Barbara Kafka and Innovating

I was on my way to telling you about a fun new way to roast chicken when I discovered Barbara Kafka had died. If Kafka’s name doesn’t ring a bell, I’ll ring it for you: Barbara Kafka wrote cookbooks. La Kafka (her photographs were adazzle with smarts and glam) was an innovative force in the American kitchen. Our grandmothers, Mrs. Rombauer, Julia, and Jacques—pretty much everybody with a stove—taught us to roast meats at a temperate 350 degrees or so. I even looked at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery, a gem of a memoir of cooking in the Florida backwoods (her term), and Mrs. Rawlings roasted “quail, doves, rabbit, squirrel and even the coarser cuts of venison” “at three hundred and fifty degrees…”

Then in 1995, in Roasting: A Simple Art, Barbara Kafka proclaimed a moderate temperature for roasting was, among other foolishnesses, a time sink. Instead, we were to throw open the front door (and back door where there is one), fling open or raise all the windows, turn on every ceiling fan…have ready the password for the alarm service when it calls—and be prepared to run out into the street to wave apologetically at the neighbors who are cussing at the clang of your alarm caused by all that smoke again…and set the oven to a demonic 500 degrees. This lofty temp, Kafka said, doesn’t just save time, it “…quickly caramelizes the surface of the meat, the skin of the bird or fish, or the outside of vegetables, evoking rich juices and flavors…” True, it does. However I’ll admit that beside the master recipe for “Simplest Roast Chicken” where it says, “Heat oven to 500 degrees F.” I wrote “ruinous” because one hour of a good thing was many minutes too many. In time, most of the Roasting Powers That Be modified Kafka’s exuberance down to 450 to 425 or 400 degrees. These temps are high enough to caramelize and evoke rich juices and flavors without drying. Goodbye to 350 degrees…

As far as I can tell, Barbara Kafka single-handedly changed the way America roasts.

Kafka was an innovator in other cooking methods. I’ve long meant to write her a note thanking her for her work on the microwave oven. I know, I know, lots of prejudice against the machine. But I find Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet published in 1987 invaluable.

For example, have you ever “Poached” Salmon in the Microwave? Velvet. Yesterday at the market we were fortunate in finding salmon one day from the water. Last night I laid two 8-ounce salmon filets (scant ½-inch thick) side by side on a large microwave-safe dinner plate skin sides up (no seasoning, no nuthin’), laid a second dinner plate on top as cover, tucked the arrangement in the microwave oven, hit 3 minutes on High. When time was up, checked for doneness—perfect. All I had to do was gently lift off the silvery skins and serve the filets sprinkled with capers. Four-ounce salmon filets cook in one minute, no kidding. My grandmother loved poaching salmon and I did, too, until La Kafka’s book. I promise you this space age machine cooks the delicate flesh as succulently.

Why so succulent? I read that microwaves—i.e. tiny waves–are drawn to moisture which causes friction which makes heat: the more moisture in a food, the more efficiently the microwaves cook. That’s what makes salmon ideal prepared this way.

I also prefer Fresh Corn on the Cob from the Microwave. Cosseted in Mother Nature’s complement of leaves and silk, the niblets are gently steamed. Could not be more tender and juicy. And couldn’t be easier—no shucking, no fussing with silk—cooked wrappings slip off. I arrange the lovely pieces (did you realize that an ear of corn is a noble seed bank?) on the carousel in a circle, end to end. Don’t cover. Process at High temperature till the corn is fragrant, turning over after a minute or so if there are more than two ears. Time varies, usually it’s about 2 minutes per ear, but as with almost everything you cook, when you can smell it, it’s done. The ears will be HOT, so have a towel ready.

Here’s what I just made myself for lunch: Five-Minute Applesauce: cut an unpeeled Gala (or fave cooking apple) into quarters, trim out the core, set cut sides up on a microwave-safe plate, splash with water, cover with another plate, cook 5 minutes on High. Turn soft pieces into a small bowl, sprinkle lightly with sugar, dash with cinnamon or nutmeg, and use the side of a spoon to cut into bits. Eat standing up for a lovely getaway.

But I was on my way to telling you about a spiffy innovation in roasting chicken—a riff on Barbara Kafka. It comes from America’s Test Kitchen online under the title Weeknight Roast Chicken. A couple of days ago with a handsome bird to roast I consulted this Cook’s Illustrated bunch, a trusted source. I was fascinated by their interesting development: Roast at high temp for half the time, turn off the oven, let the chicken drift cozily to succulence. It worked beautifully.

By the way, from all I’ve read about chicken these days—apart from hoping the dear thing has lived outdoors free as the breeze—an organically-raised bird is superior.

Half-On Half-Off Roast Chicken Courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen
Thompson’s way: For a 5-pound chicken*, about 5 hours before planning to serve, rub all over outside and inside with a scant 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Set in a cool place, not the fridge. (For a smaller bird, do this allowing about 1 teaspoon kosher salt per pound.) This dry brining tenderizes the flesh.

A scant two hours before planning to serve, set an oven rack in the center of the oven—use a baking stone if you have one. Place an empty 12-inch cast iron skillet (on the stone) on the rack. Set the oven to 425 degrees if convection roasting (ideal), 450 degrees for standard roasting. Meantime tuck one or two small lemons inside your chicken. If you have fresh rosemary, cut a branch long as your hand, tuck it in, too. Grind pepper all over, rub it in.

Btw, I no longer bother tying the legs together and tucking the wings back before roasting as America’s Test Kitchen and I see Thomas Keller do. That’s supposed to result in more even roasting but I haven’t found it so. (Not being in accord with the likes of The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller—not to mention the Cook’s Illustrated crowd–is probably not very bright, but I’ve earned the right to not be very bright, eh?)

Roasting in a pre-heated cast iron skillet is a super idea, I’ve done it for ages as it jump-starts roasting the heavier thighs. And the baking stone adds good heat to the bottom of the bird.

80 to 90 minutes (depending on the weight) before serving time, quickly open the oven, lay the chicken on its back in the center of the hot skillet, legs to the rear (important), close the door. Legs at the rear because legs are thicker and the back of the oven is hotter.

For a 3-1/2 to 4-pound chicken, set the timer for 25 minutes; for 5-pounds, 35 minutes. When the timer rings, open the oven door and thrust an instant-read thermometer into the plumpest part of a leg. When it registers 135 degrees, turn the skillet around so the legs face forward, wham the oven door closed, TURN OFF THE HEAT, set the timer for another 25 or 35 minutes.

At which point the legs/thighs should register 165 degrees, the breast meat 160 degrees. It’s done**. Lift the chicken onto its serving platter, cover lightly with foil, let juices settle for 20 minutes. The temp will climb a bit further. Carve and serve. The meat will be as juicy as can be. And you won’t set off the smoke alarm, huzzah.

New ways with trieds-and-trues are fun, huh? I like to imagine Barbara Kafka would have appreciated this innovation—maybe not approved, but innovations are essential in this world so we keep moving forward, yes? But I’m sorry I never wrote her my mash note.

Then for heavens’ sake, get thee to your microwave…do some innovating of your own…

*A big bird gives the three of us two meals plus a quart of broth, is saving of time, effort, and fuel.
**In 2020 USDA declared poultry safe at 165 degrees. Older recipes speak of cooking dark meat to 170 degrees. No need.

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