I thought about my mother a lot yesterday, and invariably that lead me to thinking about food. Since she is no longer with us, I find when I cook her food it makes me feel closer to her. I can’t actually say that I am a good replicator of her dishes. She worked in a very free form style, and every meal was a little different from the last. Even the foods that are the most familiar to me did not have an exact formula. If I asked her to write down the way she made a bread pudding for example, it would change just a little bit at each telling! And, it would never be a teaspoon of this and a cup of that. More like a handful, and a couple of pinches.
So, I end up cooking her food by imagining the flavors and doing what she did; guessing on a whim. The “whim” part is important, and not to be taking lightly. This is where my mother had the feel, the touch, and transformed the ordinary into a lovely gravy or sumptuous piece of meat.
I had a whole chicken and I wanted to cook it with her lovely bread stuffing. She never made a meat stuffing, which I know she would have thought to be too rich, and a waste of a good piece of meat. She boiled potatoes and mixed it with bread, milk, dried herbs, onion, celery and her secret ingredient, allspice!
I knew I did not have time to saute onions and celery, and just like that, I knew it would turn out nothing like hers. I made a pared down version, and I used fresh herbs. I still made it the way she might under the circumstances, and loved the familiar smell of allspice and warm milk in the kitchen. It was a lovely stuffing and satisfied my need to feel her close. I think she would have liked it too.
You will need: 1 4lb whole chicken (approx.), 1 sweet onion, large dice, 2 carrots, cut into thick sticks, mix of fresh herbs, left in sprigs or whole leaves (thyme, sage, rosemary), 1 1/2 tbs cold unsalted butter, 1 cup chicken broth, 2 cups water, sea-salt & freshly ground black pepper for seasoning.
For stuffing: 3 cups fresh bread crumbs ( I pulsed slices of bread in my food processor), 1 cup boiled, mashed potatoes (about 2 small/medium), 2 tbs fresh, finely chopped herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary), 1/2 tsp ground allspice, 1/4 cup milk (any %), 1 1/2 tbs cold butter, sliced into thick pieces.
Preheat oven 425*
1 – Peel and quarter the potatoes and put in a small pot and cover with cold water. Boil on steady heat until soft. Check after about 12 minutes. A knife should go through the flesh easily when done. Drain, turn out onto your work surface and mash with a fork. Add a 1/2 tsp salt and several grinds of pepper, and mash into mixture.
2 – Put breadcrumbs into a bowl and add the fresh herbs and allspice. Sprinkle in a 1/2 tsp salt, and some pepper. Give everything a stir. Add the potatoes, milk and the cold sliced butter and mix together using your hands. It will become a sticky ball sporting lumps of butter.
3 – Scatter the onions, carrots, and herbs in the bottom of your roasting pan or saute pan. Place washed and dried chicken on top and fill the cavity with the bread stuffing. Stuff the butter (in about 4 pieces) under the skin of the bird, pushing about 2 pieces in per side. Pour 1 cup of broth over the skin and add 1/2 cup of water. Massage about 1 or so tbs of extra-virgin olive oil into skin and season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place in oven for 35 minutes.
4 – Turn oven down to 400* and take chicken out of oven and baste with pan juices. Add another cup of water and place back into the oven for another 35 minutes. Take out after that time, and test to make sure it is done. Pierce the thickest part of the chicken , (between the leg and the breast) with a knife or skewer. If the juices run clear, it is cooked. If not, place back in oven for 10 or so minutes until you are satisfied (making sure not to over-cook)
5 – Transfer chicken to a plate and tent with foil. Put pan on stove-top and giver everything a stir. If the you want more pan juices, simply add a 1/2 cup of water and stir and add more until it is to your liking (up to about 1 cup). Bring to a simmer and stir. The great flavors of the juice will hold up to the dilution. Turn off pan, or keep on low while getting everything ready.
6 – While chicken is resting cook the peas and anything else you want to serve with the meal. When peas are done, drain, and add a knob of butter, salt and pepper to the pot and stir.
* If serving with rice or pasta (or boiled, mashed potatoes), look at cook times and calculate having it ready when the chicken is resting. (Put past water on about 15 minutes before chicken comes out of oven, same for the potatoes. Cook rice and keep warm anywhere up to a 1/2 hour beforehand)
To serve; slice chicken and leave on the plate and let everyone help themselves to everything. Or, divide portions of chicken between each plate, adding the peas, pasta (rice or potatoes) and stuffing, and topping of with a good spoonful or two of pan sauce.