I do my best cleaning when I am on deadline. Oh, yes. As the time counts down to turning in an article or a presentation, you’re more likely to find me wiping baseboards then pounding on the keyboard. Tax documents to sort for my sister, the accountant? Sorry, sis, the new vacuum beckons.
On Sunday afternoons, when I should play office e-mail catch-up, all the laundry sits clean and neatly folded mere inches from the ignored laptop.
Fortunately, my recipe repertoire includes reliable, sure-to-please favorite dishes that help me focus on the task at hand. I simply turn on the oven in readiness for a family dinner and get back to the computer.
More often than not, chicken takes center stage for these dinners, due in no small part to the late Judy Rodgers. I first ate her chicken and bread salad at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco in the early 1990s and have been making some version of it at home ever since. She details the steps for her famous dish in the 2002 “Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (W.W. Norton, $40).
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My Sunday supper version simplifies the restaurant dish with plenty of do-ahead steps. I also add more vegetables to the pan. Rodgers calls for currants; I toss in any dried fruit on hand. For the accompanying bread salad, I prefer the heartiness of whole grain bread – loaded with sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, rye flakes, oats and flax seeds – to less toothsome white bread.
When I can’t get to the bakery, I sub in whole wheat pita bread, cut into wedges and then split apart. An even speedier alternative is to use 6 cups (9 ounces) pita chips. When time is short, I replace my homemade vinaigrette with a top-quality bottled salad dressing.
I also roast two chickens at once – every time. The leftovers transform weekday meals. I serve them rewarmed with barbecue sauce, diced over main-course salads and as soup additions.
Rodgers wrote about the virtues of small chickens, about 3 pounds. Known as broiler/fryers, these once ubiquitous-size chickens now often need to be special-ordered. For some reason, chicken producers have decided that the North American penchant for chicken breast must mean we want those large breasts in our roasters. No way. Those popular 5- or 6-pound roasting chickens prove nearly impossible to cook properly. Small chickens have a higher ratio of meat to bone; the bones absorb the heat and help the chicken cook to moist doneness.
My second go-to oven-baked chicken is a riff on Diana Henry’s Parmesan chicken. Henry uses boneless skinless chicken thighs and rolls them up to bake for 40 minutes. (She includes the recipe in her new book, “Simple.”) I make a speedier version with chicken tenders. Again, I make extra. These moist morsels taste great over a hearty salad of baby kale and romaine lettuce with yogurt Caesar salad dressing. Or tuck them into a sandwich with a thick slice of tomato or pickle.
Dinner’s in the oven – no excuse not to finish my work.
ROAST CHICKEN WITH BREAD SALAD
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 1 hour
Makes: 8 servings
Don’t be put off by the prep time here; several of the steps can be done in advance. I make double or triple the quantity of the poultry herb seasoning and store the mixture in a jar in a cool, dry place; that way, it’s ready whenever I want to roast chicken.
Poultry herb seasoning:
1 tablespoon coarse (kosher) salt
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon each, dried, leaf: oregano and thyme
1/2 teaspoon each: freshly ground black pepper, crushed red pepper
2 whole small young chickens, also known as broiler/fryer chickens, weighing 3 to 3 1/2 pounds each, giblets removed
1 loaf (1-pound) hearty multigrain bread (not sliced)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dried cranberries, dried cherries, raisins or diced dried apricots
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup thyme vinaigrette, see recipe, or bottled vinaigrette
2 medium (1 pound total) zucchini, trimmed, halved lengthwise, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 bunch (12 ounces) kale or lacinato kale, tough stalks discarded, leaves torn into large pieces, about 10 loosely packed cups
For poultry herb seasoning, mix salt, basil, oregano, thyme, black pepper and crushed red pepper in small bowl. Store in a covered jar up to two months.
Rinse chickens well. Pat dry with paper toweling. Tuck wings behind back. Put into a large roasting pan or 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle all sides and the cavity with the herb blend. (Seasoned chicken can be refrigerated, covered loosely with wax paper, up to two days.)
Heat broiler. Cut bread into 1 1/2-inch chunks; you’ll have about 8 cups. Put into a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with olive oil and toss to coat. Broil, turning often, one minute; flip and broil again until lightly charred, crisp and toasty on all sides, about two to three minutes total, depending on broiler. Don’t walk away, or the bread will burn. (You can do this up to a day in advance; store in a covered container on the counter.)
Mix the cranberries and balsamic vinegar in a small dish. Let stand, covered, at room temperature up to several days.
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Pat the chicken pan dry if it is not. Roast the chickens breast-side up, 20 minutes. Gently loosen them from the pan and flip. Roast breast side down 20 minutes. Loosen and flip again. Add zucchini to pan. Roast until chicken juices run clear, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Turn off oven.
While the chicken roasts, put half of the kale and 1 tablespoon water into a large microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap vented at one corner. Microwave on high (100 percent power), two minutes. Transfer to a colander, and repeat with remaining kale.
Use tongs to tip chicken so juices run back into the roasting pan. Put chicken on a cutting board. Tent the chicken with foil and let rest, 10 minutes.
Use a small ladle to skim off excess fat from pan juices. Stir kale, bread cubes and soaked cranberries into remaining pan juices. Stir in enough vinaigrette to lightly moisten everything. Put the pan of salad into the still-warm-but-turned-off oven while you carve the chicken.
Carve each chicken into two breast halves, two thighs, two drumsticks and two wings. Serve the chicken pieces accompanied by the warm salad.
Thyme vinaigrette: Mix 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil with 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon each: salt, pepper and dried thyme leaves.
Nutrition information per serving: 776 calories, 43 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 166 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 11 g sugar, 60 g protein, 999 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
EASY PARMESAN CHICKEN ON ROMAINE
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
Adapted from “Simple” (Mitchell Beazley, $32.99) by Diana Henry. If using boneless skinless chicken thighs, double the cooking time.
2 to 2 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken tenders
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, freshly ground pepper
2 cups fine, dry breadcrumbs from whole grain bread, see note
1 cup finely grated (not shredded) Parmesan or Romano cheese (or a combination)
3 tablespoons finely sliced fresh chives, green onion tops or parsley leaves (or a combination)
3 large eggs
8 cups mixed baby kale and romaine lettuce
Creamy yogurt Caesar salad dressing
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Put into a large bowl. Crush the garlic into the bowl. Add the oil and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper; mix gently to coat chicken.
Heat oven to 375 degrees on convection or 400 degrees on conventional. Lightly oil a baking sheet.
Mix breadcrumbs, cheese, chives and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a shallow baking dish. Beat eggs with a fork in another shallow dish.
Remove a chicken tender from bowl. Dunk the piece into eggs, let excess drip off, then roll in crumbs to coat. Place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat for all chicken, leaving a little room around each on the baking sheet. (Use two oiled baking sheets if necessary.)
Sprinkle any remaining crumb mixture over the chicken pieces. Bake until tops are golden and chicken is slightly firm when pressed with a finger, about 20 minutes. Serve hot over the mixed lettuces. Drizzle with dressing and more black pepper.
Note: For the breadcrumbs, let 6 thick slices whole grain bread dry out on counter for a couple of hours (or put into a 300-degree oven to dry for about 15 minutes). Tear the dry bread into chunks and place in a food processor. Process until fine crumbs. Store in a covered container for several days, or freeze.
Nutrition information per serving: 417 calories, 16 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 188 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 44 g protein, 560 mg sodium, 4 g fiber