Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beauty and Brines: Roast Chicken with Za'atar Stuffing

As you may have gleaned from my earlier post on roast chicken, I am a huge fan of going organic, particularly when it comes to poultry and poultry products.  You may wince at first when you compare the prices of organic poultry and poultry products to their supermarket counterparts, but as my brilliant cousin Lea put it, you pay a premium for all the toxic stuff you DONT get.

Besides, I believe in paying your grocer or your small farmer rather than your doctor (No offense, doctors! You rock, too!)

I'm also hoping that as consumer awareness and demand grows, organic producers will thrive and multiply, making naturally grown food more accessible and affordable.

Organic chickens, particularly here in the Philippines, pose another challenge: While they are definitely tastier, they also tend to be a little leaner and not quite as plump and juicy as their artificially enhanced kin.  As it turns out, however, this can easily be remedied by taking your chicken for a dip in the brine pool.

The Brine
What's a brine?  It's basically a saltwater solution that you soak your chicken in (or turkey, or pork, or whatever you damn well feel like) to make your meat more tender (DIRTY!!!) and through osmosis, absorb and retain water to make it juicier and more succulent. Basically, the result is a PMS-ing chicken, only without the crazy hormonal mood swings.

I like using the brine recipe for chicken from Cook's Illustrated, because it's quick, simple, and I dig the geeky guy from Vermont with his "Let's try a gazillion different things, so that we know for damn sure that THIS IS ABSOLUTELY THE BEST WAY TO DO IT" ways.

I love when other people's obsessiveness makes me look normal.  Or when they do all the work.  I heart you, Chris Kimball. Please adopt or marry me and let me live in your (and America's) shiny, beautiful test kitchen.

The Cook's Illustrated brine uses only salt and sugar (to counteract the flavor of the salt). Many other recipes include fun stuff like lemon, vinegar, garlic and/or various herbs and spices.  I prefer the former because I just want my chicken to taste chicken-y, albeit more tender and succulent.  But feel free to add some flavors in there if you want the brine to serve as a marinade, as well.

Basic Brining Formula:
1 quart (4 cups) water
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 hour for every pound of meat

Some brining caveats:

1. Don't overdo it, or your meat will turn mushy, salty and generally unappetizing (THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!!). For chicken, Kimball and his CI crew suggest no more than one hour per pound of meat (I'M KILLING ME, HERE!).  My chicken was around 1.5 kilos (close to 3 lbs.), so I brined that sucker for 2.5 hours and it turned out perfectly.

2. I rinse my chicken after brining. Others don't and say it turns out fine.  Either way,  don't salt any further before cooking.

3. Make sure your chicken hasn't been chemically enhanced. Some supermarket chickens are injected with saltwater and other chemicals to plump them up.  The osmosis thing won't work, and brining those babies will only make them mushy and too salty.

4.  The dryer your chicken is when you cook it, the better.  Dry it as thoroughly as possible with paper towels and if time permits, pop into your fridge uncovered for another hour and a half before roasting.

5. Don't use iodized salt for your brine. Nasty.

6. Make sure your salt and sugar are fully dissolved.  You may have to heat your mixture to do this, after which you wait for it to cool before using.  If you're in a hurry, you can dissolve the salt and sugar with half of the water first, then use ice for the rest.

I doubled the recipe for a 1.5 kilo/3 lb. chicken, put the chicken in a large Zip-Loc bag, and then poured the mixture over it until the chicken was completely submerged. Tossed this in the fridge for two hours, after which I rinsed my chicken, patted it dry and then tossed it back in the fridge, uncovered, for another hour or so to dry completely.

Brush your brined chicken with some butter and/or olive oil, your flavors and spices of choice (no salt!) and then roast.  I tried out Eric Ripert's recipe for Roast Chicken with Za'atar Stuffing, but made several tweaks, which I'll tell you all about in my next post.

In the meantime, however, trust me when I say that if you invest in an organic chicken and these extra steps, you WILL end up with the Jackie O of roast chickens--a thoroughly tasty bird that's beautiful, briny and impeccably bred.

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