One of my favorite main courses is roast chicken. It's not so much that I love to eat roast chicken -- I like it perfectly well but it's not in my top 5 meals -- I like to make it. It is simple, versatile, often yields left overs, and, most importantly, the carcass provides the foundation for wonderful soup stock. I estimate that one chicken gives us between 4 and 5 meals.
While we were in Italy last summer (Incidentally, I have hilarious travelogues of our Italian adventures. If you would like to read them, feel free to email me and I will send them to you), it became clear that my lung disease had worsened substantially. Bill and I had been in Greece and Turkey the prior year and I had no difficulties; in Italy every day was a struggle. Yet, we managed to last 7 weeks and visited 15 different cities. I am either incredibly stupid or incredibly stubborn or both.
When we arrived back in the States I had a series of medical tests. We ruled out pulmonary hypertension and found little radiographic evidence of worsening fibrosis, but my pulmonary function -- specifically the amount of air I could force out of my lungs (it's called forced vital capacity) -- had fallen to 44% of the predicted amount for someone my age, size and gender. Our lungs are uniquely designed to have "excess capacity." In other words, our lungs are bigger than they need to be. It's a handy feature in such an important organ and, for me, it was the reason that I had no shortness of breath for the first 9 years that I had pulmonary fibrosis. I had enough lung function to live a relatively normal life. But once I fell below the 50% threshold on my forced vital capacity, shortness of breath became a lifelong companion.
We (Bill, my docs, and I) decided to try cytoxan, a chemotherapeutic agent. The evidence was that it had only a modest benefit and that once the drug was discontinued the benefits dissipated. Given the multitude of side effects of cytoxan, I had very mixed feeling about trying it but felt like I should at least give it a shot.
That's when my love affair with chickens really took flight (ok, that was a bad pun). For very little work I could get a lot of meals out of one bird.
Approximately every week I would buy and roast a chicken. We would have it for dinner that evening. Bill and I only eat the white meat. Amelia happily devours one leg and thigh and saves the other one for the next day's lunch. If I am lucky, Aidan will put one bite of the chicken into his mouth and swallow it. 'You know," I usually explain in a rather frustrated tone, "it's [theoretically] the same thing in chicken nuggets." "No it isn't," he counters, "It's not breaded."
Commercially produced chicken nuggets are the bane of my existence. For years I banned them from the household. I cut chicken breasts into small pieces, breaded then, and then baked or fried them. Aidan was fine with this until he had a real chicken nugget. Subsequently he dubbed my homemade version unacceptable and refused to eat them. What do they put in those things? I swear there's crack in the breading that makes kids addicted to them. I tried to hold my ground, but Aidan can outlast anyone in a head-to-head battle of wills. I decided it wasn't a battle worth fighting and I now buy the extra large bag of chicken nuggets every week and he makes them for himself when he finds dinner revolting. (He has to try everything, which means he puts a microscopic piece of food in his mouth and declares that it is "gross." I'm just too tired to argue at this point.)
We'll usually get one more dinner out of the leftover meat, putting it into quesadillas or chicken salad. When the bird is picked clean I throw the carcass into the pot with celery, carrots, onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and whatever spices strike my fancy. I cover the contents with water, bring it to a boil, and then set it to a slight simmer for most of the day. When the broth is finished I strain it because my family hates to see vegetables floating in their soup and I indulge this idiosyncrasy. I reserve some stock to use for a carrot or other pureed vegetable soup for another night's dinner (you should hear the groans of discontent on pureed vegetable soup night!) . Then, in a two quart saucepan I add either stewed tomatoes or tomato paste to the broth and bring them together to a gentle simmer while I make some orzo or egg noodles to add to the broth.
When we sit down at the table with our steaming bowls, Aidan is the most delighted member of the family. For he loves soup almost as much as chicken nuggets. Over the past several days the humble bird not only has satiated us physically numerous times but also has nurtured our spirits. Amelia practically dances with joy at the bird's "debut meal" she loves chicken legs so. And Aidan looks forward to the soup as one of the few meals that he truly enjoys along with everyone else. I take great pleasure in serving my family nourishing food without exhausting myself in the process. And, Bill? Well, he's a simple man: sometimes a chicken is just a chicken.
A couple weeks ago the kids were with my in the kitchen when I began roasting the bird. "How do you roast a chicken?" Amelia asked. "Why don't you stay and I'll teach you." Amelia stood by my side being tall enough to see over the counter. Aidan climbed atop the counter and sat down.
I don't know where I learned to roast a chicken. I suppose I read a recipe at some point but I seem to have developed my own way of doing it that works reasonably well. I proceeded through the steps, explaining what I was doing. I cut a lemon in half and squeezed the juices over the chicken. Then I tucked the halves into the cavity of the bird. "Why are you sticking the lemons in the bird's butt?" Aidan asked, giggling hysterically.
"Oh, you think that's funny, huh? I guess that is kinda funny. It keeps it moist as it's cooking."
Then, I did the same with some smashed gloves of garlic. I prepared a mixture of olive oil, salt, and spices, "You can use whatever spices you like; it doesn't really matter much." "Can I rub it on the chicken?" Amelia begged. Man, you could not have paid me to touch a raw chicken at her age. "Sure," I responded. She took the bowl and rubbed the contents all over the chicken. We covered the chicken with foil and placed it in a 325 oven. "It's best to cook it low and slow so it stays tender." We cleaned up and I told them about basting the chicken with a liquid -- wine, broth, water -- once in a while. And then removing the foil when there was about a half hour left until the bird was finished. "How do you know when there's a half hour left?" Amelia asked. I didn't really have an answer for that; I just sort of know. I assume she'll figure that out herself at some point.
It was such a special moment for the three of us. One of those quotidian moments that blooms out of nowhere and astonishes me with its perfection: simple and light yet somehow deeply profound. It is these moments of motherhood, still available to me, that keep me going. They make the suffering bearable because I was there to teach them how to roast a chicken and, when they grow up, I will be with them every time they take that humble bird and prepare it lovingly for their families just as I do now for them.