A couple of days ago I went to the grocery store to buy some chicken breasts; it’s hot, it’s summertime, so fire up the grill, I thought. I grabbed some locally grown sweet corn while I was at it.
I’ve since made two meals from my purchase, and even though the ingredients were the same, the outcomes were completely different.
Cooking is both fascinating and maddening at times. Change one variable and you change everything. Maybe the result is fantastic and you feel so proud of yourself; maybe the result is disappointing and you end up doubting yourself.
Recipes are designed to take the guesswork out of cooking. But they can only do that up to a point; a great meal takes careful observation and a certain amount of lucky guessing, which they never mention on the Food Network.
The local supermarket is small by American standards; it carries a good variety for such a tiny village (pop. 1750), but there are usually only half a dozen packages of chicken breasts to choose from. (For my current purpose I wanted bone-in, skin on; there was another row of boneless/skinless.) They were only $1.99 a pound, but all three packages were similar; they were the biggest chicken breasts I’ve ever seen. They weren’t just Playmates of the Month, they were Jayne Mansfields.
I spent six bucks and got three pieces of meat; split breasts, a pound apiece.
First variable: size. Obviously it takes longer to cook Jayne Mansfield than, say, Janis Ian. But how much longer?
Second variable: cooking method. I used a charcoal grill two nights ago with excellent results. Last night I roasted a piece of chicken in the oven; not as good.
Third variable: cooking tips from a trusted source, in this case James Beard, whose book American Cookery I consult fairly often. He wrote about chicken breasts, “Either you run the risk of putting up with a little pink, or you’ll end up with an overcooked, tasteless bird that makes you wish you’d never even bothered.” In other words it’s a fine line, so err on the safe side. If the meat ends up underdone you can always cook it a little longer, but you can’t subtract doneness once you cross the line. So recently I changed my grilling time, from 40 minutes on the bone to 30. The results are much better, even though I sometimes have to finish it off in the microwave.
I have a super-easy method of seasoning grilled breasts: marinate in lemon juice and Worcestershire. You don’t even have to measure, just dump some in a bowl or bag. The flavor’s outstanding, especially if it’s not overcooked.
However, when you grill over an open fire, you’re going to have flareups as the fat renders off. You can control this by trimming excess fat before you start, regulating the distance between the food and the firebox and by lowering the grill lid so the fire gets less oxygen. You don’t want the chicken to be black on the outside and raw on the inside.
I like grilling a lot in the summertime because it’s only a seasonal skill in this northern climate. I need frequent practice to get good consistent results. Two nights ago I turned out some nearly perfect chicken, juicy and tasty. I used a lot of charcoal, had a hot fire going and was a bit worried for awhile, because I wasn’t seeing the flareups I expected. But all turned out well.
Last night I decided to make some sage dressing, spread that on the bottom of a baking dish, throw a breast on top and stick it in the oven. For the first time ever I decided to put the stuffing together without measuring; I make a really good dressing, but with only one breast I didn’t need much of it for a side dish, so I just threw ingredients together. I figured that the fat coming off the chicken would moisten the dressing underneath and it would all turn out fine.
Wrong. Jayne Mansfield didn’t have a lot of fat. That was why I didn’t see big flames the night before, but I didn’t know enough to compensate. Where the roasted chicken covered the bread, sage, celery and onions, the dressing was great; but it didn’t cover all of it, so some of my dressing ended up being toast.
The other weird thing was that the breast didn’t brown very well; after 45 minutes it still wasn’t very dark, so I cooked it for 15 more – enough time to dry it out somewhat. The color was good but the meat was less than ideal.
It takes experience, frequent repetition, to notice all the possible variables that can make or break your dish. Whoever heard of a bone-in chicken breast without much fat? Where did Murphy’s get those silicone implants, anyway?
I’ve bought other breasts there that were much smaller, as well as with a higher fat content. At various times I’ve had big grill flareups and overcooked meat, the worst possible outcome. I’ve never had breasts like these.
Every piece of meat is different, and you really have to think about what you’re doing. If you cook each one the same, you’ll end up with a thousand different, unpredictable results.
I cooked the corn the same way I always do; boil water enough to cover the ears, add a tablespoon or so of lemon juice and sugar, toss in the corn, put a lid on it, turn off the heat and let it sit for ten minutes. You don’t have to boil it, the steam works just fine.
Two nights ago, with my excellent chicken, I ended up with barely edible corn. Last night, with disappointing chicken, I had great corn. What made the difference? The margarine.
The first time I used squeezable Parkay. The theory of it is fine; it isn’t hydrogenated, so just squeeze some out, put it just where you want it to be, then roll the ear around in its cradle so all the kernels get buttered. It’s simple to use and you can control it without wasting any.
When you use butter or margarine, you stick a pat on a hot cylinder, which melts the spread and makes it go every which way. You can spend two minutes trying to butter an ear when you should be eating it hot.
While the theory of liquid margarine is good, the actual product is totally disgusting. It doesn’t melt! It comes out of the container a thick, gooey mess and it stays that way. I don’t want to plunge my lips onto a thick coating of slime; I want to taste corn, not an oil slick.
Last night I used regular margarine, the stuff that melts and becomes much thinner. The corn came out the same both times, but the eating was as different as night and day.
New rule: never buy Liquid Parkay.
The actual rule, which isn’t new, is this: never buy a product that’s a cheap substitute for the real thing. Stick margarine is a cheap substitute for butter; Liquid Parkay is an expensive substitute for halfway decent margarine. If you’ve got any around the house, throw it out.
But never apologize for not being James Beard or Julia Child. They screwed up all the time too.++
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