Every once and a while, my mother follows one of my recipes.
Actually, "follows" is too exacting a word for what goes on. Let's just say, every once and a while, my mother decides to cook something of mine she's seen in the New York Times.
She always calls to tell me.
"I made your pork chops with plum sauce," she says excitedly. "Except that I didn't have pork chops, so I used lamb chops. And I didn't have plums, so I used a combination of prunes and nectarines. Then your father came in as I was making the sauce and added a little ground Szechwan pepper. It was delicious!"
While I'm happy to be her inspiration for dinner, I don't consider it my recipe anymore -- it's become hers as much as anything I ever cook is "mine."
Such was the case recently with "my" roasted chicken recipe cooked on a pan full of croutons. She couldn't wait to try it, and was especially drawn to the idea of using up old, stale bread. A child of the Depression, she still remembers her mother, my grandma Lily, serving sandwiches to unemployed men on the porch. My mother just loves to be thrifty.
Still, she can't help but tweak the recipe.
"I made that roasted chicken on bread, it was terrific!" began the phone call.
So what were her changes? Did she perhaps use turkey instead of chicken, leftover bagel halves instead of bread?
"No, I followed the recipe exactly," she insisted.
I pressed on.
"Really, you used a whole chicken and day-old bread and garlic and thyme, and roasted it the same oven temperature I called for and everything?"
In fact, she followed the recipe pretty closely, for her. But she used a cut-up chicken instead of a whole bird, and stale whole-wheat bread (though she did consider dipping into the stash of bagels she keeps in the freezer along with lox and cream cheese for spontaneous brunches).
Her only profound deviation was to spread the bread with mustard.
It was a brilliant idea. Mustard would add a slight spicy jolt to the croutons, and probably help flavor the chicken pieces as well. I couldn't wait to try it. Plus, chicken parts cook faster than a whole bird, and there would be less of a chance for the bread to burn.
But wait, I asked my mother, what did you do about stuffing the cavity with garlic, lemon, and bay leaf, since cut-up chickens have no cavities?
"I used minced garlic, and then just scattered everything on top. It was easy," she said.
Next time I wanted roasted chicken, I followed her recipe -- well, as close to the letter as is humanly possible, given my genetic makeup. I bought a cut-up chicken and some good, pungent Dijon mustard, which I smeared all over the bread.
But I didn't want to bother chopping up all that garlic. So I just broke apart the head into cloves and added those to the pan, drizzling them copiously with oil so they'd soften and caramelize while the chicken roasted.
The roasting took half an hour less time then my original recipe, and as I had hoped, the mustard added a tart kick that played well with the sweet, soft cloves of garlic that we squeezed out of their skins and onto the croutons. And the chicken was as juicy and crisp as could be.
Immediately after dinner, I called my mother and told her that I'd made her recipe -- albeit with a few tiny changes. Now I'm waiting for her call with a recipe-in-reply.
Garlic and Thyme-Roasted Chicken with Crispy Drippings Croutons
Country bread, ciabatta, or other sturdy bread, preferably stale, sliced 1/2-inch thick
Mustard, as needed
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more as needed
1 (4 to 5 pound) chicken cut into 8 serving pieces, rinsed and patted dry
1 garlic head, separated into cloves
1 bay leaf, torn into pieces
1/2 bunch thyme sprigs
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Lay the bread slices in the bottom of a heavy duty roasting pan in one layer. Brush with mustard, drizzle liberally with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Season the chicken all over with salt and pepper and place the pieces on the bread, arranging the white meat in the center and the dark meat and wings around the sides. Scatter garlic cloves, bay leaves, and thyme over the chicken and drizzle everything with more oil (take care to drizzle the garlic cloves).
3. Roast the chicken until it's lighlty browned and the thigh juices run clear when pricked with a knife, about 50 minutes. If you like, you can crisp the skin by running the pan under the broiler for a minute, though you might want to rescue the garlic cloves before you do so they don't burn (if you don't plan to eat them, it doesn't matter so much). Serve the chicken with pieces of the bread from the pan.
From In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark, Hyperion 2010.
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