On a flight from Frankfurt to Boston, a four year-old boy stuck his finger into my dessert. I watched in silent horror as his pudgy finger stabbed the fudgy brownie enthusiastically, amped on the glee of his uncontained impulse. Then he licked his finger and said, "Yucky!" His palate might have been more developed than his social graces, but then again, so is mine.
It did look like a yucky brownie. A cursory internet search for chocolate brownies will yield 20 million of the ubiquitous treat, containing everything from black beans to Belgian chocolate chips. I didn't need to taste the airline's stodgy, dried out version to predict what it would taste like, although many would argue that a bad brownie is better than no brownie at all.
There's only one dish I can think of other than brownies that can inspire a similar degree of fervour and loyalty, that is as accessible as a pan of brownies to the kitchen illiterate and that can also summon forth from the bowels of the World Wide Web an overwhelming number of recipes all claiming to be its ultimate incarnation in a senseless realm where "not your momma's" and "just like momma's" are the same compliment. And that dish is roast chicken.
One of the greatest known downfalls to humankind - and I'm certain this would be instantly verified if there were a scientific method by which to measure it - is the rotisserie chicken. It could be a regular supermarket or deli rotisserie chicken bought as a last-minute dinner arrangement. But the best of all are the ones that are spit-roasted at neighbourhood shawarma joints.
As children, we weren't allowed to eat them because they were considered unclean. But as an adult, I assess risks differently, and now that I don't need to ask permission, I can make questionable choices all the more readily.
I can break down an entire rotisserie bird in 14 seconds flat while standing at the kitchen counter, and the only reason it makes it even that far is that it's too messy to eat in the car. A little tub of garlic spread and some soft fried potatoes alongside may not make a complete meal, but they do make a perfect one.
Instead of a whole chicken, the platter of grilled chicken wings at the Lebanese Flower Bakery is fantastic, as well. Once a degenerate eater of happy-hour buffalo-style wings doused in Frank's RedHot and dunked in blue-cheese dressing, I now prefer to make them at home, where I can use organic wings, get the skin nice and crispy, and chow down with a huge wad of paper towels handy.
When I arrived home in the UAE last month, I annihilated the carcase of what I mistakenly thought was a fire-roasted Cornish game hen. The bird had been marinated in yogurt, olive oil, turmeric, garlic, ginger and plenty of salt and pepper, and it was ridiculously good, from neck to nasties. Even the gristle on these birds was too good to pass up. I wanted to crunch down on the bones and cram my face into its cavity.
Chicken as a meat is depicted in Babylonian carvings that date from around 600BC. I have no idea when people began applying chicken to direct flame, but I'm amazed that when they did, they managed not to give up everything else.
Such is the nature of fire on chicken, where the first and last word is "tandoor". At home many years ago, my mother tried to wean us off our addiction to cheap carry-out tandoori chicken by trying selflessly to approximate it with a "natural" version that wasn't blackened to carcinogenic bliss or dyed with neon-pink manna. But the heat from a tandoor is impossible to simulate with a small electric stove, and we ate a lot of pleasant but distinctly un-tandoorlike chicken in a sort of curried yogurt sauce.
The sauce would break up in the heat of the oven, giving it the appearance of whole-grain mustard. But it tasted good and we ate it anyway.
When a vegetarian friend heard that old hens make the best soup (because they're too tough and stringy to roast), she asked if I wanted to "take care of" her cranky old hen that no longer laid eggs, but just ate all day and pecked at the children. My sister makes a mean chicken soup dense with potatoes, celery and milk that she calls her "chicken chowder", so I thought I'd make that. Do chickens really run around after their heads have been cut off? Yes. They really do.
Tuscan chicken under a brick and Georgian chicken tabaka usually involve a split poussin pressed under a weight and then oven-roasted or pan-seared until the skin is so crisp it crackles. A chicken stripped of its skin is a sad sight indeed. In the winter, I make comfort food such as chicken fricassee, which is built on a luscious, chocolate-coloured roux, and chicken paprikash, with a velvety, vermilion-coloured sauce of onions, butter, stock, sour cream and sweet paprika.
Pulled chicken and poached chicken, dressed with herb mayo and piled into sandwiches. And for the hardy, there's hearty fried chicken and waffles with butter and syrup.
As for the proverbial roast chicken, I'd never advertise mine as the best one ever, but it is good. The web is already overrun with recipes for a roast bird and this occasion hardly calls for one more. But here are my general guidelines for a foolproof roast chicken that always manages to taste even better than the last one I roasted:
Rinse the chicken with the juice of a lemon or in a 1:1 solution of vinegar and water before giving it a good scrub in cold water. Pat dry. Do this to remove microbes and the residual grease on the skin.
Don't use a roasting bag.
Don't be afraid to use butter.
Don't be afraid to use salt, both inside the cavity and all over the skin.
Don't neglect the cavity - stuff a lemon and some herbs and garlic in there. Do it.
I don't baste until the very end, while it's resting, because I find it ruins the skin by steaming it.
I don't truss the bird, but if I were the woman I want to be, I would. You might consider it.
Roast your chicken in a pan full of vegetables for the best simple supper ever.
Let the bird rest for a bit so the juices can settle before you carve into it.