Sunday, August 17, 2008

the cook's rewards

Today's story begins with a story. Does anyone remember Clever Grethel, from Grimm's Fairy Tales?

No? Well, maybe the name isn't familiar. You may have heard the story before. Read and see:

Grethel is a cook who happens to be a bit of a glutton. She likes her food, and she likes her wine. One day, her master tells her that he has a guest coming to dinner, and that she should roast two chickens for their meal.

So Grethel goes out to the chicken coop, kills two chickens, dresses them, stuffs them with a handful of fresh thyme, and puts them on a spit to roast. Now, Grethel might be a glutton, but she is an excellent cook, and she roasts the chickens to perfection: tender, juicy meat, and crisp brown skin, with lots of rich drippings to be soaked up with crusty bread.

Unfortunately, the guest is late. Grethel's master goes out to look for him, and while he's gone, Grethel notices that a wing on one of the chickens is just a little burnt. Grethel can't resist - the chicken smells too good - so she cuts off the wing, and eats it.

The chicken looks a bit odd with one wing missing, so she cuts off the other, and eats that too. She then looks to see if her master has returned. He hasn't, and it occurs to her that maybe he and his guest have decided to get a bite to eat at the tavern instead. So Grethel pours herself some wine (all that spit-roasting makes a girl thirsty), and eats the rest of that chicken.

Still no sign of her master, or his guest. Grethel decides that they must have changed their plans, so she pours herself some more wine, and has a private feast in the kitchen: the other roast chicken, a few slices of crusty bread, a wedge of cheese, an apple, and maybe a bit of leftover gingerbread. (I did mention that Grethel is a bit of a glutton, didn't I?)

Just as she's polishing off the last crumbs, Grethel's master returns and calls to her to ready the food; the guest is coming right behind him. He checks to see that the table is set, and starts sharpening the big carving knife.

When the guest arrives, Grethel answers the door and hurriedly whispers to him to run away as quickly as he can - her master intends to cut off his ears, and can't he hear the sound of the carving knife being sharpened?

The guest lets out a scream, and runs away as fast as his legs can carry him. Grethel then goes to her master in a huff, and tells him that his guest made off with the two fine chickens she had roasted - right off the platter, without so much as a by-your-leave!

Grethel's master, put out by the thought of the lost chickens, runs off after the guest, carving knife still in hand. "Just one, just one!" he calls, meaning just one chicken. The guest, of course, thinks Grethel's master means just one ear, and runs all the way home as though the hounds of hell were behind him.

Grethel's master presumably returned home and had a rather unsatisfying dinner of bread and cheese. Grethel presumably got away with her bit of mischief.

As for what, if any, ill-effects Grethel may have suffered from her enormous dinner - well, Grimm is silent on the subject.

I always enjoyed Grethel's story as a child, partially because I loved the thought of a private feast, and partially because the wings are my favorite part of a roast chicken. (They have the best meat-to-skin ratio, and I rarely have to fight anyone for them.)

So it was Grethel's story that I thought of when I came across Thomas Keller's recipe for simple roast chicken. As culinary instruction goes, there's not much to it - it really is a wonderfully simple recipe. But it's written in a quiet, almost conspiratorial tone that suggests that it's much better to be in the kitchen, roasting the chicken, than in the dining room, waiting for it to be brought to the table.

I used this recipe to roast a chicken for dinner with Bella and Matt the other day. We carved it up right in the kitchen, and served it with green salad, fresh green beans, and fingerling potatoes. The skin wasn't quite as crisp as I would have liked (I was worried about overcooking), but it did turn out deliciously moist.

And yes, I did get to eat the wings.

(Photos will be up in a day or two, after they've been retrieved from Bella's camera.)

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken
(From Bouchon, via

One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)

Unsalted butter
Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it's a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken — I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it's cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone — I don't baste it, I don't add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don't want. Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I'm cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip — until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook's rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be superelegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You'll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it's so good.


ayankeeinasouthernkitchen said...

Okay Adele, you tell an enchanting story which leads us to the thought of a delicous moist chicken and no photos. Even so you had me drooling without them! I do not know the story, thanks for sharing it.

Virgin In The Volcano said...

Love that story. And if you're cooking, I'd run off with the birds too! I get back into Boston just as school starts. Let's get together for lunch or dinner--real stuff and none of that New England pub food.

adele said...

Kim - Isn't it a fun story? The photos will be up soon, I swear.

Virgin in the volcano - Okay, I'll have to remember to lock the door if you're coming to dinner. :P

Jen Dockter said...

I love Keller's cooking style. Good ingredients don't need much to be good in the end. This is very similar to something I've done with cornish hens for an xmas dinner a few years back when I still ate meat.
I was also salivating at the end of reading this. I know exactly what he means by "the cook's rewards". :)

Cakelaw said...

Loved this story - I have never heard it before. Lovely chicken recipe too.

Ann said...

Mmmmmm... a perfectly roasted chicken is a thing of beauty.

adele said...

Jen - Keller does seem to have some great recipes. I may give in and buy his cookbook.

cakelaw - I'm a big fan of Grimm's lesser-known fairytales.

Ann - Indeed, it is.

Julie said...

The fairy tale sounds vaguely familiar but the Keller recipe I know and was my introduction to Thomas Keller. It made me think that he was much more of a teacher than I'd expected he'd be.