Thursday, May 15, 2014

String-Roasted Chicken

My experience in roasting over fire, admittedly limited, was with putting the meat on a spit and having someone sit around it for a while turning the spit.  Nice, fun to look at a demonstration, but tough to keep at it well.  Even the books I have read and the historical kitchens I've visited had spit roasting only.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I came across this book, The Magic of Fire by William Rubel at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. 
ISBN  1-58008-453-2
On page 62 is the introduction to String Roasting:
"When it comes to hearthside roasting, the elegant solution is to roast from a loop of cotton string hanging from a hook, a practice that lasted well into the nineteenth century.  Today, it is only in France that the system the French call a la ficelle -- on a string -- remains more than a historical curiosity."
I had a Cornish Game Hen that I wanted to try.  I reasoned I wanted a small one for my experiment so it wouldn't take too long to cook.

To summarize the instructions:

   You need a mature fire with a substantial bed of embers. 
   Truss the meat so it is as compact and as symmetrical as possible.
   Skewer the upper and lower thirds of the meat so that the skewers are parallel and at the center of   
       the meat.
On a stick!
   Hang a string from above the hearth or firepit and tie a loop in the end.  The length should get the
       meat pretty close to the embers.
   Make a loop of string and place on part on the skewer, pass the other end through the hanging loop,
       and then over the other side of the skewer.
   Adjust until the meat hangs vertically, without tilting.  Press the loops against the meat.
   Give the meat a spin.

A whirling dervish
   Put a drip pan under the bird and add 1 cup water.
   Baste the meat as needed.

Getting golden
   When the lower part looks done, flip the meat by moving the string to the lower skewer.


 Let the meat rest for 10 minutes when done.

 My Notes
I used a technique I learned a few years ago from Gervase Markham's The Complete Housewife (published in the late 1590s) for spit roasting:  he suggests you coat the bird with butter and then with dried bread crumbs.  At first you have to baste it with butter and the drippings but after a little while the bread crumbs have soaked up enough fat to take over the basting themselves.

So what I have here is a chicken that is self-turning and self-basting.  A Renaissance cook's dream come true!

This bird hung over the fire for about four hours.  It should have taken maybe one hour.  My fire was hot but I think the bird was too high above it to get enough heat to cook it to a decent internal temperature.

I liked that the outside was getting golden brown even at the top before it was flipped.  That kept me for worrying that the meat was going bad.

But after four hours I decided to finish it off in a Dutch oven.  I put it and the drippings into the oven with a bit of water then covered it.  Once over the fire I turned it occasionally until it was hot and cooked through.

The Verdict
This has to be labeled as a failure because I was not able to cook the bird completely even in four hours.  However I believe the fault was mine in not getting the fire hot enough or hanging the bird low enough over it.  This is the same error I made the first time I tried spit roasting a chicken -- and the second attempt with the needed corrections worked beautifully. 

So I will give it a failure rating but tell you that it was partially successful because the meat was tender and moist and flavorful.  I did not use any seasonings, just butter and breadcrumbs, and yet everyone who tried commented on how succulent and tasty it was.

I look forward to trying it again some time.  Now I have a better idea of what to do and how to do it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Chicken Hutspot, in the Spanish Fashion (Netherlands)

I have this lovely book entitled The Dutch Table, by Gillian Riley, which does not contain very many recipes but the ones it does have are teamed up with excellent paintings.  Many are still-life paintings of food and portraits of banqueting people or people preparing food, and were made during the "Golden Age" of genre painting in the Netherlands.  This is the seventeenth century.
ISBN 1-56640-978-0
Here is my favorite quote from the introduction:
The gorgeousness of the worldly goods displayed in paintings depicting the interiors of private houses, public ceremonies, and still-lifes seems to reflect the enjoyment by an unrepentant population of the conspicuous consumption denounced by the preachers of a theoretically austere and self-denying culture.
She also points out that the recipes "attempt to convey the spirit of the paintings they accompany, in the light of what we can tentatively deduce about the eating habits of the time."

Chicken hutspot, she says, is a medieval Arab recipe, arriving in Holland by way of Spain.  There is the more traditional beef hutspot which contains onions and parsley and often carrots.  That is the basis of the accompanying painting, by Gerrit Dou (1613 - 1675), "Young Woman Chopping Onions."

The dish gained recognition in 1574 from an event in Leiden:  The Spanish had besieged the town for months and so the community leaders decided to open the sluices to flood the enemy.  This worked and Leiden was free.  "A small boy crept into the deserted camp and there, still simmering on the dying embers, was a cauldron of stew.  An abandoned hutspot."  This victory is celebrated in Leiden every October 3 with dancing and communal feasts.

The chicken hutspot appealed to me the most as I am very fond of chicken and of dates and of the spices recommended for the dish.

Chicken Hutspot, in the Spanish Fashion

For 6 people

1 free-range chicken, cut into pieces (I used 6 boneless, skinless thighs)
1 cup white bread crumbs
marrow from a marrowbone, or butter
ginger, cinnamon, saffron, sugar, and salt to taste
lemon peel, in slivers
1 cup dates, stoned and chopped

Cook the chicken pieces in water or stock made from the carcass until tender, then add the bread crumbs and seasoning, together with the dates and lemon peel, and simmer for about half an hour, until the flavors have amalgamated.

Use butter instead of bone marrow, if expedient.

My Notes
One aspect of this recipe that stood out to me was that the cooking should be very slow and gentle.  No rushing here!  Everything went into a large cast iron fry pan and that worked well.

I cooked the chicken in a broth at a very slow simmer for 20 minutes, and about half that time there was a lid on it to help cook the top.  The broth came up about 3/4 of the height of the thighs.  This cooked them almost all the way through and they were very tender.

The recipe didn't specify it but I took the thighs out of the broth after the 20 minutes so I could add the other ingredients and whisk them together well.  Then I added half of the dates, replaced the chicken on top of those, and then added the rest of the dates.

I made the bread crumbs by putting two frozen dinner rolls in the blender (one at a time) and processing them until they were fine crumbs.

Butter was expedient for me.

My taste wanted 1 tsp of cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/8 tsp ground saffron, 1 tsp sugar, and no salt because the broth already had salt in it.

The lemon zest was finely grated and was from about half of the small lemon I had.

I only used about 1/2 tsp of butter because there was already fat from the chicken in the sauce.

Then I let the flavors amalgamate for 30 minutes over the lowest possible setting on my range.  I made sure to spoon the sauce over the top of the thighs several times while they were cooking.

The sauce thickened beautifully and coated the meat well.

The Verdict
Oh my goodness.  The sauce was absolutely wonderful!  Thick, not too sweet (which surprised me because of the dates), just a bit spicy from the cinnamon and ginger, and the lemon zest -- oh!  the lemon zest! -- was the perfect addition.  It added a bit of sparkle and citrus perfume to play off against the other flavors.  The dates made the sauce nicely crunchy.

Pairing it with the very tender meat was heavenly.  Once I finished a thigh I used a roll to get all the rest of the sauce because it should not go to waste.  My taste buds are still doing the happy dance as I type this. 

What a success.  I would do this again in a heartbeat.  It would be an excellent main course for company and easy to prepare, too.  It definitely needs that 30 minute amalgamation time to thoroughly infuse the zest with the rest of the spices.

No wonder Ms. Riley quotes historian Simon Schama as saying this recipe is "the perfect way to sanction abundance without risking retribution for greed."

I'm going to have a second piece now.