By Elizabeth Speth
Dear Julia, Lyle and Leland:
As you know, your mother has been a vegan for more than two years now. For health reasons primarily, I switched to a plant-based diet two years ago, and it’s working out very well.
But you also know I love pork products. So much.
You know how I feel (very, very good) about raw oysters and a smear of bone marrow on crusty, buttered bread. You still hear me talking about hamburgers, thick and rare, smothered in brie and bacon. And cheese…lordy, do I love cheese.
So I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to cook for you, you beloved carnivores, while I virtuously scarf down my legumes. Because of you I still make cream sauces, rare meat, cheese plates, buttery desserts. Because of you the kitchen still fills with the smells of these foods.
But there is something you may not know, because I have tip-toed around telling you for years. In my defense, you spent the last decade as prickly adolescents who did not welcome a lot of gushing on the part of your mama.
I don’t hold that against you. It was as it should be.
And now, you are all grown, and our conversations are filled with logistical questions. When will we see you? How is school going? Are you getting enough rest? What are your plans for the future?
No wonder you don’t always want to talk.
So what I haven’t told you is that I cooked for you — then and now — as a way of saying how very much I love you. That I hope the world will always be a warm place for you. That people will be careful with you. That you will be strong and nourished and understand that life is both work and pleasure, sometimes all in the same meal, as it were.
That, having eaten so many of the same meals, you will stick together. At least in spirit.
I wanted you to know that life is uncertain, with dark places that you must avoid. That people — from your loved ones to your leaders — will switch loyalties. That we live in a world where entire planes full of people can just disappear.
I cooked to comfort you.
When you needed it, and when you didn’t, because I wanted you to store up an entire lifetime supply of comfort. I wanted you to draw upon it as needed, long after the pancakes and pastas.
Now that you are rarely home for dinner, I realize it is time to give you a tool or two going forward to comfort yourselves. I expect you to share this with your friends. Share it with all the people you love. Some of them will hurt you. Share anyway. I want to give you one of the most basic life skills ever, and I hope it will help.
I want you to have the perfect roasted chicken recipe.
Everyone should know how to cook one. But you will be among the few who do. Consider it an embrace from me. The day after you cook it, you can have sandwiches and chicken salad (hug!). The day after that, put what’s left of that gorgeous carcass in the pot and make chicken soup (kiss!).
Now, before you get started, I acknowledge that you three spend hours in the gym on a regular basis to get the kind of lean body mass that eats skinless chicken breasts and brown rice. It’s working.
The world never saw three more beautiful people.
But, at least once a month, you ought to cook chicken the way it was meant to be, under skin and on the bone. Put a little butter on the skin (yes, that’s right, I said that), because life is about moderation in all things, including moderation.
You should be immoderate, a little, now and then.
As you bite into a crackling skin and meat so tender and complex it obviously had a long conversation with marrow during the cooking process, remember that your mother loves you.
You will need:
Salt and Pepper
One young roasting chicken
Butter – 1 cube, plus a basting brush
1 Head of Garlic, unpeeled
Thyme – 1 bunch
New potatoes (small red), or sweet potatoes peeled and cut into large cubes
Carrots, cut into large, rouch chunks
Pre-heat oven to 350. If your oven is not efficient, or does not hold heat, turn it up to 375.
Empty neck and liver, etc. out of center of chicken and discard. Just get in there and do it. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity. Put butter on stovetop to melt, or into microwave. Do not burn or allow to brown.
Cut the lemon into four parts. Put TWO into the cavity of the chicken. Cut garlic head in half across center, exposing as many of the cloves inside as possible by cutting them through the middle, like this:
Put half into cavity of chicken. Put other two pieces of lemon into cavity, followed by other half of garlic head. Stuff sprigs of thyme in after, as many as you can fit in. They will be partially sticking out of the cavity. Place the chicken in a roasting pan. Brush very thoroughly and thickly with melted butter, getting it into every nook and cranny and crevice. GENEROUSLY salt and pepper the chicken. Most of the salt and pepper will run off into the vegetables, so don’t spare the seasoning.
Tuck the wings up against the body so they won’t burn. Truss the chicken by tying the ends of the drumsticks together with kitchen twine. That’s all you have to do in terms of trussing. Just tie the two ankles together. This keeps the drumsticks from burning, and the chicken from cooking too fast.
We must plan ahead to preserve the things we love.
Rough-cut the fennel, potatoes and carrots into large chunks. They should all be the same size. Arrange them around the chicken in the dish, nestling them firmly against the wings to keep them next to the body. If you have leftover butter, drizzle it over the vegetables. Put into the oven, and forget about it for at least an hour.
Just step away and let it happen. You’ve done everything you should have.
Remove the chicken from the roasting pan after at least an hour. The skin should be uniformly brown, the legs should move easily, and the liquid should run clear when you stick a knife between the drumstick and the body. Cover the chicken with foil and let rest for twenty minutes. Turn the oven up to 425, toss the veggies in the pan to cover them in liquid, and put the pan back in the oven for the twenty minutes the chicken is resting to caramelize veggies, unless they are already pretty brown.
Enjoy the meat and veggies with the broth. There will be plenty of it.
And you should also have dessert. I have some very good dessert recipes. But that’s another letter.
Very much love to each of you three (you will never now how much),