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Everybody always seems to talk about the holiday season as if it's one continuous string of parties from Thanksgiving week into the New Year.
But, when you really think about it, you just know that's not true. As a matter of fact, there are lulls during the holidays -- times when the delicious leftovers have run out (or you've grown tired of them), when days stretch ahead without an invitation in sight, and you're suddenly facing that ages-old question: What do I make for dinner?
And another often follows close after that one at this time of year: How can I keep it easy without the meal feeling like a letdown in the middle of all these celebrations?
A couple of suggestions will help you answer both of those questions easily and pleasurably. First, don't even try to compete with festive meals that pull out all the stops. You and others at your table will gain more satisfaction from something easy and classic that's well cooked. Whether that means a big bowl or oven-baked casserole of your favorite pasta dish, or a quickly mixed and easily baked meatloaf or a roast chicken, everyone will be happy with this change of pace.
Second, do something special, however simple, to ring in changes for the holidays. You might add some dried cranberries to the meatloaf, for instance, or wrap it in bacon; or use a mixture of three kinds of meat instead of one in your favorite Bolognese sauce recipe.
My recipe for roast stuffed chicken is a fine example of both those tips. Everybody loves roast chicken. And the easily mastered technique used in the recipe -- splitting and flattening the birds, stuffing them under the skin with a mixture of goat cheese and herbs before roasting, and then making a quick wild mushroom sauce -- not only sets the dish apart from the everyday but also speeds up the cooking time while delivering extra-crispy skin and moist, evenly cooked, flavorful meat.
Go to a good market nearby to get quality chickens, preferably organic, of the size I specify, which are smaller than the usual roaster, or even some fryer chickens you might find in the average chain supermarket. The results will be worth the search. But the recipe will also work with a larger bird, too, though you'll have to adjust the yield and the cooking times accordingly. Just be sure to test the thickest part of the thigh meat for doneness with a skewer to check that the juices are running clear, or use an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh not touching bone, which should register around 175 to 180 degrees F.
Here's to your happy "holiday lull" dinner!
ROAST CHICKEN WITH ROSEMARY-AND-GOAT-CHEESE STUFFING AND WILD MUSHROOM SAUCE
2 whole organic, free-range chickens, each about 2-1/2 pounds
1/2 pound creamy goat cheese, at room temperature
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
WILD MUSHROOM SAUCE
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 pound assorted wild or cultivated mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup organic chicken broth
4 tablespoons minced fresh chives
On a cutting board, place each chicken breast side down. With a sharp knife, carefully cut from neck to tail opening through the skin, meat, and ribs where they attach to each side of the backbone. Remove the backbone. Cut off the tips of the wings at their joints.
From the edges where you removed the backbone, open up each chicken like a book, placing it breast up on the cutting board. Press down firmly to flatten each chicken.
Starting at the neck opening, insert your fingers between the skin and meat to separate them all over the breast and thighs, taking care not to tear the skin. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
In a mixing bowl, combine the goat cheese, 4 tablespoons olive oil, and rosemary. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mash together with a fork.
With your fingers, stuff the goat cheese mixture underneath the skin of both chickens, distributing it evenly all over the breasts and thighs. Season the birds on both sides with salt and pepper. Drizzle some olive oil over the skin of both chickens and rub it in evenly.
Working in 2 batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, heat a large saute pan over high heat. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, swirling easily and beginning to shimmer, carefully place the chicken in the pan skin side down and saute until the skin has turned a deep golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Carefully transfer to a roasting pan large enough to hold both birds side by side. Repeat, if necessary, with the other chicken.
Place the roasting pan in the preheated oven and roast until the chickens are cooked through, their juices running clear when the thickest part of the thigh is pierced with a skewer, about 10 minutes longer.
While the chicken is roasting, begin making the sauce. Pour off all but about 3 tablespoons of fat from the saute pan. Return the pan to high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the butter. When it melts, add the shallots and saute, stirring and scraping continuously with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Saute, stirring continuously, until the mushrooms begin to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a brisk simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reduces by about a third, 5 to 7 minutes. In small pieces, stir in the remaining butter. Remove from the heat.
Transfer each roast chicken, breast up, to a clean cutting board and, with a large, sharp knife or cleaver, cut it in half down the middle of the breast. Place a chicken half on each serving plate, spoon the mushroom sauce over the chicken, garnish with chives, and serve immediately.
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Roast Chicken with Rosemary-and-Goat-Cheese Stuffing
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