Traveling Crock Pot Christmas - Roasted Chicken with Gravy

The girls and I could not be more thrilled to have put together a Traveling Crock Pot Christmas potluck.

I had the pleasure of hosting--we have a fireplace and it's always great to have an excuse to break out the wood and matches!

 Almost a year ago, myself and three other women assembled our Traveling Crock Pot--a monthly get together hosted by one of us in turns to make the kind of food we usually only dream about.  We've had beef tenderloins topped with garlicky, bacony cream cheese; creme brulees; handmade raviolis; ceviches; amaretto sours; crunchy-and-soft corndogs with spicy mustard; salted caramel cheesecake with apples and, most recently, a jaw-dropping beef wellington.

What a tiny portrait of a drool-worthy year!

The idea was to break out of our comfort zones, to learn, to share food with other folks who love food and have more time with our friends.  Almost all of us have missed a dinner for various reasons, but we made a point of ensuring that for Christmas, our first-ever potluck dinner could be all of us together, and for once, including our significant others as well (the lucky boys!).

My contribution to the Christmas Crock Pot table was roasted squash boats (an old family favorite) and a couple roasted chickens.

I've always loved roasting a chicken.  My very first one came out as perfectly as I could have ever hoped (or so I thought then.  I've learned a few things since!).  And why not?  Roasted chickens are among the simplest of things you can cook.  They can come in a half a hundred flavors depending on your preference.  But doing it well so you don't end up with a dried-out bird takes a few, simple techniques.

Roasted Chicken with Gravy

Note: To roast my chickens, I employ a time-and-eye method of checking done-ness.  I have roasted a lot of chickens and I rely on my experience and careful food-handling to keep my meat germ-free.  To be safe and if you're feeling unsure, it's always safest to stick a thermometer in the fattest part of the bird, away from the bone, and get the bird to a minimum of 165 degrees.  Meat does continue to cook while resting so you are probably safe a couple degrees lower but for safest meat, the thermometer should guide you.

All for juiciest meat, this recipe employs brining.  I highly recommend anything Rouxbe offers and have consistently used their All-Purpose Brine to great success on many occasions.  For single or multipe birds, you will need to increase the base recipe they provide.  Brining requires you to begin your chicken prep the night before.

speciality tools: roasting pan

 2.5-3 lb chicken, brined
2-4 cups chicken stock

Prep: Before brining, wash your chicken.  Check out the inside and make sure there aren't organs left in there.  If there are stubs of feathers in the meat, this is NOT the best time to pull them.  Leave them for the moment.

Brine chicken overnight.

In the morning, pull out your chicken.  Why did you brine it?  Because you're artificially inflating its juice factor.  The chickens I brined gained around 45g overnight.  This is how you're going to protect your white meat from drying out.

This is the time to get rid of those feather stubs.  Grab a pair of tweezers just like you're deboning a fish.  The skin is porous from its soak and the feathers will slide right out.  Do not trim down fat from the chicken around the back--all rendered drippings will be made more flavorful with this in there and the gravy will get defatted later.

Pat chicken dry and place, without trussing, on a plate in the bottom of your fridge.  Do not cover--the air-drying time through the day will help your chicken skin get that ultra-crispy texture we all covet.

About an hour and a half before dinner, preheat your oven to 375.

Pull your chicken out.  Unless you like doing the my-cold-hands-are-cramping dance, let it warm on the counter for about 15 minutes.  I still like flavoring the breasts with a compound butter but this is not a protect-all cure for juicy-ness in your white meat; butter alone will not save you.  In this recipe, I juiced a lemon and poured half of this into a Tbsp of butter with a big whack of chiffonaded sage, salt and pepper.  Mash these together (potentially while your chicken is sitting out losing its chill) and boom--compound butter.

Place bird in roasting pan, breast up.  A pan with a rack is ideal so the bottom doesn't get soggy but a dollar-store foil pan will do as well.  Lift the skin all over the chicken and stuff the butter equally down both sides of the bird.  Massage from above the skin to even distribution if necessary.  Drizzle with olive oil and remaining lemon juice; coat the chicken with your hands and salt and pepper the bird.  Be more liberal with the pepper than the salt; it did sit in a salt bath overnight.  Stuff with onion quarters, smashed garlic, lemon husks, extra sage...whatever aromatics catch your fancy.

Pour in as much chicken stock as necessary until there is 1-2 inches in the bottom of the pan.  This serves the dual purpose of steaming your chicken as it heats for even cooking and being a key component of your gravy later.*  Place a piece of tin foil that's been ripped by one-ish inches for venting over the chicken.  Place in oven.

After half an hour, remove foil and baste chicken.  Replace in oven.  You may baste again later if you'd like but it's not necessary.

Let cook through to final cooking time, whatever that happens to be.  The twenty-minutes-per-pound rule usually falls out pretty well if you're not sure.  I usually go a little over for extra crisp.

Let the bird rest for about 15 minutes.

Achievement Unlocked: Juicy Roasted Chicken!

While it's resting, pour out the bottom of the pan into a clear measuring cup.  Let the fat rise to the top (yes, seriously, all that top part is fat) and scoop off as much as you can with a shallow spoon or siphon off with your baster.  Pour back into a small pot, bring to a simmer, and reduce as much as possible while your bird is resting.  A small squeeze of lemon or dash of white wine is nice here.  If you want thick gravy, you'll have to add a cornstartch slurry or some such.  Me, I'm happy with this reduced goodness.  When you're ready, strain this into a gravy boat, carve your bird, and get this food on the table!

*NOTE: If you would rather roast vegetables in the chicken drippings (primo delicious), pour stock in a pot instead, season with a splash of lemon juice and reduce by half (will take upwards of 40 min; reduction is not a speedy process).  You will be left with a beautiful jus if you're using natural chicken stock--the store-bought stuff will reduce to a slurry the consistency and taste of the Dead Sea.  Add harder vegetables (carrots, onions, fennel) halfway through cooking.  Add softer veg (mushrooms, asparagus) about twenty minutes before you're going to pull the chicken.


Traveling Crock Pot, Third Edition

I am honored, as ever, to have the illustrious Becky Issenman photograph my food!

I literally didn't remember to take a single picture of the finished products so if you'd like to see any of these recipes realized, check out Mrs. Becky's shots.


White bean soup with sage and prosciutto
(Not as much fat comes off prosciutto as the pancetta recommended in the recipe.  I prefer a flaky crisp on top of my soup and thus, prosciutto.  If you do as well, find some extra lard or butter to sweat your onions and garlic in.)

Bouef Bourginon
amended from food.com

Bouef bourginon is famed for being an enormous, time-consuming dish.  This is not untrue.  But you can take the heart of the dish and reduce it to be more amenable to the average cook who does not wish this dish to be the centre of their universe for five or seven hours.

I will show you my version listed below.  Keep in mind that these measurements are flexible--this has been adjusted to my taste but frankly, there are so many flavors that are so powerful here, you can fake it pretty well with any approximation of the recipe.  You can see this sentiment in the ingredient list itself--I want you to chunk and smash vegetables.  This is not a science.

That being said, while the ingredients are not exact, the method is.  Please read carefully--some professional tips I've learned to take this dish from good to great follow.

Serves 6 

specialty tools: cheesecloth (optional, but very useful)

3 oz thick-cut bacon
1 1/2 lbs stewing beef, trimmed of excess fat and cut into cubes
1/2 large onion, chunked
1 large carrot, chunked
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
several large sprigs thyme
several large sprigs parsley
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 1/2 cups red wine, divided
2 1/2 cups beef stock, divided
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, quartered
2 Tbsp butter
 9 small carrots, preferably a selection of colors, with healthy green tops.
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Cook off the bacon.  Once cooked, remove from pan and retain rendered fat in pan.  Note: Lardons are original in this recipe; I find thick-cut more accessible.  Thin-cut won't stand up to the dish.

Pat the beef dry.  This is that critical step so many of us learned from Mrs. Child.  Wet meat will take a hundred years to sear at which point, you will have cooked it through and that's not what we want here.  We want to get a nice, sealing crust on the meat.  So get the pan smoking-hot and drop in your cubes.  Sear until good and brown (this involves not touching them) and flip.  You may need to add more oil to the pan as you cook.  The meat should not be crowded and batches will be necessary. 

Achievement Unlocked: The Perfect Sear

Set all seared meat aside.  Place the chunked vegetables in the same pan and give them a light caramelizing as well.  Place vegetables and garlic into a bowl.  Toss with 1 Tbsp of the flour.  Add garlic, bay and herbs and toss lightly.

You will have what professionals call sucs in the bottom of your pan.  The brown, crispy flavor-wonders left behind by your meat and veggies.  Put the pan back on the heat and warm.  Pour in half a cup of the red wine and the tomato paste.  Stir with a gentle tool (I prefer a wooden spatula I have), scraping the pan gently to release the sucs and mix the tomato paste into the wine.  When you aren't feeling any more resistance or you can see the sucs have released into the wine, you've officially deglazed a pan.  Take it off the heat.

Achievement Unlocked: Deglazing a Pan

Place the beef in the dutch oven.  See the juices remaining on the plate?  Pour those into the deglazed pan.  That's 100% flavor you don't want to lose.  Toss the beef with the remaining 2 Tbsp flour and season with salt and pepper and place in oven for 3-4 minutes.  Toss the meat to turn, return to oven for another 3-4 minutes.  Turn the oven down to 325.

Crumble the cooked bacon and sprinkle it over the beef.  Take your cheesecloth and lay it over the meat.  Layer the vegetables and herbs over top.  The cheesecloth will allow all flavors to permeate and mix and, in a few hours, it will also allow you to lift the vegetables cleanly off the meat.  No picking thyme and parsley mush off your meat!  (Hat off to Bouchon for this tip.)

Cover meat and vegetables with wine sauce from your pan, remaining wine and 2 cups of the stock.  Throw on the lid.  Cook for at least 3 hours, more if you need the time.

Twenty minutes before you pull the dish out of the oven, prep the carrots.  Peel them and slice them lengthwise, leaving half an inch of green at the top of the carrot.  (Scrape around the top of the carrot with the edge of a knife to ensure no dirt is clinging to the place where the greens meet the carrot.)  Have two clean pans out.  In one large pan, sautee the mushrooms on high heat with butter, browning as you go.  In the second pan, place the carrots with the remaining 1/2 cup of stock.  Bring to a low simmer and braise until bright and crunchy-tender.

When you pop the bourginon out of the oven, pull the vegetables and herbs out.  They will be virtual mush--they were just there to flavor so you can green bin 'em now.  Skim meat and other residue out of sauce and into a clean cup.  Let the liquid sit long enough fat rises--defat the liquid and pour the remaining sauce into a saucepan.  Give it a strong simmer for 10 minutes or long enough to reduce slightly.

To serve, place meat, mushrooms and sauce in a bowl.  Top with three carrot halves of varying colors. Throw bread on the side of the plate for sopping up this ruby goodness.

If you're somehow blessed with leftovers, this stew only gets better as it sits.  Combine all ingredients and refrigerate.

Green Leaf Salad with Parmesan Crisp and mustard-garlic-parmesan dressing

There is really nothing to this salad.  Go wash some red lettuce, grate half a cup of parmesan and juice a lemon.

Now arrange the lettuce on the plate.

Pile the parmesan in a hot frying pan and use the back of a spoon to smooth out into the size of a circle you're happy with for your crisp.  Let it melt until the cheese is bubbling and sunk into a fine lattice.  Using a very thin tool, flip the parmesan and let it get golden on the other side.  When complete, transfer to salad or save.  Crisps are physically delicate but will keep well.  I made four crisps plus a little for the dressing with this half cup.

For dressing, mix together a teaspoon of mustard (a crunchy mustard is ideal in my opinion), very finely minced garlic (this is a dressing--don't cheat on your mince-work or you'll regret it) and half a tablespoon of parmesan.  Mix with a touch of salt, plenty of black pepper, lemon juice and olive oil.  Season to taste and let sit as long as possible before the salad is served to let the flavors meld.

Blue Cheese Walnut Bread
(Heed warnings in the comments section about the different rising times, particularly if you're not familiar with non-machine bread making.)

Cheesecake with Caramelized Apples and Salted Caramel Sauce

The cheesecake is a version of the one already on this website but sans chocolate and with a vanilla bean stirred into the milk and sour cream I warmed together for extra volume due to the lack of chocolate.  The crust was graham as here but I added cinnamon and cardamom.

Caramelized apples may be made by peeling and slicing an apple.  Toss the apples in sugar and cinnamon, ensuring thorough coating of the sugar.  Melt butter in a frying pan and when it is very hot, place apples evenly through pan.  After 2-3 minutes, flip apple.  Try to get a nice brown coating on either side; this is the sugar caramelizing and will give wonderful texture.

The caramel sauce recipe linked here has a great step-by-step guide and pictures.  Just remember melting sugar is hotter than boiling water so DO NOT under any circumstances touch it until cooled.  I did not add salt to my initial product but finished the plate with fleur de sel.


Yes, You Heard Me--Lard!

I'm working hard to get into the head-to-tail movement.  I have enormous respect for the folks who already do this.  The fact is, however, that tripe and sweetbreads and brains still weird me out.  Most of you are probably not surprised and, in fact, are nodding your heads.  

What we can do as average home cooks who find lacy caul fat a little scary is make sure we make the most of what we do take home.  Figure out how to use the cheaper or unusual cuts to make them palatable (ham hocks); figure out how many ways the resultant by-products useful (jus) and never just chuck a bunch of bones (stocks).

For me, the next step involves getting into fat.

Is fat flavor?  Yes, absolutely.  Do I make involuntary faces biting into a quarter-inch hunk of white jello?  One hundred percent.

Don't get me wrong.  I love me some bacon.  Crisped-up fat edging a good pork chop is bliss.  Without tallow, hamburgers would be awfully sad, and a slick of schmaltz over roasted vegetables is a thing of bliss.

Quick lesson--

Schmaltz is chicken fat.
Tallow is beef fat.
Lard is lovely ol' pork fat.

I encourage you today to take stock of the excess fats in your kitchen.  They're easy to store, keep for a good long while, lend great flavors to your sear or sautee and have a medium-high smoke point.  That is to say, they'll burn long after butter, but you don't want to use them in a stir-fry.

Tallow skimmed off the top of cooled beef stock.

So where are the fats in your kitchen commonly found?

Real heritage pork chops, not the kind you find on sale for a dollar at your local chain grocery, have a good round of fat on them.  Even I, who like a little fat, do not want the whole quarter inch from those chops.  Cut it off and save it--what to do is coming.

Chicken fat off a roast can be saved.  Same with beef.  You may already leave the fat on the top of a bowl of homemade stock to seal it.  When you break it, do you just chuck the creamy layer on top?  You could skim that and hold on to it as well.  Fats from beef or chicken stocks are especially good used as the lubrication to soften your soup veggies in--you're adding a layer of flavor you're already trying to highlight in a chicken noodle or beef and barley.  I always boil my smoked ham hock before tearing it up for some Split Pea and Ham soup--the fat off the top of that cooled liquid has all the smokey, salty, piggy flavor of the original meat itself.  Why would you use vegetable oil when you can hug your diced onions with smoked hock taste?

Alright, you've sold me.  Now what do I do with those hunks of fat you told me to cut off my meat?

Well, friend, it's time to render fat.  This method can be used with any fats you have around but in my household, generally speaking pork is the product I buy with any "real" amount of excess fat on it that I'll remove before even cooking.

Rendering Fat

Note: With this scrap method, you will not have lard you can use to make pastry unless you like meat-flavored pastries.  Leaf lard is required from a pig to make snowy-white, non-meaty rendered lard and that's not what you'll be cutting off your porkchops.


You can do this with any amount of fat you like--photos here show the fat off of two well-fed pork chops.  Just two!  And I had enough resulting lard to slick a number of pans.

Take the fat you've removed from the chops and cut into small (a large dice is optimal for me) pieces.  Try to keep the pieces as uniform as possible; this will help an even rendering process.  The fat does not need to be completely meat-free; you don't have to scrape it clean. 

Place fat in a small pot and cover with at least an inch of water.  This doesn't need to be precise but it should be more generous than not.  Bring water to a gentle simmer.  Let the pot simmer, uncovered, for a while.

"A while" depends on the quantity of fat you're rendering.  Check it every twenty minutes or so to ensure it's not actually boiling--the water is there to insulate the fat with an even cooking temperature and render down the solids into smearable liquids.  The water eventually steams off and you're left with just the rendered lard.

You can tell the fat is rendered when it colors.  It will start to shrink and become golden just like fat you fry.  Little bits may float off and hang out at the surface.  Stir your pot once in a while to ensure the pieces aren't sticking to the bottom.

When the fat is totally shrunk and golden, you've rendered as much as you can out of it.  Place a cheesecloth over a sieve to ensure you catch even those little floating brown bits.  These would burn in further cooking and shouldn't be a part of your final lard.  Remember that fat can get hotter than boiling water--be very careful at this stage.  Pour the fat through the sieve into a heat-safe bowl.  Give the solids enough time to be cool enough to touch.  Bundle the cheesecloth with the rendered hunks inside and give it a twist over your bowl to get all your liquids out.

Cover with plastic wrap pressing directly down on the lard and move to the fridge.

If you're worried you didn't evaporate all the water, in a few hours, you'll find out.  The water will rise to the top of the fat and form beads on the surface.  Pour this off and put the plastic wrap back down.  This will have no ill effects.

Your lard can be kept in the fridge for a month or two or freeze for more extended life.  

Or don't wait--go fry some potatoes.

Want to read up more on fat?  Check out the highly-educational Fat by Jennifer McLagan or this love-song, Schmaltz by the omnipresent Michael Ruhlman.