Betty Crocker bites back
by Tilly Dillehay Editor
Last weekend I had my pastor, his wife, and my boss over for dinner. It was for this momentous occasion that I decided to cut up and cook my first whole chicken.
This turned out to be the fifth most stressful event I’ve ever lived through (I’d tell you the other four, but I’m having such a good day).
Calling me an experienced cook is like saying that the Affordable Care Act will be ready to roll out on October 1.
But I’ve been trying to learn more lately. It occurred to me two weeks ago that I’d been making almost the same combination of chicken, green beans, corn, potatoes, and salad for eleven months straight. I was even using the same spices (garlic salt and Slap-Ya-Mama, if you want to know). When we had guests, I would switch out the chicken for pork.
So one afternoon, in a fit of determination, I brought out my big Betty Crocker Newlyweds Cookbook, pulled the sticker off of it, and planned three days of all-new meals for myself and my husband.
Recipes are difficult for me. I’m not used to them, and I don’t like feeling constricted.
Baking is the worst; there’s no room for creativity at all. You have to put exactly the amount of salt they tell you to put, and you have to do things in exactly the order they give. At first I thought that if you just put everything in the same bowl, it should work out fine. It’s all going to be mixed eventually, right? But no.
“Make a well in the flour,” they say. “Dry ingredients first,” they say. “Beat on low for one minute and high for three more minutes,” they say. Why should it matter? Wouldn’t it work just as well to beat it on medium for four minutes? But it does matter. Baking is like a science experiment.
Well, after I cracked open the book and made a hefty shopping list and brought it all home, I found that recipes can be rather helpful. I made this Asian cabbage salad thing, discovering a new vegetable to enjoy. I made this bread pudding that I’m still smelling even as I write this. I made couscous. Toffee bars. A shrimp etouffee.
But when we invited the pastor and boss over, I decided that it was a great excuse to do something special. A whole chicken. I went through the Betty Crocker recipes and picked out something called Coq au Vin.
Coq, in case you were wondering, means rooster. Vin, in case you never saw one of those French food movies, is wine. This chicken was going to be straight up cooked in wine. Elegance, thy name is coq au vin.
So I texted my sweet husband and asked him to bring home some wine from the county he works in. I neglected to tell him that only a dry red wine would work for cooking, and my husband knows even less about wine than I do. He proudly brought home a bottle of something called Summertime Sweet, which fit every description in the recipe for the kind of wine that you cannot cook a chicken in.
I only realized this a few hours before my visitors arrived, and just before I began the process of hacking into the chicken. So I sat down and cried a little, then I bucked up and opened the Betty Crocker cookbook.
Near the Coq au Vin page, there was something really nice looking called Chicken Cacciatore. Not quite so elegant as soaking a bird in the fruit of the vine, but surely you can’t go wrong with tomato sauce. So I pulled that chicken out of the fridge, roped off an area of my tiny kitchen counter, chose a nice big knife, and opened the book to the “how to cut up a whole chicken” page.
Here’s the thing. I’ve cooked lots of chicken in my life. I’ve probably cooked a hundred boneless-skinless chicken breasts. But it was always just that—the breast. Grilled in a pan. That’s it.
I knew that there were other parts to a chicken—there must at least be a bone and a skin running around somewhere—but I never knew how much graphic violence it takes to get to that breast and leg.
There are three or four horrifying things that come OUT of a chicken, before you even begin to dissect it. These I set aside with a whimper. Then the book asked me to slice through the rib cage of the bird, to separate the back and breast.
WHATTT? Can’t find it. Surely there’s some nice little joint I can just slip the knife through to get the legs off? Couldn’t find that either. “Next, snap the wishbone off,” the book said. Couldn’t find that either. I ended up all but tearing the arms and legs off of that poor bird, and hacking a line straight through the ribs. The jagged bones that were left scared me so much (what if my guests went to take a bite and wedged this sharp piece of rib in their mouths?) I decided to cut the breast off, cook those and the wings and legs in the recipe, and boil the rest of the carcass to use in a soup later.
The mangled chicken corpse went into the water, and was much easier to pick clean after it was boiled. And it ended up being a perfectly pleasant evening and meal, although the leftover stress from my biology experiment took a few hours to cool.
It was good, but not good enough to be worth another run in with pg. 23 in the Betty Crocker cookbook. Next time, I’m buying one of those nice rotisseries from Walmart.
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