To have favorites is a sign of having lived well and thoughtfully. I say this having made it to the ripe old age of 27. Which is a perfect age, really, for the appreciation of favorites, as one can have racked up quite a few, but knows that there’s an abundance of time left for the discovery of others. The trick to favorites is to never take them for granted, but to treat them, too, well and thoughtfully. This is something that I’ve learned by spending a good deal of time with two of my most favored favorites, Jim Harrison – novelist, poet, and bon vivant, and Marcella Hazan – the Godmother of Italian cooking.
Both Harrison and Hazan are unabashedly passionate about experiencing life fully, they linger over fine sauces and walks in impressive landscapes, they outline in great detail the importance of this cheese from this village for this dish (or in Harrison’s case – this rub for this brace of doves that you shot this morning). And they do it all without a single ounce of pretense. Harrison can easily spend as much time getting mournfully reminiscent about a “quick boiled pig hock” as he does about the perfect duck confit. Hazan will remind you that “there is no such thing as Italian haute cuisine because there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking.” As long as you take time making the very best meal you can – and take time to enjoy it – it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to empty your bank account for truffles and pâté.
It’s probably not all that surprising that my favorite book of Harrison’s was the first one I read – Dalva, or that my favorite recipe of Hazan’s was the first one I made – her famous Roast Chicken with Two Lemons. The first time you experience something is generally the most magical. The first apple of fall, for example, is undoubtedly the best apple. Same thing applies to snowfalls, carousels, tequila, and fried shrimp.
Hazan cured me of my belief that roast chickens are on the whole dry and sawdusty things. By stuffing the bird with pierced lemons and turning it throughout cooking to allow for redistribution of juices, her roast chicken is the most fragrant, decadent meal—sexier in some ways than a good steak. Her original recipe can be found in her book, The Essentials of Italian Cooking, and is in all ways the perfect simple chicken. I modify her recipe slightly, stuffing with one largish lemon rather than two, and adding a head of garlic and a bundle of herbs to achieve the bit of woodsiness I look for in pretty much all food.
I read Dalva in my senior year of college, when the time had come to decide what was to be done with myself and I was casting around desperately for someone to model myself after. That I landed on a wry, determined Nebraskan who could shoot a gun, ride a horse and go home to appreciate a nice Bordeaux could probably explain the strange course I find myself on.
Dalva is the story of going home, of forgiving yourself and accepting that while life will never be perfect, rare moments of true joy can carry us through even the worst times. Dalva is quietly looking for the son she gave up for adoption 20 years ago, the unexpected product of her first, and possibly only true love. She returns home to clear her head following several years in social work on the west coast and allows Michael, a brilliant but bumbling history professor, to tag along, granting him full access to her family’s journals. The result is a brilliant and, at times hilarious, meditation on family, our nation’s ugly treatment of Native Americans, and—of course—good food. For instance, here’s Michael’s reaction to a lunch prepared by Dalva’s mother, Naomi:
She had assumed I would be hungry, so had roasted a barnyard chicken with a fine sauce that had a hint of fresh tarragon, potatoes, a salad of new greens from the garden, and two bottles of chilled Freemark Abbey Chardonnay. She had turned off the porch lights and lit an old oil lamp with a white flowered globe. She had a slice of breast and a single glass of wine, and I polished off the rest of everything, down to the last drop and morsel, accompanied by the sort of light chitchat that works with good food.
In Dalva, Harrison outlines dozens of good meals, but I selected this roast chicken not only because it reminds me a bit of the one Michael eats with Naomi, but also because of the way I eat the bird myself. Now, surely you could serve this perfect chicken on a bed of greens to a guest or two. You could artfully arrange the roasted potatoes (or onions, or apples) around the bird, and carve it up on the table for your audience. That would be a fine spectacle. That is not, however, what I do. I remove the legs and wings (my favorite parts) and divide them equally between my boyfriend, M, and I. I also give each of us a nice sliver of breast – during this ritual I often devise a little scheme so he leaves the room and I can quickly eat more than my fair portion of skin. We eat with the rest of the bird between us, easily available for further picking, and a bottle of good French wine – normally a Côte du Rhône. The carcass is saved for the stockpot. Whatever’s left of the chicken—and there usually isn’t much—is normally eaten the next morning while standing at the refrigerator.
This, admittedly, is not the most glamorous way to enjoy a roast chicken – and it probably isn’t the best table manners to suck the marrow from the remaining bones (something I also do) – but this chicken is that good – and so I enjoy it thoroughly, passionately, and without pretense.
Sadly, while Harrison still roams the wilds of Arizona and the mountains of Montana (one imagines with a goutish limp) Hazan recently passed away. She will be greatly missed.
Roast Chicken With Lemon, Garlic and Herbs
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken With Two Lemons
Serves two gluttons
One 4 pound chicken
One head of garlic, halved
A largish handful of fresh herbs (I typically use rosemary, thyme and sage)
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Remove any innards/giblets and wash the chicken well with cold water inside and out. Pat the bird dry as best as you possibly can with paper towels. The drier the skin, the crispier the skin. Sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity – I normally wait to season the rest of the bird until right before it goes in the oven – otherwise you’ll just lose it.
On a cutting board, roll your lemon back and forth a few times with steady pressure to loosen the juice, then pierce it all over with a fork. The juice will leach out into the chicken while it cooks, resulting in the tastiest chicken ever. Stuff the lemon, both halves of garlic, and your handful of herbs into the cavity, and sew it up tightly using kitchen twine. Hazan warns that allowing the bird to become completely airtight may result in the chicken popping due to the collection of all that juice, but my own sewing skills have never been great enough for this to be a concern. Also, truss the legs with a bit of twine just to hold them in position—too tight and the skin may split on the sides, too loose and the skin may split in down the center as the bird puffs up.
Now, season the whole chicken generously with salt and pepper, rubbing it in as you go, and place the bird breast side down in a roasting pan. Don’t add any cooking fat, you won’t need it. And forget about that baster, you don’t need that either. Place on the center rack of your oven and allow to cook for 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and flip the chicken breast side up. I find silicone pot holders to be a huge help during this step. Try not to rip the skin, as it’s keeping all those great juices in there. If you do, though, it’s not the end of the world.
Return to the oven. Cook for another 30 minutes, then up the heat to 400° and cook for another 20-25 minutes. Hazan recommends 20-25 cooking minutes for each pound, and I’ve found that to be about right. Eat the bird the second it comes out of the oven with healthy gusto even if it means burnt fingers.
Serve with – roasted potatoes, seasonal vegetables, couscous
Drink – A robust French red of the Burgundy variety