Of late, cooks have attended to many a kitchen fundamental, for example, the pantry as the go-to for sequestration cuisine or the comfort of back-to-basics baking.
But to my mind, the most fundamental of all things culinary — the foundation of the fundament, as it were — is the recipe. Without it, cooking doesn’t occur. Oh, some cooks will (grandly) state that they “don’t use recipes,” but it’s like trying to talk without air; it cannot be done. Even their slap-dash or mish-mosh, a little of this and some of that? There’s their recipe.
As such, recipes are worth attending to, too. So much about them is interesting to follow: how they came to be in the course of history; the evolution of the term; and the manners in which they have been passed on or written or preserved.
None of this matters to dinner tonight except to illustrate that the entire history of the recipe is about the meaning of process and that is its great lesson.
Recipes are stories about food. In the modern versions, they have beginnings (ingredients), middles (directions) and endings (dinners tonight).
That way wasn’t always so.
In the Latin declension of the verb “recipere” (here meaning “to take” or “to receive”), “recipe” is the second person singular, imperative form. It commands you to “take,” hence the first word of countless recipes, “Take … .” But the original recipe-makers were what we call pharmacists who fashioned what were called (back to Chaucer’s English of the 1300s) “receipts,” or formulas or mixtures of various medicaments in aim of healing. (“Receipt” didn’t come to mean a confirmation of goods sold until the 1700s.)
When you see the “Rx” outside of a CVS or Walgreens, you’re seeing shorthand for the word “receipts” (or the first “recipes”).
Recipes for cooking as we know them, such as today’s (“Take the chicken … “) are a modern phenomenon, from only the mid-1800s.
Before then, recipes were short stories, in fact, narratives aimed at those who both already knew cooking and were familiar with the dish described.
Take even this simple recipe for “a buttered apple pie” from Amelia Simmon’s “American Cookery,” our country’s first cookbook, published in 1796. It reads like a wee story: “Pare, quarter and core tart apples, lay in paste, cover in same; bake half an hour, when drawn, gently raise the top crust, add sugar, butter, cinnamon, mace, wine or rose-water.”
A modern cook (certainly a modern baker) would ask all sorts of questions. How many apples? At what temperature to bake? And, especially, how much of each of the flavorings?
The modern recipe evolved because cooking did. Cooking went from the concern of those who already knew what they were doing to instructing those who didn’t, especially the newly educated (that is, those who had learned to read) and the newly propertied (that is, those who could afford the ingredients).
All to say that the audiences for recipes change, but not what recipes mean. They tell stories about the processes that we call cooking.
So, “Take … .” And get cooking.
Roast Chicken (Several Ways)
This is a straightforward recipe for roast chicken, with several suggestions for capturing the flavors of different countries as turns on the OG. In order to achieve crisp skin, here are overall tips: Before roasting, do not put oil or butter under the skin; while roasting, do not baste, or add onions or other vegetables to the roasting pan, or pour broth or other liquid into the roasting pan. If you don’t desire crisp skin, do any of those.
- 1 4-pound whole chicken
- 3 tablespoons butter, unsalted and at room temperature
- Freshly ground black pepper and kosher or sea salt
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
Take the chicken and rinse it well, drying it inside and out with paper towels. Place it, overnight and uncovered, in the refrigerator in order to dry out the skin.
To prepare: Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Truss the chicken if desired. Insert the garlic cloves into the chicken’s cavity. Assure that that chicken’s skin is dry and slather the butter all over it, including on and under the thigh meat. Place it on a low rack in a shallow roasting or sheet pan (or merely on the pan’s surface) and salt and pepper it liberally.
Roast it, without basting it, for 60-75 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh meat (being careful not to touch the bone) reads 165. Remove the chicken, place it on a cutting board, and let it rest, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes (and up to 25 minutes) before carving it, being sure to include as much of the crisp skin as possible.
North African Roast Chicken: Omit butter and begin with a rub of 2 tablespoons olive oil. Midway through the roasting, spoon over the chicken a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil mixed with 1 teaspoon harissa and pinches of the powders of cinnamon, cumin and coriander (and 1/4 teaspoon rose water if you have it).
Greek Roast Chicken: Insert a lemon cut into halves into the chicken’s cavity before roasting. Omit butter and begin with a rub of 2 tablespoons olive oil. Midway through the roasting, spoon over the chicken a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil mixed with 1 teaspoon crushed dried Mediterranean oregano and 1 teaspoon honey. Squeeze the juice from the roasted lemon halves on servings.
French Roast Chicken: Use half the amount of butter to begin. Midway through the roasting, spoon over the chicken a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon crushed dried herbes de Provence. Garnish servings with chopped fresh herbs.
Asian Roast Chicken: Omit butter and begin with a rub of 2 tablespoons peanut, almond or walnut oil (although not sesame oil). Midway through the roasting, spoon over the chicken a mixture of 1 tablespoon oil, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons honey and 1 teaspoon grated fresh (or dried) ginger. Garnish servings with sliced scallion.
Spanish Roast Chicken: Omit butter and begin with a rub of 2 tablespoons olive oil. Midway through the roasting, spoon over the chicken a mixture of 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon each crushed dried sage, dried rosemary needles and smoked or plain paprika (and a pinch of saffron if you have it)
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