People love to ask, “what did you grow up eating?” Having a professional food writer for a mother makes this a particularly complicated question to answer. Yes, I grew up eating amazing homemade food. I have fond memories of ox tail stews and fresh pasta with sauce made of vegetables from our garden. I was undoubtedly a spoiled child when it came to food. I had the palate of a mature adult, requesting escargot on my 6th birthday. But, after all the lavish multi-coursed dinners, and made-from-scratch snacks that I was so lucky to grow up with, my most profound childhood food memory is one of the simplest dishes: roast chicken.
Every Shabbat, for as long as I can remember, roast chicken had a place at my family’s dinner table. People might have expected my mother to be kneading challah dough all day, or basting a brisket, but instead she opted for chicken every time.
Maybe she chose it because Shabbat came at the end to a very long week of taking care of two young, constantly bickering little girls. Maybe she chose it because she knew she could make an entire dinner, adding whatever vegetables or potatoes were around, in the same pan. Or maybe she chose it because not even the pickiest of eaters can resist the comfort of perfectly roasted chicken.
First, she would surround the chicken with vegetables, sprinkle everything with fresh herbs, and stuff the cavity with a lemon. The kitchen would soon fill with the sweet aroma of caramelizing carrots, onions and leeks. Then came the first bite: crackling golden brown chicken skin spiked with hints of garlic and rosemary. Underneath the skin, tender, juicy meat fell straight off the bone. Follow this bite with a succulent potato, softened and sweetened from the pan juices of the chicken. Welcome to Shabbat roast chicken heaven.
This was the routine that formed the basis for so many of my childhood Shabbat memories. I probably complained a few times about the repetition of chicken on Fridays. I may have even whined for mac ‘n’ cheese, like “normal” kids. But now, as a college student, there’s nothing I crave so deeply on a Friday night as my mom’s roasted chicken.
Trying to recreate a favorite childhood meal is daunting. There are high expectations at stake — that your food will come out exactly as you remember and that it will fill the gaping hole of nostalgia. One recent Friday night, in my college apartment a few thousand miles from home, I needed to remember what a “real” Shabbat felt like again. No last minute pasta, sub-par Jewish Student Union dinner, or delivery pizza, but real make-you-feel-good-and-Jewish-to-the-bone Shabbat dinner.
I invited a few friends over, cut up a few vegetables, and popped the chicken in the hot oven. My friends shocked by how few steps it took me to make a whole, real meal. They loved that it was also healthy. I called it “Cleanse Chicken” because it’s seasoned with the classic trifecta — lemon, honey and cayenne pepper — known from the “master cleanse.” The additions made the chicken a bit zestier, bolder, and spicier than my mother’s. But that first bite of juicy, moist meat covered in flavorful, crispy skin was all I needed to send me right back in time, to Shabbat dinners with family.
One-Pot Roast Chicken Dinner
Serves 4 starving college students
Special equipment: 16x12-inch roasting pan, or a disposable foil roasting pan
Olive oil One 4-to-5 pound whole chicken 1 lemon 1 1/2 tablespoons honey, or agave nectar 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved 4 fresh rosemary sprigs, leaves removed from stem, optional 1 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces, or baby carrots Four 3-to-4 ounce sweet potatoes, cut in half, or baking potatoes 2 large yellow onions, peeled and quartered Salt and pepper, for sprinkling
1) Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Generously drizzle olive oil on the bottom of the roasting pan.
2) Remove and discard the innards of the chicken, if the butcher hasn’t already done so. Rinse the inside and outside of the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Place the chicken breast-side-up in the pan.
3) Cut off one end of the lemon and squeeze some lemon juice over the chicken. Stuff the lemon into the cavity of the chicken. If it falls out during the cooking process, this is ok.
4) Rub the outside of the chicken evenly with the honey and cayenne pepper. Using a knife, make 8 slits, about ½-inch deep, in different areas on the body of the chicken. Fill each slit with a garlic clove half. Sprinkle the rosemary leaves on the outside of the chicken.
5) Surround the chicken with the carrots, potatoes and onions and sprinkle with oil. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the chicken and vegetables.
6) Cook the chicken for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F, and cook, about 1 hour 10 minutes, until the juices run clear, and not pink, when the chicken is cut into and the potatoes are as soft as a baked potato.
7) Let the chicken rest for about 10 minutes before carving and serving with the vegetables, potatoes, and pan juices.
Emma Rudolph writes nevernothungry.com, a food blog for healthy and simple college cooking on a budget, including original recipes, essays and cost-per-serving.