One would think—after working in a restaurant during the holidays for as many decades as I have—that no one cooks a celebratory meal at home any more. But I know some people do cook, or that some people want to, but are intimidated by the process. If cooking for a small group (say two to four) seems like just too much trouble, try my comforting holiday formula. There’s no big turkey or stress, but there is plenty of time to enjoy your friends and family during this hectic season.
One of my go-to meals for a special occasion—or really any occasion—is a roast chicken. The majority of the meal can be prepared in the oven, so you don’t even have to clean up the stovetop when the meal is over. At the same time the chicken is roasting, a dessert of apples and dried fruits bakes into a comforting conclusion to your repast.
Begin by seasoning the bird—and be sure to start with a good quality chicken of about three-and-a-half to four pounds. I love to use the chickens from Campo Lindo farm in Lathrop, Missouri, (available in better area grocery stores), but any good, naturally raised, preferably free-range and organic chicken is a perfect substitute. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel.
My preferred seasoning is a marinade prepared with a mortar and pestle, but you could also make it in a mini food processor. In the mortar, I combine 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt, about six cloves of garlic, two teaspoons of pimenton (smoked paprika), about 20 sage leaves (coarsely chopped), and a pinch of spicy red pepper flakes if the paprika isn’t a spicy variety. Pound the mixture to a dry paste, then drizzle in a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and continue to smash until the mixture is a uniformly textured spreadable paste. Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt inside the cavity of the bird and toss in a clove or two of garlic and any stems left from the sage. Spread the paste over the entire surface of the chicken, being sure to get into all of the little crevices.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly oil a sheet pan or large roasting pan. Peel two sweet potatoes and slice them into about 1-inch-thick rounds. Arrange them in the center of the baking dish and sprinkle with a little salt. Peel a large red (or other color) onion and slice into 1-inch-thick wedges left attached at the root. Arrange the wedges in between and around the sweet potato rounds (see photo). Pour half of the glass of wine you are drinking into the pan, as well as about a half cup of water or chicken stock, and place the chicken on top of the sweet potatoes breast side down. Place the upside-down bird in the oven and allow it to roast for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, clean and halve two generous handfuls of Brussels sprouts. Set them aside.
Next, prepare the dessert. Wash and cut two apples into quarters or sixths and cut out the cores. Place them in a small baking dish and add a spoonful of some type of jam (I like apricot or orange marmalade for this), a two-inch piece of vanilla bean, the other half of the glass of wine you’re drinking (get yourself another glass), and a small handful of chopped dried fruits (I used dates this time, but raisins, cherries, apricots, or any combination would be equally delicious).
Back to the chicken…
After the chicken has been roasting for 30 minutes, turn the chicken over so it is now breast side up. Scatter the Brussels sprouts around the chicken and stir them around a bit in the pan so they are coated in the flavorful oil accumulating there. If the roasting pan is dry, add a little chicken stock or water to prevent the vegetables from scorching. Reduce the temperature to 400 degrees. Place the dessert in the oven alongside the chicken and continue cooking both dishes. Over the next 30 minutes, occasionally stir the roasting fruits and the Brussels sprouts, and baste the chicken with the roasting juices. At the same time, be an efficient cook and do what little cleanup there is, and assemble a few little garnishes and condiments to go with the meal like cranberry chutney, Mostarda di Cremona, bread and butter pickles or fresh horseradish (see below). Have your dining companion(s) set the table. If you wanted to go all out, a few nibbles like cheese, crackers or olives would be nice to have while the chicken is resting, so gather those as well.
The full cooking time for the chicken is about one hour, depending on the size of the bird. You can check for doneness by wiggling the leg—it should move freely—and if pierced, the juice from the thigh should flow clear, not cloudy. A thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone, should read 165 degrees. Turn off the oven and remove the chicken, leaving the apples to stay warm. Cover the chicken loosely with foil and allow it to rest for about 15 minutes—so the juices can redistribute themselves throughout the bird, and you can nibble on cheese and olives and have a glass of sparkling wine.
“I love fresh horseradish grated over roasted or braised anything. Its intense, mustard-rose perfume opens the sinuses and adds a beautiful top note of freshness to long-cooked dishes. Available from your garden (grows like a weed) or in whole root form in better grocery stores.” Cody Hogan
To serve, assemble the condiments and take the roasting pan directly to the table and serve from that. If you feel particularly fancy, you can transfer everything to a platter, but remember: you’re at home, you can pick the bits of the bird vegetables that are your favorites, and it’s one less dish to clean. For dessert, just serve the warm fruits with vanilla ice cream and a selection of your favorite cookies to complete your low-stress holiday celebration.
NOTES: If you really want to free up your time the day of the meal, the chicken can be prepped the day before and refrigerated overnight. Actually, everything can be prepared up to point where the chicken goes into the oven. And sitting overnight in the refrigerator will actually improve and deepen the flavors of the dish. Just pull the chicken from the fridge an hour before cooking to allow it to warm up a little.
Mostarda di Cremona (left): This northern Italian condiment of candied fruits preserved with an eye-opening amount of mustard syrup is a perfect foil for roasted meats or as an essential ingredient in the classic Zucca ravioli. Available seasonally at Bella Napoli in Brookside or online.
Cranberry Relish (center): The assertive acidity of cranberries mellowed with sugar and accentuated with other flavors is a wonderful accompaniment to cheeses and meats. Check out locally made Janet’s Finest Cranberry Jalapeno Compote or The Kansas City Canning Company’s Red Wine Cranberry Sauce. Available at Better Cheddar on the Plaza and other fancy food shops.
Pickles! (right): Pickles are fun anytime. Let them add a little something special to your holiday spreads. Make your own or find them in the deli section of purveyors specializing in local products like McGonigle’s Market on Ward Parkway.