Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Forest Cafe - and online restaurant commentary

Last night, we had dinner at The Forest Cafe - a now venerable Cambridge institution. This place, for those who don't know it, is a neighborhood bar and Mexican restaurant. It's never been a fancy environment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was for a long time an absolute dive. But that made it all the more interesting when Jim Fahey started cooking sophisticated Mexican there some twenty two years ago. In the interim, Fayhey left, and has since returned. The decor has been somewhat updated, and we've become stuck in Iraq. But that's another story.

Anyway, for the record, our dinner last evening was enjoyable. The thing I wanted to write about here is not our dinner, or even this restaurant per se - but the peculiar phenomena of the write-ups this place has garnered on the web. Before going over there last evening, I chanced to read through a bunch of diner-generated comments on Yelp . I was astonished at the number, variety, and vehemence of the comments about this place. I can't recall seeing another restaurant that's attracted such a varied lot of comments. I would love to hear from anybody who can help me understand how it is possible for people to be so broadly distributed and impassioned in their perspectives on an inexpensive neighborhood joint. Any insight would be most welcome. Thanks.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

To Roast a Chicken

A friend who had joined us for a roast chicken dinner here at Chez Noshstalgia recently asked me today to share the recipe. Truth be told, we don't to it the same every time, but there are certain basics and a couple of main variations that tend to hold true.

Basic principles:
1) Buy the best. Recently, we've been buying Eberly's Organic, Free Range Chickens and we've been very pleased.
2) Unpack, remove excess fat, wash, and dry the chicken well in advance of cooking it - at least a couple of hours, and up to 12 hours before cooking is even better.
3) Once washed and dried, season the bird - again, more time with seasoning in place is better. 2 hours is good, 12 is better. If you won't be cooking the bird within the next couple of hours, once seasoned wrap it loosely so it can breath and put it back in refrigeration.
4) When applying seasoning, apply it inside cavities, under skin directly on the breast, leg and thigh meat as best you can, and all over the outside skin. Try not to puncture or tear the skin in the process and by all means do not remove skin when cooking a whole bird.
5) Allow the bird to come up to room temp (or at least to come well up from refrigerator temp) before starting to cook it.
6) Most of the time you'll want to roast the bird on a rack, not directly on the bottom of the roasting pan. There are exceptions but they are just that.
7) Do not overcook the bird. If you have purchased a bird that provides one of those pop-up timers, you probably have the wrong bird, and you will certainly overcook it if you wait for the timer to pop. These devices are intended to prevent lawsuits relating to food poisoning, i.e. to be sure that every potential pathogen has been well and truly killed - They are not there to assure you of a delectable meal. So, how can you tell when it's done? People talk about the leg moving freely (hard to tell if bird is trussed as it should be). People talk about the juices running clear and this is a good indication if you understand what they're telling you to look for. If I can't tell any other way, I resort to an instant read thermometer in the inside of the thick part of the the thigh. But whatever you do, don't dry it out.

From here on out, we branch to various modes of (oven) roasting:
A) Very high heat, short duration. (500 or even 550)
B) Start high, then settle to moderate oven. (450 for ten minutes then down to 350)
C) Continuous moderate oven. (350)
Certainly there are other approaches in the oven, but they tend to other than "roasted" treatments and so are beyond the scope of this posting.

Our oven is a commercial convection oven and so is very fast in general. Accordingly, I will not post our times as you're not likely to see similar performance in any residential oven. That said, if you go for the high heat option you will be amazed at how quickly you can roast a chicken - and at how succulent a quick-roasted bird can be. I recommend people take a look at Barbara Kafka's excellent book "Roasting, A Simple Art" which presents a number of variations on the quick roasted chicken theme (and many other fine recipes as well). I favor the high-heat method myself, but there are three important caveats -
1) Do not attempt this if you don't have very good ventilation. It will produce smoke and may result in your fire alarms going off if you're not exceptionally well ventilated at the oven location.
2) Do not attempt this if you have not allowed the bird to come up to (approximately) room temperature before putting it into the oven. A really cold bird won't get properly done inside before the outside burns if your oven is up that high.
3) Not recommended if you've got fresh garlic on the outside of the skin as it may burn and produce off flavors at these temps.

OK - I guess now we can get on the recipe I was asked for originally.
Prepare the bird as described above with a rub of kosher salt, freshly ground pepper (or better - a pepper melange*), fresh garlic, sweet paprika, thyme**, good Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and either freshly grated lemon zest or a drop (absolutely not more) of pure lemon oil. Truss the bird. Quick roast at high heat (make sure fan is running)

*(Pepper melange - an example: In a spice- (or coffee-) grinder, process 4 parts whole black peppercorns, 1 part white peppercorns, 1 part allspice, a little fresh nutmeg (I cut a 1/4" slice off a nutmeg and use about 1/2 of that slice), a couple of cloves (if they're fresh - more if older))

**If memory serves, on the occasion of my friend's visit, we might have had some fresh thyme on hand and so would have inserted a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme under the skin of the bird so it was in direct contact with the breast meat.

Serve with a nice salad and some crispy roast potato wedges - rubbed with the same rub, cooked in the same oven but under foil for about half the time so they don't burn. You want the high heat to crisp them at the end, but not burn them before they have a chance to cook through.

An earthy Pinot Noir would be ideal with this.