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Cook by the Book: The New California Cook

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Roast chicken is the Holy Grail of cooking. Cooks everywhere are on the eternal quest for that crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, perfect bird. There are those who swear by Judy Rodgers' Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad, others prefer Thomas Kellers' "Mon Poulet Rôti" or Mark Bittman's method. While I do have a favorite roast chicken recipe, I am always curious to see how others get the job done. So it was the Crispy Roast Chicken recipe in The New California Cook (Chronicle Books, 392 pages, $22.95) that convinced me to give the book a try.

I will admit, upon first glance, this book did not thrill me. Sidebars on appreciating avocados? How to use balsamic vinegar? Risotto tips? Is this 2006 or 1986? Despite claims that this version has been revamped, many of the recipes seem just a bit tired. Broiled Orange Roughy with Salsa Glaze, Rack of Lamb with Mint Crust, Two Mushroom Barley Risotto and Tricolor Vegetable Saute sound frighteningly like what was served at my college cafeteria. So, enough about the book, how was the chicken I hear you asking. First let's check out the recipe:

Crispy Roast Chicken
serves 4

Marinade
2 tablespoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

One 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 pound fryer, rinsed and patted dry
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups Chicken Stock

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1. To make the marinade, whisk together the ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Taste for seasoning. Um what is the marinade supposed to taste like?

2. Place the chicken in a large, nonaluminum mixing bowl. Why? Starting around the main body cavity, carefully slip your hand under the skin, being sure not to tear it. (you may need to use gloves if you have long fingernails.) Pat the marinade under the skin and all over the bird on both sides on top of the skin. Huh? I know what this means but it's poorly written. Cover the chicken and marinate for at least a few minutes and up to 8 hours in the refrigerator. Really? A few minutes? When is that ever enough time to marinate a chicken? Shrimp maybe but not chicken.

3. Preheat the oven to 425 degree. Place the chicken, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan or on a vertical roaster. I have a vertical roaster, but assuming most people don't, I used my roasting rack. Sprinkle the onions an carrots in the bottom of the pan and add one cup of stock. Excuse me, but shouldn't the vegetables go in first? Otherwise they sit on top of the rack, not the bottom of the pan. Roast the chicken for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced with a knife. I hate this kind of instruction. I want the chicken to be juicy, why pierce it with a knife when I could just use a thermometer? Halfway through the cooking, add the remaining 1 cup of chicken stock to keep the bottom of the pan from scorching. Well that information ought to have come before you are taking the bird out of the oven! Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes before carving. Carve the chicken and arrange on a serving platter. Scrape up the juices and vegetables and pour them over the chicken pieces And ruin the crispy skin? Noooo! Serve immediately.

I followed the instructions as closely as possible. First off, I marinated the bird for about an hour. I can't speak for the chicken, but let me say my hands smelled lovely from the marinade. Surprisingly sweet and delicious. I'm almost positive it had nothing to do with my hand soap. As for the chicken, after about 20 minute the wing tips started getting so dark I covered them in foil to prevent them from burning. Because there are eight grams of sugar in the marinade (from the balsamic vinegar) roasting at 425 degrees is asking for trouble. At 30 minutes the skin was already very brown so I repeated my foil treatment.

I checked the temperature with a thermometer at 45 minutes and it was 143 degrees. Not done. At one hour the temperature was 168 degrees. Still not done. My bird was 3-3/4 pounds, I can only imagine how long a 4-1/2 pound bird would take. After an hour and thirteen minutes the bird was done (180 degrees).The vegetables the author so eagerly wants you to enjoy were both soggy and shriveled. The juice in the pan so sweet from carrots I threw it away.

I think I can usually tell when a recipe is good and when it's a stinker just by reading it, but every so often I follow the instructions to see how it turns out anyway. The verdict?

Instructions: Confusing

Cooking time: Longer than indicated

Appearance: Poor. The chicken was too dark on top, too pale on the bottom.

Taste: Ok. It wasn't the slightest bit crispy nor was it juicy. It was flavorful and moist. But not the best roast chicken I've ever cooked. Not by a long shot. I think I'll stick with Nigella's version, thank you very much.

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