The big house booked to accommodate the eight of us staying over on the west coast had the fanciest of kitchens. Granite benches, a butler's sink and enough room to do a foxtrot between the bench and the vast island.
There were plenty of dinner plates, mugs and a mountain of mismatched cutlery in the smallest of the many kitchen drawers. All the other drawers, more than 20 of them, were entirely empty. There was a big roasting tray in the oven, two small pots under the bench, a small Pyrex bowl in the pantry and a few kitchen tools in a fancy gizmo on the bench.
We had all the food, it was just a matter of figuring out, in the absence of enough pots and pans and bowls, how to cook it.
It was at this point I stumbled on the idea of an oven bag. I'd never used one before — but, hey, there's a first for everything - needs must and all that. The chicken could sit in the Pyrex bowl in an oven bag, where it would roast to tender succulence, the potatoes would become nice and crispy, spread out in the roasting dish and I could make a slaw in a clean plastic bag.
A quick dash to the local store, a thorough read of the instructions on the packet and I was sorted. Note to self, 200C, do not exceed 200 degrees Celcius.
Things started to go wrong when I realised that the oven door didn't actually close properly. After 40 minutes, both the potatoes and the chicken were still deathly white. I shifted the chicken up to the top rack and cranked up the heat.
After a few minutes there was a nasty smell of burning plastic. Opening the oven door to investigate, I could see the source was a thick wad of burning black crap stuck on to the oven element (the top of the oven bag had obviously touched it and was burning). A thick trail of black stinky smoke ribboned out. I shut the oven door quickly to prevent it from combusting and to try to stop the toxic stink from filling the entire house.
It was another hour before the potatoes were tender. They were still off-white. When I lifted the oven bag (it had melted only above the tie, so it was still intact), the chicken itself was now about half its original size and the bag was full of liquid. All the liquid that had ever existed in that bird was now in that bag. Enough plastic-infused stock to make soup or risotto.
You have never ever tasted such a dry horrible chicken. The disappointment!
Roast chicken is so delicious and so easy to make — just don't ever use an oven bag. In fact, don't use an oven bag for anything. They are made of "heat-proof" nylon and, according to Wikipedia, when food is cooked in an oven bag there is significant migration of non-volatile and volatile compounds from oven bags to chicken. Uggh. Lesson learnt!
Here's my fave way to roast a chicken and a couple of yummy veg for the side. No oven bags involved.
The Ultimate Roast Chicken
Roasting a chicken is such a simple thing to do and yet one of those dinners that creates a real sense of comfort. I like to brine it first for a juicy, flavoursome meal but if you don't have time you can leave out this step and season the chicken well before cooking. Squeezing lemon juice over the top before cooking makes the skin golden and adds flavour. To give a sense of celebration and make a roast chicken go further, fill the cavity with a stuffing of your choice and roast the chicken for an extra half an hour or so.
Ready in 1¼ hours + brining + resting
1 whole chicken
2 Tbsp butter
4-6 sprigs tarragon, thyme or rosemary, plus extra to serve
2-3 bay leaves
2 cups boiling water
¾ cup salt
2 Tbsp sugar
1 lemon, sliced
3 bay leaves
A big sprig of tarragon or thyme
10 cups cold water
To make aromatic brine, place all ingredients except cold water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar. Remove from heat and add the cold water. Add whole chicken and chill for at least 4 hours or up to 8 hours.
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake. Drain chicken, pat dry inside and out with paper towels and place in a roasting dish. (If you have not brined the chicken, season inside and out generously with salt.) Use your fingertips to gently separate the skin from the breast on each side. Insert about 1 Tbsp of butter between the skin and the breast on each side, along with a few herbs.
Halve the lemon, squeeze the juice over and inside the chicken and place the skins in the cavity with some more of the herbs. Tie the legs with heatproof string. Scatter the remaining herbs around the dish.
Roast until the chicken is golden, the juices run clear when it is skewered in the thickest part of the thigh and the liquids inside are brown not red (about 1- 1¼ hours, depending on size). Transfer to a carving board, cover with a clean tea towel and allow to stand for 10 minutes before carving.
Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, garnished with extra herbs. If not serving within 3 hours, chill until needed.
Raw Broccoli Salad
Thinly slicing raw broccoli and massaging it in your fingertips with an aromatic dressing makes it tender and flavoursome.
Ready in 10 mins
2 heads broccoli, stems peeled, heads and stems shaved thinly on a mandolin
1 long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste with ½ tsp salt
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Massage with your hands to distribute flavours and soften the broccoli.
Serve chilled. Keeps for up to 24 hours in the fridge.
Spiced Chaat Potatoes
Instead of simply roasting potatoes to serve with your chook, try these Indian spiced potatoes. They are mouth-wateringly good.
Ready in 30 mins
1.6-1.8 kg floury potatoes such as agria, peeled and cut into 3-4cm chunks
1½ tsp salt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tsp coriander seeds
3 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 Tbsp lime juice
1 packed cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 packed cup coarsely chopped coriander leaves
1 cup Greek yoghurt
6-8 fried curry leaves (see below)
Place potatoes and ¼ tsp salt in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. They should be just cooked through but still firm.
Heat oil in a heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic, coriander seeds, turmeric and chilli flakes and lightly sizzle until aromatic (30 seconds). Add cooked potatoes, lime juice and remaining 1 tsp salt, mixing well to coat.
Increase the temperature, add half of the herbs and cook until potatoes are starting to crisp (5 minutes).
Remove from heat, transfer to a serving platter and top with remaining herbs. Serve on a bed of yoghurt topped with fried curry leaves, if desired.
To fry curry leaves, heat 1 Tbsp neutral oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry fresh leaves in oil until crispy (about 30 seconds). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.