all of this, I’m nibbling at this cookie which turns out to be dense and floury and a little stale. It was sort of soft-but-not-fresh in the way that vending machine pastries are soft-but-not-fresh, and there was no hint of butter or brown sugar. All it did was make me want a better cookie.

So, I made some. As the disappointing cookie I happened to grab was chocolate-chip oatmeal, that’s what I made—looking for a clean substitution, I guess. I used the first recipe google served up, halved because I didn’t have enough brown sugar for a full batch and didn’t need three or four dozen cookies to make up for one bad one. No chocolate chips, either, but I had some bulk Callebaut milk chocolate leftover from a candymaking project, so I chopped some of that up. Normally I prefer a darker chocolate in cookies, but I wasn’t going for perfection here. My motivating principle was that basically any homemade cookie would kick basically any storebought cookie’s ass. And these totally did.

The recipe calls for a relatively high proportion of butter to dry ingredients, so they spread out thin and lacy, almost tuille-like—definitely not the recipe to use if you prefer thicker or more cake-like cookies. They also contain twice as much oatmeal as flour, which makes them really chewy, but they stayed soft even after they cooled. If you’re more a fan of the crisp, shattering type of oatmeal cookies, again, this is not the recipe for you. The best part, like with most cookies, is how the sugar and butter caramelize, and I think that’s accented beautifully by the bits of chocolate and relatively high salt content. They couldn’t quite give me back the hour of my life I lost to the stupid meeting, but they definitely fulfilled my desire for a "treat." And definitely a go-to recipe for anytime you want a lacy, chewy oatmeal cookie.

Recipe after the jump.

Recipe: Oatmeal Chocolate-chip Cookies, adapted from allrecipes.com

creaming the butter and sugar Makes about 18 3" cookies

  • 1/2 cup butter (softened)
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1.5 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 c. milk chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 325.

Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. Measure the flour, baking soda, and salt into the bowl and stir by hand until just combined. Add the oats and chocolate and stir until evenly distributed.

Drop rounded tablespoons or roll into balls approximately the size of large walnuts and place on ungreased cookie sheets.

no flash, back to the 1970s

Bake for 12 minutes, or until edges are browning but centers are just barely done. Let cool on pans for 5 minutes, just so they don’t fall apart, and then remove to wire racks. Don’t let them cool completely on the pan, or the sugar will start to harden onto the pans and they’ll be difficult to get off in one piece.

there are few things as satisfying as warm butter and sugar held together by just a little bit of flour and chocolate

Simple Roast Chicken, or more adventures in amateur meat preparation

I named this one Larry

This was my fourth or fifth roast chicken—I’ve tried it Thomas Keller’s way with almost no seasoning and no added fat, just lots of salt to dry out the skin so it stays crispy,  "Peruvian-style," which is covered in a pungent mixture of garlic, cumin, cayenne, smoked paprika, oil and vinegar, and a one-lemon version of Marcella Hazan’s "Chicken with Two Lemons." They’re all pretty great, but rather than pick a favorite I seem to be settling into a combination of all three of those along with techniques and tips and techniques I’ve picked up from so many random places I can’t remember where and give them proper credit.

The basic formula is lots of garlic, lemon zest, rosemary, salt, and pepper tucked underneath the skin with the whole zested lemon and a few extra cloves of garlic shoved into the cavity. I truss it—no stitching, I just tie up the legs so it stays together—and rain kosher salt all over the skin. Then I roast it in a pre-heated cast iron pot at 425F for 20 min breast-up, 20 min breast-down, and 20 min breast-up or until the internal temperature is between 145-150F. I let it rest 15-20 min before carving, and usually serve it with a green salad.

nice, polite dinner portionWe typically carve off the breasts and drumsticks and eat them like polite adults, with a knife and fork, but when we finish with that, we inevitably start picking at the remains with our fingers. After a few minutes of that, we abandon all propriety and flip the body over to dig out the oysters and lick the juices dripping down our hands and wrists, making little guttural noises. When’s the last time a boneless, skinless chicken breast made you do that?

after the carnage--the little spoons about 1/3 of the way down from the top are where the oysters wereA day or two later, after using the leftover meat in salads or sandwiches or omelets or quesadillas, I simmer the carcass for 4-6 hours with a bunch of vegetable peelings I accumulate in a zip-top bag in the freezer, along with a clove or two of fresh garlic, a couple of carrots and celery stalks if I have them around, and some thyme and bay leaves. That yields about two quarts of pretty amazing chicken stock. When we’re out of stock, it’s time to buy another chicken.

Details and pictures of the process after the jump:

Recipe: Roast Chicken

  • 4-5 lb chicken
  • 1 lemon
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 1 T. kosher salt
  • 1 t. black pepper
  • Dijon mustard, to serve

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Remove any giblets and save for the stock. Crush and peel the garlic cloves, and slice 3 of them thinly. Zest the lemon. Mince the rosemary.

Larry and friends

Combine the lemon zest, rosemary, sliced garlic, black pepper, and about 1 t. of the salt and stuff underneath the skin of the chicken.

seasoning blend you can see the slices of garlic peeking through the skin a little in the upper left

Truss the bird by tucking the wings up and under the back like so:

tucking the wings

Stab the naked lemon with a fork or toothpick a half a dozen times, and insert it into the cavity along with the crushed cloves of garlic and some more rosemary. Then, take a long piece of kitchen twine or unwaxed dental floss, and loop it under both drumsticks. Make an "x" between the drumsticks and loop the twine under the opposite drumsticks, like you’re making a figure 8 around them.

truss, truss, truss the bird I know, it's lewd.

Then wrap both ends around to the other side of the bird and tie a knot or a bow that sits just underneath the severed neck.

okay, "severed neck" might be off-putting, but I like remembering that Larry was alive and be-limbed once

Rain the remaining 2-3 t. salt all over the outside of the skin, and let it rest so it comes to room temperature while you preheat the oven to 425 for 30 minutes with a cast iron pot large enough to hold the chicken inside.

When the oven and pot are hot, carefully place the chicken breast-side up in the pot and set a timer for 20 minutes. If you want to, you can oil the pan, but the fat from the skin will seep out and should prevent it from sticking. When the timer goes off, carefully flip the bird (lolz) and set the timer for another 20 min. Repeat that one more time so it finishes breast-up.

The USDA thinks your chicken should be cooked to 180F, which is probably why so many people think chicken is inherently dry, boring, and terrible. Salmonella can’t live at temperatures higher than 163, but I’ve seen a number of recipes saying you only need to roast chicken until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 145F. My general rule with meat is to cook it to the lowest recommended temp I find, so 145F is the mark I shoot for. The other indicator with chicken is whether or not the juices run clear (instead of pink or red). The one time I let it go to 155F, it was too dry for my taste, and when I overcorrected in the other direction and took it out despite getting internal readings in the low 140s, the juices on the cutting board looked bloody. The temperature will continue to rise another ten degrees as it rests, so if you’re very concerned about food safety, go ahead and let it go to 155F, but much higher than that and you’re going to end up with dry, flavorless chicken.

roast chicken 014While it rested, I decided to throw together a green salad. I had a heel of very stale bread, so I diced that up and tossed it in some of the fat from the pan and seasoned salt (dried onion, dried garlic, salt, black pepper, and parsley) and put it in the oven on a piece of crimped foil to toast. Then, I washed some lettuce and diced some carrots and topped that with some leftover roasted cauliflower from dinner a few nights ago. I make a quick dressing by whisking together one part white wine vinegar to two parts olive oil with about a teaspoon of Dijon and some more of the seasoned salt.

Simple, delicious luxury. I still try not to eat a lot of meat, or eat meat with every meal, but this is one of those things that makes me really glad I’m not a vegetarian anymore.

Thanks for the meal, Larry.

Against the Soda Tax

awesome depth of field courtesy of Stephane Pompougnac http://www.flickr.com/photos/vox_efx/3063389109/

Although many states already tax soda (usually a fraction of a penny per ounce), a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the potential benefits of a $0.01 per ounce tax on "soft drinks, energy drinks, sports beverages, and many juices and ice teas" has re-ignited the debate about whether or not we need a national soda tax. Back in July, Obama said a sin tax on soda was "an idea we should be exploring" in an interview with Men’s Health although in the recent panic about industry profits and personal liberties, the White House has been quick to note that they haven’t yet and have no plans to propose anything like it. 

Most people probably already know how the two sides shake out: promoters argue that soda makes people fat (which allegedly makes people sick and thus incurs social costs) so the tax would have the dual benefit of reducing the costs associated with obesity and generating money that would help cover health care costs (or balance state budgets). Opponents argue that soda isn’t morally distinct from many other elective behaviors that sometimes (but not always) contribute to disease and health care costs, and as soda consumption is inversely correlated with income, taxing it would disproportionately burden those least able to pay.

All of those are actually pretty complicated claims, some of which I’ll try to unpack below the jump but here’s the short version: even promoters admit that the tax isn’t likely to meaningfully reduce obesity or the diseases associated with it (note: not caused by it, as there’s still no reliable evidence that fatness causes any disease besides osteoarthritis, and anyone who wants to hear more about that should consult Paul CamposThe Obesity Myth, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics, Glen Gaesser’s Big Fat Lies, and/or Michael Gard and Jan Wright’s The Obesity Epidemic). That means the only real argument in favor of the tax is that it would raise money. But everyone agrees that it would be a regressive tax. So unless you think that collective costs like state budget deficits and health care reform should be disproportionately shouldered by the poorest citizens, there is no good reason to support the soda tax (and this goes double for ill-considered suggestions that we just axe corn subsidies instead—also after the jump).

1. Even advocates claim the tax would only lower demand modestly. According to a study that hasn’t been published yet (referenced in the New England Journal of Medicine article) the price elasticity of soda is –0.8 to 1.0, meaning if the price of soda is increased by 10%, consumption should decrease by 8-10%. The $0.01 per ounce tax would actually increase the cost of a 20 oz soda about 20% (unless you’re buying it at a sporting event), so presumably it should decrease consumption by up to 20%. I’m a little skeptical about that, and am looking forward to seeing how they determined its price elasticity, but I sort of doubt that soda is "unit elastic" meaning the percent change in demand will always be approximately equal to the percent change in price. Unit elasticity usually relies on the assumption that a good is readily replaceable—perhaps they assumed that tap water serves all the same dietary, social, and psychological functions as soda? Or that regular soda drinkers will switch to diet if there’s a $0.15 to $0.20 incentive? Nonetheless, their simultaneous insistence that this tax would address state budget problems or fund health care in any meaningful way is predicated on the fact that it’s not likely to decrease demand significantly. Most soda consumers will be more than willing to pay another dime per can of soda.

2. Although sugary drinks have probably contributed to the relatively small average weight gain over the past few decades, no one really thinks soda alone is what’s making people fat. Even for people who might reduce their soda consumption as the result of a sin tax, The New England Journal of Medicine estimates (conservatively by their own admission) that people would probably compensate for an average of 25% of the lost calories by eating or drinking more of something else. If people rely on soda as a source of a "sugar buzz" or have what might be called an "addiction" to sugar, it seems likely that they would compensate with other sugars. Some might substitute with diet soda, but it’s worth noting that longitudinal studies suggest that people who drink diet sodas actually have a greater chance of being obese than people who drink regular sodas. The causal arrow is almost certainly obesity—>drinking diet soda and not the other way around, but if drinkers of diet soda are more likely to become obese than drinkers of regular soda, that certainly challenges the notion that soda is a necessary cause of obesity. The relationship certainly isn’t as linear as the relationship between cigarettes and smoking, which it’s often compared to. And proposed "twinkie taxes" that would levy other calorie-dense, low-satiety and vitamin-poor foods haven’t gained any political traction because just like soda, it’s possible to consume things like frappucinos, Doritos, Wonderbread, instant ramen, or "fast food" remain non-obese. Plus, unlike soda, each of those does contain nutrients generally recognized as desirable. Despite all the cultural stigma and personal shame associated with some "sinful" foods, the healthfulness and morality of most things we eat and drink turns out to be a little too tricky to legislate.

3. The idea that this tax would be limited to "sugary" drinks is almost certainly not going to work in practice. Restaurants and gas stations aren’t going to start charging a different price for their diet soda and unsweetened iced tea than they do for their regular soda and sweetened iced tea, especially when they have self-service soda fountains. While there’s actually nothing more objectionable about taxing unsweetened iced tea or diet soda than regular soda (less, probably, if the former are more likely to be consumed by wealthier people), there’s a good reason the supporters of the tax aren’t calling for it: there’s no moral defense of a tax on soda water or unsweetened iced tea. No one thinks plain soda water makes people fat or causes disease (okay, I’m sure someone somewhere does, but they probably also think crystals heal people and agave nectar is "natural" and microwaves communicate your private personal information to the aliens who abducted Kennedy). 

Some people, even those who are opposed to the tax like Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason.com, have suggested that we could just eliminate corn subsidies instead. Mangu-Ward notes that the projected annual revenues from the soda tax are, coincidentally, just about equal to the subsidies we pay to corn farmers. Joe Weisenthal makes a similar suggestion over at The Business Insider.

The first problem with this idea is that, as I’ve mentioned before, the farm cost of the corn in soda is only 1.6% of the price. Less than 2 pennies of a $1.20 bottle of soda go to the farmers who grow the corn that becomes high fructose corn syrup. Even if the elimination of the subsidies doubled the price of HFCS, the cost of soda would only go up a cent or two.

The second problem is that not all subsidized corn becomes HFCS. Less than 12%, according to the National Corn Growers Association. Most of it, as anyone who’s seen King Corn or read Michael Pollan knows, is used to feed livestock (how much exactly is a little unclear; I’ve seen a number of claims that eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production, but those may be outdated because of the rise of ethanol. Still, the most recent stats I could find on the NCGA website claim that 42 percent of U.S.-grown corn is fed to domestic livestock. The upshot: a substantially larger part of corn subsidies go towards feedlot beef than soda).

Rather than having a comparable effect as taxing soda, Mangu-Ward’s plan is far more akin to a tax on feedlot beef. And that, more even than the power of corn growers, is what would make it politically impossible. Weisenthal mysteriously suggests that it would be politically easier to eliminate "any subsidies that go towards high-fructose corn syrup," as if the industry behind the most-produced crop in the country and all the industries that rely on it have less clout than the "soda industry."

For the record, I’m not opposed to higher beef prices on any moral or economic  or even nutritional grounds. I’m not convinced that corn-fed beef is a necessary part of a healthy diet (although nor am I convinced that it’s necessarily unhealthy either, as the effects of dietary saturated fat and cholesterol seem highly dependent on what else you eat them with), and I suspect that the mass production of cheap meat might contribute to a number of environmental and social ills. I am all for reforming the seemingly-outdated system of agricultural subsidies that encourages certain kinds of farming and discourages other ones, but honestly, I don’t know exactly what that reformed system should look like. And I doubt Mangu-Ward or Weisenthal do either. I suspect that simply eliminating subsidies for the commodity grown in the largest quantities is not the best way. And in any case, it wouldn’t increase the cost of soda, fund health care, or fix state budget crises. As ever, not all simple answers are best.