Saturday, April 02, 2005

Dinner Tonight: Balsamic Roasted Chicken

Lynne Rosetto Kaspar is a great Italian food authority. She's written several books and hosts "The Splendid Table with Lynn Rosetto Kaspar" on public radio. I've got two of her books on my shelf (The Splendid Table and The Italian Country Table) and love them both. Kaspar's writing is enjoyable to read, and both books are filled with short sidebar stories about how Italian regional cuisine's roots in tradition and history. The Italian Country Table is particularly interesting because it's focused more on rustic fare of hard-working farmers and country folks. Much of Italy's cuisine, especially rural food, is based on poverty, something Mario Batali always emphasized in his Food Network cooking shows. I grew up as a farm kid, so this topic really interests me. The following recipe is closely based off her Balsamic Roast Chicken and Potatoes (Pollo Arrosto) from The Italian Country Table. It's quick and simple to fix, plus it's a great foil for a wide range of wines from richer whites to just about any red you can name. We'll most likely pop the cork on a nice Dolcetto d'Alba to keep with the Italian bent. Balsamic Roast Chicken and Vegetables (Adapted from The Italian Table) 1 onion, quartered 3 large garlic cloves 1 Tbs dried basil (1/4 c. fresh if you have it) 1/4 tsp dried marjoram 1/4 tsp dried oregano 3 slices bacon [Note: original recipe calls for 1.5 to 2 oz. pancetta, but good pancetta's tough to find here.] 5 Tbs high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar [See note at bottom] extra-virgin olive oil salt and fresh-ground black pepper 1 3.5 to 4 Lb chicken 6 Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 2-inch cubes 8 - 10 cremini mushrooms dry white wine
  • Preheat oven to 400F. Peel and quarter the onion. Take one quarter and mince it together with the garlic, basil, marjoram, oregano and bacon. You want to finely chop all the ingredients and blend them together very well. It helps to pre-mince the onion and bacon, smash the garlic, then add the other ingredients and whack the jeepers out of them with a good chef's knife. (Do your spouse/roommate/partner a favor and clean the floor yourself after this.)
  • Mix in 2 tablespoons of the balsamic vinegar, 1 Tbs olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Cut the chicken down its backbone, lay it skin side up in a large pan (I use a jelly roll pan) and press it flat with your hand. Use your fingers to separate the skin from the flesh on the breast and legs. I have the best luck starting from the neck area and working the breast skin loose, then getting my fingers all the way down into the thigh and drumstick area. There's a tough bit of material binding the skin to the breast right along the centerline of the two breast halves. Use a knife to cut this, then you can get your whole hand into the space. (Well, I can't since I have semi-large hands, but it still helps.)
  • Smear most of the onion/herb mix between the skin and flesh, working hard to get the paste down into the leg areas. Smear a bit of the paste onto the outside of the skin. Season the skin with a small amount of salt and pepper.
  • Coarsely chop the remaining onion and slice the mushrooms. Mix together with the potato cubes and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then toss to coat. Scatter around the chicken in its pan.
  • Roast the chicken for 20 minutes, then pour 1/2 c. white wine into the pan. Cook another 45 - 60 minutes, basting frequently and turning the vegetables. The inside of the thigh should read 175F. Turn on the broiler and cook the chicken right under the broiler for 5 - 10 minutes if it hasn't browned up by this point. Remove from the oven, cover with foil and a couple kitchen towels, and let rest for 5 minutes before cutting into pieces.
  • Cut the bird into pieces, place on a platter with the vegetables and drizzle with the pan juices. Drizzle the remaining balsamic vinegar over. (See note.)
Notes on balsamic vinegar: Balsamic vinegar can be very confusing to folks. Kaspar has some good text explaining balsamic, as does Marcella Hazan in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Kaspar says balsamic runs in two categories, artisan-made and commercial. Artisan balsamic is far more than just vinegar. It's an incredible, syrupy elixer which is used in small amounts to lend great depth and flavor to foods. Artisan is also, no kidding, drunk in small quantities from a liquer glass. Commercial balsamic runs the gamut from horrid dreck which should be used only as weed killer in the garden to products completely acceptable for dressing salads or garnishing roasted vegetables with. Personally, I'd break balsamic into three categories: traditional, artisan and commercial. "Traditional" signifies the balsamic has met the very high standards of the balsamic consortiums of Modena or Reggio-Emilia. Look for the phrase "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale" on the bottle and expect to pay $100 and much higher for a 3-ounce bottle. (Disclaimer: I haven't had true Tradizionale. Yet.) "Artisan", to me, signifies hand-crafted balsamic which is good but may have just missed the consortium's grading cut. These won't be marked "Aceto Tradizionale", but should be marked as products of Modena or Reggio-Emilia. Expect to pay $35 - $60 per 8 oz. bottle for these. "Commercial" in my ranking rates the same as Kaspar's. Trader Joe's has a terrific value commercial-grade, and Mejer's brand is just fine too.

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