So, you promised your mom or your sweetie or your fill-in-the-blank person that you would fix them a home cooked dinner and now you are panicking because you have no idea what to do. It all seems WAY too difficult and you are thinking you will have to drag out a copy of Julia Child and start cooking last week, and that’s impossible, so you’re screwed, so why even try?
Stop worrying. Simple, honest, home cooked food is so delicious, and it’s almost a lost art these days. So, if you fix a roast chicken dinner (make sure your guests are not vegetarians, or vegans first, of course — I will have the vegan dinner plan in another post), with boiled parsley potatoes, and a salad, you will wow your dinner guest(s) without having to spend much money, time or anxiety. (Well, the anxiety part is up to you, because you’ll have to clean up your house.)
I know this is a very old-fashioned kind of meal. Very “meat and potatoes” as it were, but it’s just because it’s so basic, and so homey, that your guests will love it. Trust me.
Oh, I almost forgot dessert! For dessert, you can serve vanilla ice cream topped with fresh berries and whipped cream. If it’s winter, even better, you can serve vanilla ice cream topped with a warm raspberry sauce made with frozen raspberries and a little sugar, topped with whipped cream. I’ll talk you through it. It’ll be so elegant their eyes will pop.
A chicken: Chickens come in sizes. Roasting chickens (called “roasters“) weigh 8 or 9 pounds and will feed probably six people. Smaller chickens are called “fryers,” and tip the scales at about 5 or 6 pounds. Then there are the itty-bitty personal-sized chickens called Cornish game hens. If you are feeding about three or four people for your home cooked meal, you should buy yourself a fryer. They cost maybe $10 or less, depending upon where you live. Try to get one that’s from a local producer.
Right here let me point out what a great resource a butcher is. The guy behind the meat counter can give you great advice about how many pounds per person of what kind of meat you need, and different ways to cook meat. Make friends with your butcher and your fish guy. Ask them, “What’s good today?” Use their expertise. Ask them about marinades. These are the folks who know all about these things and they like to be asked.
“New potatoes,” about two tennis ball-sized potatoes per person. Use your judgement. Sometimes the potatoes are smaller, so, buy more. There are lots of different kinds of potatoes. These potatoes come by different names in different parts of the country. They are often (but not always) sold in a bin, rather than pre-packed in bags, which makes it easy to buy smaller quantities. These are the kind of potatoes that are not peeled before you cook them. They may be pink or white on the outside with white flesh, or they may even be purple, with purple flesh (those are a little sweeter than the white spuds). Any will do. What you don’t want are the big oblong Idaho potatoes which are the sort that you bake or mash, or the Oregold or Maine potatoes that are best for peeling and mashing. (And for those of you worried about the fact that these potatoes have too many carbs, well, just have chicken and salad.)
What looks best to you? What do you like best in a salad? Do you like baby spinach? Then get a bag of that and wash it up and let it drain in your colander. Are you partial to the greens they call “spring mix,” which has various kind of lettuces all in one bag? How about arugula? That can be a little bitter, and if you’ve never tried it, maybe you should stick with butter lettuce, which is perhaps my favorite. Whatever greenery you get, even if it says it’s been pre-washed, always wash it well. If you buy dear old iceberg lettuce, take off the outer-most layers and throw them out. They are likely to be full of insecticide, or something. Chop or tear up the iceberg, then wash it in your colander. I don’t like the very inner parts, which are yellow and kind of bitter, so I throw them in my compost bin.
If you don’t have a salad spinner. Do what my mother did, which is put your wet lettuce in a pillow case, go outside and give it a whirl to get the water out, then put it in the fridge for an hour or so, and the lettuce will be crisp and lovely.
I like to add cherry tomatoes, carrots, avocados, and sliced mushrooms to my salads. I leave onions out of a salad, just because so many people don’t like them, though I personally like onions.
It can be a bit tricky to tell if avocados (which my dad called “alligator pears”) are ripe, and I get it wrong now and then. You can ask the produce guy in the supermarket to pick one for you. An avocado needs to be dark green, almost black and give gently in your hand. If the avocado is lumpy, it’s over-ripe. I think the best way to eat an avocado is not in a salad, but just cut up, and sprinkled with salt and lemon juice. If you find enough ripe avocados, you could fix an avocado salad, and skip the bowl of greens and veggies. Give everybody half an avocado sliced on a small plate of lettuce and drizzle with a little olive oil and vinegar. Simple and elegant.
Other stuff you’ll need:
A can of whole cranberry sauce. I know you think cranberry sauce is only for Thanksgiving, but it’s not. Cranberry gives a nice sweet/tart compliment to poultry any time. I like Ocean Spray, but the store brand will be cheaper. Buy what your wallet tells you. You can get jellied, if that’s what you’re used to, but whole cranberry sauce is closer to the stuff I make in the fall.
Curly parsley. This is what we’re going to wash, chop up finely, and sprinkle on our buttered potatoes. You don’t have to do the parsley. I just think it dresses the spuds up a bit. And a bunch of parsley is cheap.
Salad dressing. Usually, I would say you should make your own, but you have enough to think about, so go with a nice vinaigrette. No ranch dressing. You want something light, essentially oil and vinegar and a few spices.
Salted butter. Real butter. To hell with our cholesterol levels (and there is some thought now that butter’s not so bad). This is a special occasion, and it calls for the real stuff to provide the potatoes with the proper taste and the chicken with a nice brown skin.
Vanilla Ice Cream and a can of whipped cream. Normally, I like to whip my own heavy cream, but you may not have a mixer, and the point of this dinner is to make it as anxiety free as possible.
Fresh or frozen berries. If buying fresh berries, strawberries will be the least expensive. You’ll need a quart or so. If you find a guy selling them on the street, or a farmer’s market, that’s the best. By three little pint boxes. Raspberries and blackberries are fabulous, but they grow on very thorny bushes and are delicate, so they are difficult to harvest, which translates to a high price. Wash your strawberries, hull them (take off the stem) and cut them up, sprinkling them with a few teaspoons of sugar as you go, so they are sweet enough not to seem horribly sour next to the sweetness of the ice cream. One bag of frozen raspberries will make enough sauce for four people.
A bottle or two of white wine. Man, I am not a wine expert. If you can, ask one of your guests to bring the wine. If you can’t, about $15 will buy a decent bottle of wine, and there are many nice California Chardonnays and lighter Pinot Grigiots which will work for your chicken dinner. But definitely, try to get your guests to bring the wine. Each state, and sometimes, each county in each state sells alcohol differently, so I’m not even going to try to advise you on buying wine. Just buy what you like and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not okay wine. Except Thunderbird. I draw the line at Thunderbird, and Boone’s Farm.
Nice quality paper napkins. They can be white or colored. Folded or a big square which you fold yourself. You don’t have to have cloth napkins for your guests, but you do have to provide them with something a lot nicer than extra napkins you brought home from Subway.
Candles. If you’ve got some candle holders, candles always make an occasion seem special. Don’t get scented candles, however, because the scent will interfere with the experience of the food.
A table. I know I’m sounding picky. But if you have to clear your computer off your desk, or spend $50 for a card table at Staples, do it, because people over 18 don’t want to sit on the floor or eat balancing their dinner on their laps. If you get a card table, it will store easily and you will use it the rest of your life. If you don’t have a tablecloth, you can fold a sheet to fit. Get creative. Make place mats.
THE NEXT STEPS:
One of the most difficult things for inexperienced cooks to pull off is having everything come out at the same time. You don’t want your vegetables to be done half an hour before the main course, because they’ll get cold.
One way to eliminate some timing problems, is to substitute cold dishes for hot ones until you’re a bit more sure of yourself in the kitchen. In our menu, we’re just going to have a salad, which you can make ahead of time and stow in the fridge. Another thing to do ahead of time is to set the table. Do that before you take your shower.
To figure out when to start cooking, make a reverse timeline, starting with the dish that takes the longest to cook, which in our case is the chicken. So, if we’ve invited our guests to arrive at 6:30 PM, and we expect to sit down at 7 PM, our five-pound chicken is going to need to go into the oven at 5:30. That means you need to turn on the oven to preheat at 5 PM.
Most chickens will cook in about an hour in a low-sided pan at 375 degrees. A huge “roaster” chicken will take about 90 minutes. Cornish game hens, which make a nice meal for a single person, take about 40 minutes because they are so little. You have to preheat the oven because slowly increasing the heat on a chicken will encourage bacterial growth which is dangerous and nasty.
Wash the chicken inside and out (this is a good way to make sure you’ve taken out and tossed the giblets, which are the neck, heart and liver). Pull or cut off the fat (it’s lighter-looking, yellowish, and clings to the inside of the skin) that’s on either side of the entry into the bird. Then pat the chicken dry using paper towels. Make sure you wash your hands and the counter well with soap and water, and discard the paper towels after handling raw chicken. Chickens carry Salmonella which doesn’t make the chicken sick but can make you very sick. Make sure you take out your trash, too, because chicken parts left in the trash smell to high heaven by morning.
Bend the wings back under the bird (no reason, it just looks nicer.) Dot the top of the bird liberally with real butter. The butter will give the bird a nice brown, crispy skin. Bake (again, at 375 degrees) in a low-sided pan sprayed with cooking spray to help with cleanup. The chicken will be done when the juices run clear when you poke it with a fork. If the juices look pink or bloody, keep cooking. This is a good time to use a meat thermometer. The thermometer should read 185 degrees when stuck in the thigh, the part below the drumstick. Be sure not to touch the bone because that will give a false high reading. Mostly, you can tell a chicken is done because it smells done and is nice and brown and the legs are loose when you move them.
Quickly, to carve a chicken, it’s best to go on You Tube and look for a little movie. It’s not hard. The most important thing is to be sure you have a sharp knife. Most people have knives in their kitchens that are no better than butter spreaders, and then they wonder why carving a chicken is so hard. Sharpen your knife first, and don’t bear down on the knife, and the chicken will carve easily.
Potatoes take about 20-30 minutes to cook, and they can keep warm on the stove once done just by turning them off. So, if your guests are arriving at 6:30, and dinner is at 7 PM, start the potatoes at 6:15 PM. Cut the potatoes into golf-ball sized pieces, cover them 3/4 with water, add about a half teaspoon of salt to the water (don’t need to measure), cover and turn the heat on high. DON’T WALK AWAY! When the potatoes are boiling, turn the heat down and set the timer for 20 minutes. Check the potatoes with a fork when the timer rings. If the fork goes in, they are done, if not, wait another five minutes and check again. When they are done, drain the potatoes in a colander, put in a bowl, dab on some butter and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley.
While the potatoes are cooking, put your salad in a big bowl, and put it on your table with the dressing near it.
Just as everyone is sitting down, put the bag of frozen raspberries in the sink to defrost. After the plates have been cleared, get out the vanilla ice cream to soften a bit, while you make the raspberry sauce. Put the frozen raspberries in a 1 qt. sauce pan with a scant 1/4 cup of sugar and heat slowly, until it’s all combined and warm and juicy. I am not a good food stylist, but if I were, I’d make this into a parfait, with layers of ice cream and raspberry sauce in a wine glass, with whipped cream on top. What I generally do, is put ice cream in a cereal bowl, pour on the sauce and pile on the whipped cream. It tastes just as marvelous, it’s just not quite as pretty.
So, there you go. A yummy, chicken dinner that you can do time and again with success. In coming posts, I’ll talk about fixing rice, and about cooking vegetables. But a good, basic chicken dinner will always serve you, and your guests, well.
You can do it! Auntie Jane says so!