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Cooking for Mom: Zuni chicken & a comedy of errors

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Cooking for Mom: Zuni chicken & a comedy of errors

Alice Patis | May 10, 2005 05:07 PM

My brother, sister and I gifted our mom with a cooked-from-scratch dinner this weekend (the only gift she would accept). This is more difficult than it sounds. Our mom is not only a traditional Asian mom who ends one meal by immediately prepping for the next, she’s become an expert in every cuisine in the book. Well maybe not Ethiopian but I don’t know how to make one Ethiopian dish.

So the only upperhand I have on her is a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. But seeing as it wasn’t thanksgiving this weekend, I decided my turkey & dressing skills could still come in handy, so for my share I picked the Zuni Café Roast Chicken & Bread Salad that Carb Lover posted about. By the way, here’s what our menu was

A Vinaigrette Slaw with walnuts – by my sis
Roasted Cauliflower in Panko – by my BIL
Grilled Whole Tri tip – by my bro, the grill king
Roast Chicken with bread salad – by me
2 kinds of Couscous (Israeli and Whole Wheat) – by me

(BTW, my hubby is missing from this list. Smart move. Actually, his contribution was dessert from the frozen section at Trader Joes. Even smarter move.)

We didn’t have much time to cook since we spent the day kayaking on the Potomac and walking around Georgetown before getting home, showering, and starting at 5:30. But no worries, still plenty of time. It was my first time with this recipe, but I’m a veteran of roast birds of all sizes, so rather than bring/read the whole book, I took a photocopy of the recipe. I started by preheating my sis’ oven with her cast iron skillet inside. Meanwhile, I made the broth (okay I doctored a TJ’s box of broth) for the couscous and started the steps for the bread salad. I used a high-fiber multi-grain bread because of some our dietary restrictions. I had toasted/dried out the bread the night before. I had also seasoned the chicken the day before per the instructions, and I opted to use a Persian spice rub for some added flavor.

The first sign of trouble came when I asked my sis for the arugula, which we bought the day before. Not in the fridge. Not on the counter. Not still in the bag in the car. Not in the basement fridge. What, the freezer? Gasp. Yup. She accidentally left it in there when she was putting away something else. Okay, so it’ll be a wilted bread salad. Not the end of the world.

The second sign of trouble was 15 minutes after turning it on, the oven didn’t seem to be even WARM. Sis said the old oven takes a while to preheat. Okay. Half an hour later, it was only warm. Hmm. Bread salad was prepped. Couscous broth was done. Sis and BIL fiddle with oven controls, matches, etc. and assure me it’s lit, just taking awhile. 15 minutes later, the oven still only warm, we try the Broil setting, which seems to work fine, so we turn it down to 500 degrees. A short while later, I take out the skillet & place the chicken on it. There’s only a FAINT sizzling sound of skin hitting pan. Hmm. I put it in the oven & hope for the best. Parents soon arrive and there’s no hissing and sizzling sounds in the oven at all. Does sis have an oven thermometer? No. But she has a meat thermometer, right? No. At this point I give up on calling it a Zuni Café chicken, and turn to the grill, but the steak’s still on the grill.

An eternity and a half later, steak is done, and skillet with "dried & warmed" chicken gets put on the grill, now set on very high heat. But I forget to notice the time (a mistake I rarely make, but I was distracted by my mom, who wants to hear her daughters play a duet on my sis’s new piano). When I come back, the little pointer on the grill’s heat gauge is way past HIGH. I take a look and see the skin crisping up nicely, sizzling just right. But I turn it down anyway. 10 minutes later, the pointer is just above medium, so I turn it back up.

My BIL also gave up on the oven for his cauliflower, so he places it in the broiler drawer and turns it to broil. Minutes later, he opens the broiler drawer to see a black head of cauliflower. Great. Atleast we’re able to scrape it off, but there went the panko crumb covering.

Meanwhile, I go out to flip the chicken, and the sputtering grease and sticking skin convince me to go with Alton Brown’s advice that flipping ain’t necessary. I go back to the kitchen and figure out how to finish the bread salad sans oven, and I finish the couscous.

When I get back to the chicken (it’s been on the grill about 45-60 minutes), the skin is golden dark brown. I go to wiggle a drumstick when I realize I’ve had it breast side DOWN this whole time. The wiggle test tells me it’s done, so I resign myself to less-than-perfect-looking bird. I lift the bird and I see the underside is JET BLACK. Now we're eons away from less-than-perfect-looking. I quickly turn off grill, grab oven mitt, and bring skillet into the kitchen, burning my palm because the mitt’s no match for the cast iron. I make it to the sink without dropping everything, and do damage control. So the breast skin is gone. Atleast the juices are clear and the meat still juicy looking. The pan juices are too scorched to use however. I cut it up and there’s not much juices for the "wilted arugula, not-really-softened bread" bread salad, but oh well. An hour later than planned, dinner is served.

Amazingly, the chicken is perfectly moist at the breast. It’s a tad dry at the drumstick. The part of skin that wasn’t burnt is perfectly crispy without being fatty. And it’s not overly salty. Considering what it went through, I’d say that’s pretty good. From my past experiences, a wet brine has given me the best results, but I think this recipe won me over with its dry brine method. My mom actually liked the bread salad, though I thought it was on the chewy dry side. The biggest test was whether she asked for my recipe. Sadly, I failed that measure.

So it’s back to learning from the Zuni book for me. At any rate, if any of you want to do a grilled version of Zuni’s chicken, at least now you know it can come out pretty well, even with wildly disastrous mistakes of the most comedic proportions. The biggest lesson? Don’t cook at my sis’s house.

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