Oh, the holiday season is upon us. How did that happen so fast? The stack of un-mailed Christmas cards sitting on my dining room table eludes to the well-worn fact that I will never be as adept as others in planning ahead. Likely, I have my over-achieving ego to blame for this; I insist on crafting my own holiday cards (at least for the past few years) and handwriting special notes to every one of them. It all sounds very sweet and wholesome but after I sit down and commence the process of wash, rinse, repeat, my fingers begin to show early signs of rigor mortis and I’m tipsy from all the hot toddies consumed. So, it is with good intentions that I scoot myself away from the table, proud and satisfied that I punched out five cards, and convince myself that I will finish the task tomorrow.
And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how well that plan churns out.
Christmas is just a few days ahead and the husband and I are looking forward to spending it together just the two of us. Typically, we either fly out to Florida to be with his folks or go to California to be with mine, so staying cozily at home will be a welcome respite to the frenetic circus of the airports we’re usually entangled with during the holidays.
Despite feeling ardent for a quiet Noel this year I still find myself yearning for the customary sights, sounds, and smells that only come with being around family. My grandpa was known for always making the best turkey (and the best alfajores, chifón, empanadas…). So, come Christmas time he would be in charge of preparing the 20-some pound bird several days prior to the feast. First, he’d concoct the ingredients for the brine — a combination of sugar, salt, and water — inside one of those large orange Home Depot buckets. He’d let the turkey wade in this sweet-saline mixture overnight in our cool garage. Then, he’d rinse and dry it off and prick the skin all over to create tiny orifices for the marinade to get through. Grandpa liked to experiment with different rubs and spices, constantly scaling back quantities of this and that to see which yielded the best results. His cookbook, referred by my family as La Bibla, or The Bible, a collection of his study in the kitchen, is evidence of his desire to always adapt techniques and processes; countless recipes are scratched off and subsequently replaced by revision after revision. His work was ever evolving.
And so, because of this it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact recipe for his turkey. It seems there were no clear-cut rules: sometimes he’d add a glug of white wine, pisco, beer or he’d add paprika instead of achiote. Some years he would start the turkey off breast side down, other years no. But, no matter how he did it, the outcome was always the same: super delicious, aromatic, juicy, flavorful, perfect. The earthy, fragrant scent that wafted from the oven as it roasted, the sizzle of the fat as it lacquered and crisped the skin — these are the memories that guide me in the kitchen.
This roast chicken is my (current) rendition of the turkey my grandpa was famous for. I opted to use a smaller bird since I was just going to be feeding my husband and I and chose a handful of the same ingredients he often did. As it cooked, nostalgia crept in and I felt for a moment that I was back home getting ready for Christmas dinner with my family, my grandpa emerging from the kitchen, triumphant smile on his face as he carried the pan of roast turkey to the table. And that’s when I knew that I had gotten it right.
Peruvian-spiced whole roasted chicken
What makes this Peruvian is the symbiotic collection of vinegar, cumin, garlic, and ají colorado, all of which are the basic building blocks to many Peruvian recipes. But, in following with my late grandpa’s creed, several components can be altered. You can switch out the ají colorado for instance and replace with equal amounts of either achiote or paprika. The butter can be substituted for canola or olive oil and a splash of pisco or light beer can be added to the marinade for depth. Myself, I plan on trying out all variations just to see.
Serves 4 marginally hungry people or 2 ravenous (I belong to the latter ilk)
1 – 4 pound (approximately) whole roasting chicken
4 tablespoons unsalted butter; softened
1 tablespoon ají colorado
2 teaspoons red vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 yellow onion
1/2 head fresh garlic
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine the softened butter, ají colorado, red vinegar, cumin, garlic, salt and pepper until it comes together. Set aside.
Season the inside of the chicken with a generous shower of salt and pepper and then stuff the garlic and onion inside. Using your hands, smear the ají colorado-butter mixture all over the bird, sneaking some in between the skin and the breast too so it stays moist. Tie the legs together with twine and tuck the wings under the bird so they don’t burn. Sometimes, if the wings are being especially bothersome and won’t stay put I’ll just cover the tips with little aluminum “socks” to prevent them from burning.
Place the chicken into a baking pan big enough for you to collect the juices for the baste but small enough that they don’t evaporate and burn. I usually use a rectangular glass baking dish and that seems to work out just fine.
Put the chicken into the oven and let it go undisturbed for about 30 minutes or until the skin is sun-kissed and to your liking, remembering that it will continue to burnish as it cooks later. Then, scale the temperature down to 400 degrees and baste the bird with the juices expelled during the initial roast — or if you need more, use the leftover butter mixture. Continue basting the chicken every 8-10 minutes and covering with foil if the skin is starting to get too dark. I typically let mine go for about 1 hour and 10 minutes but this depends greatly on your oven and the exact size of your bird. I can usually tell when my chicken is done when the drumsticks move around pretty easily when I wiggle them and the skin is slightly puffed up and “wrinkled.” If you’re feeling unsure, always check with a thermometer — sticking it in between the drumstick and breast, the thickest part of the chicken, and once it reaches an internal temperature of 160, you are good to go.
Take the chicken out of the oven and let it rest for at least 10-15 minutes before going in with a knife, else the juices will ooze out everywhere and you’ll be left with a dry bird. My family eats this with lots of homemade jalapeño or ají amarillo hot sauce but it’s very good all on it’s own with a tall chilled beer.