Roast Chicken for Dummies

There’s no excuse for not knowing how to roast a chicken. If you can make mac and cheese from a box, you can roast a chicken. If you can microwave popcorn, you can roast a chicken. If you can toast a pop tart, you can roast a chicken.

Not only is it a life skill, I genuinely believe there’s no more satisfying meal. There’s a reason why literally every culture has a version. You can do it with any kinds of flavorings you want, you can do it with rice or potatoes or cabbage or noodles or all of the above. My problem with roast chicken is… none, I don’t have one. But if I had to make one up, it would be that people find it intimidating when it’s actually the least-risk, highest-reward meal I know how to make. I know you think I’m exaggerating about the popcorn thing, but I’m not.

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Simple Summer Salad + French Vinaigrette

Vegetables. Even the word is high-maintenance. Other food groups have simple, iconic, one-syllable names, like Cher.  Fruit. Meat. Bread. Cheese.  You expect me to chew my way through the entirety of “vegetable”? I’m already exhausted.

Salad can be such a bummer. Bad salad tastes like licking a hedge clipper and feels like a punishment, and yet people eat it all the time.

I used to bring those pre-washed bagged salad mixes to school as preteen, as if middle school isn’t miserable enough already. Stabbing a plastic fork into a bag of tough, bitter “spring mix” covered in enough ranch to kill a horse is a sensation I think we should all leave behind us as we age, like Linkin Park and studded belts.

Really good salads are usually full of things that aren’t salad – meats and croutons and cheeses and interesting nuts. You think people are going to Sweetgreen for the kale?

And listen, I’ve made a Sweetgreen harvest bowl at home from scratch. Technically, it’s possible. But by hour 4, after roasting a chicken and two sweet potatoes, making brown rice, chopping apples and massaging kale and sprinkling chopped almonds and forgetting to not eat the goat cheese, I’ve determined that only Olympic athletes and the guy from Free Solo have the stamina to do this on a regular basis.

Actually delicious, lick-the-bowl-clean make-at-home salad is possible, and it doesn’t involve trying to keep an entire 50-garnish salad bar alive in your fridge.

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Ghosties (Chocolate Chip Meringues with Toasted Walnuts)

At its best, cooking is a magic trick. Clearly you can make something amazing with a beautiful, organic, lovingly massaged pork butt, but using fancy raw materials means everyone expects mind-blowing results. It’s so much more satisfying when you start with something unprepossessing. If you’re a magician making a tiger jump through a flaming hoop, it’s way better if you know that tiger started life as two raw, jelloid egg whites in a metal bowl.

Luckily for all of us, two egg whites and half a cup of sugar will net you almost two dozen startlingly chic little pure-white light-as-air cookies with all of the natural architectural sophistication of the majestic iceberg. You don’t even have to pipe anything.

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Cupcakes with Orange Icing

What can I say about cupcakes: They are small cups of cake. By now everyone knows that cupcakes, like donuts, have been absolutely done to death: filled, topped, swirled, glazed, drizzled, sprinkled.

I, for one, am over it. They’re only small cakes, Darryl, they can’t be expected to carry all that extra foofaraw and still taste good. If you want to make six caramels, a streusel, and a swirled marshmallow filling, you totally should do that, but you should do it Somewhere Else.

What I want is a small buttery cake with a lively, fresh icing, about the size of the cup of very good tea. That’s it. Make Cupcakes About Cake Again 2021.

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Foolproof Stovetop Popcorn

I am in no position to dispense advice this week. I’m writing this to you with my right wrist in a brace because I typed at a dumb angle for two hours straight yesterday and now I have tennis elbow despite never ever having played “tennis” in my entire life. I don’t want to cook anything, cooking is dumb and for suckers. I can’t believe my flesh prison is doing this to me four months before I turn 30, existence is meaningless, etc.

When I’m in this mood, reclining on my divan (couch) in my satin smoking jacket (ancient robe) and slippers (slippers), I like to make myself what I call Snack Dinner, or Charcuterie for Bums.

Charcuterie for Bums is every snack food I can get my hands on that has some modicum of protein or nutritional value and doesn’t involve actual cooking. This includes but is not limited to: apples and peanut butter, cheese and crackers, carrots and ranch, slim jims, pretzels, salami, etc. The only thing I will turn the stove on for is popcorn.

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Easy Cheesy Frittata

Quitters never win, but sometimes winners make the entire package of pasta out of sheer noodle-based gluttony and then, well, what are you going to do with half a pound of perfectly good cacio e pepe? Throw it out? Give up on your dreams?

Meet Frittata.

This is a joke about the Train song “Meet Virginia”, which is funny only to me. Move along, nothing to see here.

Fritatta is something I can never spell right on the first try, but it just means “fried” in Italian. The Pinterest People are posting recipes for “easy frittata” that start with frying bacon and wilting spinach and chopping healthy things like butternut squash and beets and arugula, but to me a frittata is always the answer to “how can I de-sog this pasta”, and also “how can I make something tasty in 15 minutes or less without trying that hard.”

Fritattas where you have to do a bunch of work are, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb. I’m not chopping extra stuff or finishing anything under the broiler to make what is essentially a glorified omelette. Fritattas are about two things: the cheap thrill of successfully flipping an entire pan of leftover pasta, and elevating your sad soggy leftovers into a crispy treat.

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Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza

As far as I’m concerned, EVERYONE should have to account for their pizza sins. I’m sick of just comparing New York and Chicago – why is no one yelling at Detroit, where they’ve been selling what is essentially defiled focaccia since the dawn of time with seemingly no consequences?

The UK’s pizza landscape is a blasted heath full of wet, flappy crust and weird tiny sweet peppers and something called the “American Hot”.

Their “deep-dish” only comes frozen, sold by a company called “Chicago Town” (EXCUSE ME, WHERE?). This is, chillingly, “The UK’s #1 Frozen Pizza Brand!”, a fact which fills my soul with enough terror and pity to make an entire Greek chorus die barfing. (“In Chicago Town [again, where?], we don’t just make pizza, we go to town on it!”).

What is even the wrongest thing about this picture? It’s “going to town” on my brain.

I have seen one sit-down deep-dish restaurant here, in Shepherd’s Bush. It was called “Chicago Grill”, and when I looked at it reality blinked in and out like I was in the Upside Down.

The sign outside Chicago Grill

It is for this reason that I have decided Chicago-style pizza should immediately be submitted for protection under UNESCO World Heritage standards, like Champagne, and every other place that sells it should be forced to call it “big dish pizza”.

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Pancakes

On a random Tuesday during my first year in the UK I walked into a grocery store CHOCK FULL of panicked dads cleaning the place out of Nutella and yelling into their phones about “which KIND of flour, Helen?!” Apparently, here, Mardi Gras is Pancake Day. This is one of the essentially useless but culturally vital aspects of British life my mother failed to introduce me to, along with The Wombles and Eurovision. There’s an entire day here devoted to pancakes, and it’s this coming Tuesday, and also pancakes are crepes, and, at least in my experience, the dads have to make them.

British people are now trying to make American-style fluffy pancakes happen, which is cute, but they’re running into the same problem that’s plagued America for years: pancakes are deceptively tricky to do well.

Most American restaurant pancakes are deeply tragic: insipidly sweet, gummy, and/or dry. Because pancakes are simple in principle, people think they’re simple to make, which means most people eat and make mediocre pancakes as a matter of course. And listen, Bisquik is fine, if you are camping or otherwise deprived of the trappings of civilization. Otherwise, give pancakes a try from scratch. I promise you can do better than Bisquik.

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Easy One-Bowl Chocolate Cake with Boozy Chocolate Frosting

Were you ever kind of jealous of the boy in Matilda who had to eat an entire chocolate cake with his hands in front of the whole school as a punishment? I know I was.

I used to take every chocolate option at the sundae bar – ice cream, sauce, M&Ms, even chocolate sprinkles. Chocolate sprinkles: what sadist thought those up? You’re just gonna make these things brown and pretend it’s chocolate? Are you kidding me?

Making Stuff Brown and Pretending it’s Chocolate: The Story of All Chocolate Cake Everywhere. You can’t stop me now, I’m already up on my soapbox.

The dominant cultural narrative is that chocolate cake is the best, the richest, the most decadent. Restaurants are selling huge slabs of Seven-Layer Death By Chocolate Devil’s Food Indulgence cake, with ganache filling the approximate taste and texture of brown shoe polish. I have seen grown adults take dry little square nubs of brownie from the spread in the breakroom, just to feel something during an all-day meeting, even if that “something” is disappointment. (It was me, I took the Sadness Brownie.) Red velvet cake was a trend: that only happens in a culture deeply divorced from what actual chocolate should taste like.*

Think about the chocolate cakes that you like best. Answers on the board, please, Family Feud style:

  1. Flourless chocolate cake
  2. Chocolate lava cake
  3. Some kind of cream cheese brownie situation?

Flourless chocolate cake is just a mousse on steroids, and I’m not mad at that, but it doesn’t count. My grandad makes a chocolate whiskey gateau that’s essentially a large creamy slab of alcoholic truffle filling, with ladies’ fingers stuck on the outside for modesty’s sake. Is it perfect? Yes. Is it cake? Uhhhh…

Chocolate lava cakes – or fondant cakes as they’re called here – only work because you get the tender comfort of cake wrapped around the gooey richness of a chocolate fudge sauce. They’re hot, they’re tasty, and they’re disqualified: you can’t defend chocolate cake when your favorite kind is 70% sauce.

Cream cheese brownies are amazing, but 1. Brownies aren’t cake and 2. They’re good because of the contrast (we’ll be coming back to that).

It makes sense! The essence of chocolate, which is rich, luxurious intensity, is diluted by the essence of cake, which is light, tender delicacy. This relationship is just doomed to fail. These two love each other too hard and their child… sucks. There’s a reason the best brownie recipe in the world only calls for ¼ cup of flour.

But why were we promised a perfect chocolate cake that just doesn’t exist?  Where does that leave us? Where is the rich, dark, soil-damp chocolate cake of our Augustus Gloop dreams?

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