Tuesday, January 13, 2009

the virtues of staying in

Between December and just a few weeks ago, I went to a lot of holiday parties. There was my office party, Dan's office party, our friend Julie's party, and Martha's hog-fest, not to mention several last-minute invitations to either come over or go out. After a solid month of being social, I really needed to stay in, preferably in sweatpants.

I love the holidays and I love any excuse to be around my friends. But parties in general can be exhausting. The small talk with strangers, the drinking too much to get through the small talk, the nibbling on this and that and never feeling full, and the eventual realization that you're going to feel like hell the next morning because of all that nibbling and drinking. This might sound a little surprising coming someone who loves dinner parties and writes about events for a living, but even I have my limits. And the holidays usually test those limits.

Thankfully, I'm almost always ready to get back on the saddle after a night or two at home. But that time at home needs to be spent in a very specific way. Dinner needs to be good. Like really, really good. I think about what I'd like to eat if I were sitting down in my favorite restaurant and that's what we have for dinner. Luckily I never imagine beef Wellington or baked Alaska.

And then I put on my fuzzy slippers, pour myself a glass of wine and settle in for a cozy night with my cookbooks. Sometimes I make one thing, sometimes a full menu. I chop and dice and saute without looking at the clock, all while listening in to the Knicks game Dan is watching in the other room. It feels solitary and comforting at the same time.

Last weekend, I was really in the mood for roasted chicken and vegetables, the homiest thing I know how to make. Especially when there's snow piled up in your window boxes and it's too cold to make the two-minute walk to the restaurant on the corner. A salad was also in order, and we had some arugula, so I bought a pint of luscious-looking figs and gorgonzola and that was that. Dessert would be easy—rice pudding, roasted chicken's dessert equivalent.

As I was cooking, I thought about the new year and dinner parties, and how even though this menu was sort of thrown together and based upon my spur-of-the-moment cravings, it was entirely company-worthy, if you want to have a few people over for a cozy meal, or just the one person you want to be alone with on a chilly evening.

That said, I realize it's not always possible (or for some, hardly ever possible) to cook a two-hour dinner for yourself. Especially when everyone wants your time, your money, and your energy. It's a total extravagance, I know. But one that's totally worth splurging on. It's not about the food, it's about spending that time with yourself and making exactly what you want to make. Trust me, it will be one of the best meals you'll eat all year.

Saturday night dinner in
Arugula with figs, walnuts, and gorgonzola
Roasted chicken with parsnips and fennel
Rice pudding with cherries

Arugula with figs, walnuts, and gorgonzola
The term "composed salad" sounds extremely fussy, but really, it's just a bunch of ingredients arranged prettily on a plate. It is ideal for dinner parties because the dressing can be served on the side so the salad doesn't get soggy before people actually eat it. I find it really fun to play around with all the different components, placing them like a miniature still life. If you can't find or don't like figs, you could substitute pear or apple slices, but I think the figs are especially elegant.
(Serves 2 to 4 people)

For the salad:
2 to 4 handfuls arugula, washed and dried
1 pint figs, quartered
1/2 cup shelled walnut pieces, toasted
1/4 cup gorgonzola, cut into small pieces (goat cheese or any type of blue cheese would work too)

For the dressing:
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. dijon mustard
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Place a handful of arugula on each person's plate. Top the greens with the figs, walnuts, and cheese, dividing it equally among the plates. To make the dressing, whisk the vinegar and mustard together in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve the dressing on the side or if you're serving the salads right away, drizzle the dressing over the salads.

Roasted chicken
Lots of big-name chefs and food writers say that the true test of a chef is how well he or she can roast a chicken. I don't think roasting a chicken is particularly hard, but when that golden, crinkly-skinned bird emerges from the oven, it makes me feel very accomplished--like I can actually cook. It's excellent dinner party fare and can easily feed a crowd when you add some hearty side dishes like roasted vegetables (just chop them and throw them in the roasting pan with the bird). My recipe is adapted from a Joy of Cooking recipe called "roasted chicken with herbs and garlic." Feel free to vary the seasonings; I like to add lemon zest and a quartered lemon in the cavity of the bird.

1 chicken (about 4 to 5 lbs.)
3 Tbsp. melted butter
2 tsp. minced rosemary
2 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 lemon, quartered

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken and place it in a roasting pan. Slip your fingers under the skin of the chicken, and carefully separate the skin from the meat, loosening it all over the bird. This helps keep the skin crispy and allows you to spread seasonings under the skin. Sprinkle liberally with salt, massaging it under the skin, all over the chicken. Place the chicken breast-side up and drizzle with the melted butter so that the bird is evenly coated. In a small bowl, combine all the other ingredients (except the lemon) to make the seasoning mix. Spread the mix over the bird evenly. Insert the lemon pieces into the cavity of the chicken. Place the chicken in the oven and roast for about 50 to 60 minutes. The chicken is done when you insert a knife into the thickest part of the thigh and the chicken juices run clear. Remove from the oven and let the chicken rest for about 10 minutes before carving.


Megan and Butch! said...

Roast chicken is so beautiful and comforting, a perfect winter dish. Have you ever tried butterflying the chicken? I tried this out last week when I roasted one, and it worked really well and cut down the cooking time quite a lot, though if presentation is your thing it isn't quite has nice as the whole bird.
The fig salad looks beautiful too. I've only had fresh figs a few times, but each time they were a revelation.
Dan is so lucky to have someone to make him roast chicken and fig salad!

Valerie Koop said...

I'd love your rice pudding recipe. Sounds crave-worthy to me!

Daniel said...

No question, I'm lucky. But would a beef Wellington or a baked Alaska every now and then kill you, Lisa?

Just kidding, Lisa fans!

Lisa said...

Hi, Meg. I have not tried butterflying yet. Usually I do a whole bird on the weekends when I have time, but that sounds like a good idea for weekday cooking.

Thanks, Val! I am posting it next week so please check back.

I won't respond to Daniel.

Anonymous said...

Any suggestions for leftover roast chicken? We usually eat the legs and the wings. I spend alot of time thinking about what to do with the two big breasts just sitting in the frig.

Dan, you sound like your grandpa.

Lisa said...

Two big breasts just sitting in the fridge, eh? Sorry, you want ideas, not twelve-year-old boy snickering.

Some thoughts:
-Shred it for tacos or chicken enchiladas
-Chicken pot pie
-Arroz con pollo?
-Toss it in pasta, a la turkey tetrazzini: http://www.elise.com/recipes/archives/001533turkey_tetrazzini.php
-Martha's chicken salad with herbs: http://adinnerparty.blogspot.com/2008/07/summer-on-plate.html


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