Cooking is therapy. Food is love.
In times of despair we turn to food – for community, for comfort, for ritual. It’s what we know how to do.
Like many, I spent much of yesterday in front of the computer scrolling through the tragic stories about the shooting in Orlando, tears streaming down my face, sometimes holding back a sob (and sometimes not). After awhile I made myself take a break and went out to work in the yard, gently planting annuals in their pots. Then I came back in and sat in front of the computer again, trying to absorb the reality of this horrible tragedy.
It is impossible to not be completely overwhelmed with the news. 49 people killed and 50 more injured. The hate is palpable – my god! The story that bore my most gut-wrenching sobs was the one of the mother receiving text messages from her son within the Club, while the shooting was going on.
It’s so hard to pull away from that constant stream of news, but eventually you have to. I remember after 9/11 when, days later, mental health professionals said “stop watching! stop watching that film of the plane crashing into the towers, of the towers coming down”. Repeating it over and over was damaging our psyches. Watching it again wasn’t going to change anything; eventually we had to move on and deal with the aftermath. We don’t have TV, so I didn’t have that problem then. But now with the internet so accessible every minute of every day, it’s much harder for me to look away.
I finally decided I needed the therapy of cooking. Earlier in the week I had been eyeing a recipe, well actually a meal, by Melissa Clark. In case you aren’t familiar with her, Melissa is one of the many contributors to the New York Times Cooking website – a wonderful and copious trove of recipes. Melissa’s are often accompanied by an entertaining short video demonstration, which is fun too. I switched over to the Cooking site, found the recipe and headed for the grocery store (checking my phone for news while waiting in line there, I have to admit.)
Sunday nights are traditionally reserved for Roasted Chicken around here, and I certainly was ready for the comfort that brings – but I was intrigued with trying a different technique, thereby occupying my attention more thoroughly, rather than cooking on auto-pilot. Enter Grilled Roast Chicken with Spinach-Ricotta Crostini.
I’ve grilled whole chickens before (beer can chicken, anyone?), but have always been disappointed that all of the delicious juices (one of the best parts) are lost to the coals. Melissa solves that problem by employing the trusty, grill-safe cast iron skillet. Brilliant! Why hadn’t I thought of that? And after the chicken is cooked and it’s resting nearby, she recommends that you sauté some lovely spinach, or in my case swiss chard, with garlic and anchovy in the remaining chicken juices. The crowning glory is her suggestion to serve the spinach on a slice of crusty bread, also grilled and then smeared with ricotta cheese.
This whole combination hits on several of my favorites, and I knew I had to make it mine. We were not disappointed! The chicken was juicy and flavorful, with just the right amount of smokiness. The swiss chard-ricotta open-faced sandwich on the side was perfection – crunchy, creamy, smoky, garlic-y…. I also threw on some cherry tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper at the last minute. Even for pre-season tomatoes imported from Canada they were pretty terrific.
It was good to fire up the Weber with charcoal instead of using my default gas grill (you can use either, but I was looking for cooking therapy, remember? The mano e mano cooking this requires was much more in step with where I wanted to be).
All in all the necessary therapy, followed by the welcome comfort, was achieved. It’s times like this when the sadness doesn’t completely disappear, but it abates for awhile. And we can embrace the small but fundamental joys of living, all the while gathering strength to carry on tomorrow. It’s not to say the tears don’t come back once the meal is over – indeed for me they do – but still, it helps.
I adapted Melissa’s recipe slightly. She recommends seasoning the chicken at least 4 hours, and up to 24 hours in advance. I hadn’t allowed myself that time, so my chicken only got about an hour of co-mingling with the seasoning. Still delicious, though I think more time would certainly be better. I also made homemade ricotta cheese, which is so easy and definitely a step up from store-bought. I use this recipe from the The Kitchn.
There were a few other small changes as well, the recipe below is my slightly adapted version. Here is the link to Melissa’s version, and the video. I have no doubt I will be keeping this method of roasting on the grill in my permanent repertoire.
Meanwhile, I leave you with this bit of poetry, which a friend of mine shared this morning.
It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon high-quality chili powder ( I used ancho chili powder)
- 2 tablespoons herbes de provence
- 1 whole lemon, cut in half
- 1 whole head of garlic, cut in half
- 1 whole chicken (3 1/2 - 4 pounds, patted dry)
- Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
- 1/2 bottle of dry white wine, preferably Pinot Gris
- 2-4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, to taste
- 2-4 anchovy fillets, to taste
- healthy pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 pound+ swiss chard leaves, ribs removed and discarded, cleaned and chopped
- several sprigs thyme, pulled off of the stem and minced
- 4+ slices crusty country-style bread, I used an olive bread
- Fresh ricotta, for serving
- In a small bowl combine salt, pepper, chili powder and herbes de provence, Rub the chicken inside and out with the spice mixture. Stuff the lemon and garlic halves inside the cavity of the chicken. Let sit at room temperature for an hour or, if longer, in the fridge.
- Heat a gas grill, or light a charcoal grill for indirect heat (meaning pile the coals on one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty).
- Remove chicken from the fridge. Use a sharp knife to cut the skin connecting the legs to the rest of the body. Use your hands to splay the thighs open until you feel the joint pop.
- Rub the chicken with oil and place it breast side down in the hot skillet. Cover the grill and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until the breast is seared and golden and easily releases from the pan.
- Using tongs and a spatula for balance, carefully flip the chicken and cover and grill again. Continue cooking until the underside of the chicken is starting to brown, 10 to 20 minutes. Make sure the skin doesn't get too dark; it will continue to brown even as it cooks over indirect heat. You're looking for medium to golden color here, a shade or two lighter than what you ultimately want it to look like.
- Move the skillet over to the unlit side of the charcoal grill, or turn off the burners on your gas grill that are underneath the pan. Douse chicken with a healthy dose of the Pinot Gris, saving some for later.
- Cover the grill and continue to cook until the bird is cooked through, 10 to 25 minutes longer. Baste with the pan juices. When it's done, an instant-read thermometer should register 155 degrees in the breast, away from the bone. Try to maintain the grill temperature at about 400 degrees as you cook.
- Transfer the chicken form the skillet to to a cutting board. Leave the drippings in the skillet. Tent with foil to rest.
- Still on the fire, throw the garlic, anchovies and crushed red pepper flakes into the skillet with the chicken juices and cook, uncovered, until the garlic starts to sizzle and turn golden, about 20 seconds. Toss in the swiss chard and herbs and cook, stirring with your tongs, until just wilted, about 5 minutes. You can push the pan back over the coals, its its not cooking quickly. Season the greens with salt.
- Place bread slices on grill and cook until lightly charred, about 1 minute per side.
- To serve, drizzle toasts with olive oil and slather with ricotta. Top with the swiss chard and a little lemon juice. Serve alongside the chicken.