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Monday, 26 September 2011

Roast Chicken, à la Didima

Didima, my grandmother, is way too old to cook anymore. She’s almost too old even to eat.  But when I close my eyes, I don’t think of her like this. I think of her as she was when I was growing up – slim and elegant in her red and white saris, long black hair cascading down her back, large hazel-green eyes. And the best cook in the world.

Indeed, she had this tremendous knack for taking a bunch of disparate ingredients, bunging them together and creating the most remarkably tasty dishes you can imagine.  They say the best chefs are born out of the perfect balance between inherent creative talent and unequivocal commitment – and my grandmother certainly had both.  The best part of it all was the effortless ease with which she managed her culinary prowess; she would breeze in and out of the kitchen, cool as a cucumber, and before you knew it, there would appear – just like magic – a veritable feast laid out in front of you.

I have so many memories – such profoundly fond ones – of the numerous delicious meals that came out of Didima’s kitchen and onto the rectangular wooden dining table in that sun drenched room in Calcutta.

“Didima!!” the rest of us would remark in awe, “when did you make all that?”

“Just now dear”, she would reply modestly, her cheeks dimpling as she smiled, “it’s all so simple.”

Yeah right.

And we would gather around the table and eat and eat and eat. Till we could eat no more. While the afternoon sun came streaming in, casting shadows on the white-washed walls. And the ceiling fan whirred noisily above us, cooling the sticky Calcutta air. And the koel birds sang koo-oo on the branches of the Mulberry tree outside. And Didima smiled to herself as we all literally licked our plates clean. What higher praise can a chef ask for? Especially when it was "all so simple!" to make.

As I said before -Yeah right.

But perhaps it really is “all so simple.” Perhaps we just make it more difficult than it is. Or should be.

So, today I tried Roast Chicken, one of my Didima’s many specialties. And it was simple. And delicious. Which really is the best combination of all.

Now, I must warn you, the thing about Didima’s cooking is that there are no measurements at all. It’s all andaaz – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

So, I telephone her this morning to ask her just how much of this and how much of that I would need.

“I’ll tell your mother to write it down, dear,” she tells me, “and she can send it to you in a letter. You know, through the computer.”

Ha!

And surely enough, when I checked my email an hour later, this is what I got:

Dear Nickname-that-shall-not-be-revealed,

Didima asked me to send you the following: Take a whole chicken, some potatoes and onion. And salt and pepper. And some garlic if you like. And put it in the oven.

Love,
Mama

Well. That’s just swell, isn’t it? Couldja be a bit more vague if you tried?

But, just because no one can cook as effortlessly as Didima doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t give it a go, now, should it?

So, in the spirit of aspiring to be even half as good as she is, I took her general instructions, attempted to guesstimate the correct quantities of everything, added my own twist, and immersed myself in the pursuit of making the perfect roast chicken, à la Didima.

And I’m happy to declare that it all worked out like a charm.

So, here’s what you need (demystified to the best of my ability):

- 1 whole chicken. The chicken is really your protagonist, so the fresher and better quality it is, the greater your chances of a perfect roast.  And if you can get your hands on free-range, please go for it! In any case, buy a smallish whole chicken – it cooks easier, faster and is actually much tastier when done.  
- 6 medium sized potatoes
- 4 large onions
- 1 garlic bulb
- 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- A sprinkling of rosemary and thyme (my little creative input)

Here’s how you do it:

First, foil over a large oven safe tray and preheat the oven to 200C/400F.  Use a knife to make small slits in the chicken so the insides cook evenly, and place bang in the centre of the tray (right where the protagonist should be!) Peel the onions and cut into eighths (cut into quarters first and then divide each quarter into two). Spread the onion pieces out evenly all around the sides of the chicken. Do the same with the potatoes, but leave the skin on. If the potatoes are too small to cut into eighths, quarters will work just as well (it’s all andaaz, remember?).  Try and crush the potatoes a little by pressing down on them with a spatula or spoon. Truth be told, the only purpose of the onions and the potatoes is to mingle with the juices that are released from the chicken as it cooks – this eventually becomes your gravy. Now, break the garlic bulb into cloves, and scatter around the tray as well – don’t bother peeling them, they’ll cook beautifully in their skins.  Next, prick the lemon liberally so the juices will release when hot and place, along with the rosemary and thyme, inside the cavity of the chicken.  Finally, season the whole thing with salt and pepper.

Leave to cook for about 1 hour. Halfway through cooking, you will start to hear this fantastic “sputter-crackle-sizzle” from your tray, as well as get wafts of the yummy aroma of roasting chicken infused with garlic, zesty lemon and fragrant herbs!  Baste the chicken at this point, and if the onions and garlic begin to look dried out, add a splash of water to the tray and let it continue cooking.

You know you are done, when visually, your chicken looks golden brown and crisp on the outside. If it has cooked correctly, the meat will be so tender and juicy on the inside that it will literally fall off the bone when you carve.  Ladle on some gravy from the sides of the tray and serve hot!

Simple + Delicious = Didima’s Home Cooking

A combination that can’t be beat.

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