Oh alright, it didn't really change my life, but a 4 pound roasting chicken brought me to my culinary knees the other night, revealing yet again just how much I do not know about the power of poultry when mixed with electricity.
I don't cook a lot. I will have bursts of enthusiasm about getting a homecooked meal on the table, but it usually wanes just about the time I could become dangerous. (My husband is fabulous about picking up take-out on his way home from work.) But since I had been lax about cooking for much too long, the other day I forced myself to the grocery store, looking for inspiration. As I made my way to the back of the store, the meat counter came into view and I picked up vibes coming from the whole chickens. Yes... roast a chicken, throw in some fresh vegies - think of the leftovers! That was just the ticket. A sense of calm came over me. I was mistress of my menu.
Fast forward to 5:00pm and I've got a chicken in the fridge, but nothing else going, not even a hot oven. Even though I'm not sure I have enough time (we usually eat on the early side of the evening) I am committed to getting this chicken on the table, so I barrel ahead. I look up "roasting chicken" on the Food Network website and the Barefoot Contessa comes to my rescue. She proposes that I rinse, salt, grease and stuff a halved lemon into the chicken's cavity. I ignore her roasting instructions because I have got the Mother of All Ovens in my new kitchen, which allows me to program the entire event until I have drilled down to what color the bird's eyes were. I take the temperature probe and expertly stab it into what I think is the exact right spot in the bird and pop the other end into the outlet inside the oven. I sense that, for some reason, I am exuding an arrogant confidence that I silently admit I have not earned. But, what could possibly go wrong short of under- or over-cooking the bird?
Twenty minutes later, my husband has come home and immediately comments on the heavenly aroma coming from our little free range princess roasting in the oven. Right about then I notice that the glass inside the oven door has gotten cloudy so I can't see what's going on anymore, but I don't think much of it. Then the room starts to look a little foggy. Still basking in the glow of my husband's admiration, I nonchalantly suggest we open a few windows. The fog builds and I start to get a little nervous. Trying to hide my increasing panic, I decide I just have to look inside the oven, but I stand back a bit as I open the door (I remember enough about high school science to know what oxygen does to a fire). Fully expecting flames to come shooting out, to my immense relief all I got was a blast of smoke. I could hear the smacking sounds of something splattering everywhere inside the oven, as if I had just dumped a cup of cold water into the hot, greasy roasting pan.
Finally, the inevitable happens: the smoke detector starts screaming. With fingers stuck in my ears, I reach over and quickly turn on the vent by the stove, then hustle over to the sliding door and throw it open even though it's 100 degrees outside. There is absolutely no breeze, so I grab a little fan and turn it on. My husband turns on the overhead fan in the living room. The smoke detector finally shuts up, and shortly after that my oven beeps letting me know the temperature inside the bird has reached the desired level. Although it seems a bit premature to me, putting my trust in my deluxe oven and my instincts as a cook, I open the oven door, smoke and steam blinding me, and remove the chicken. I was so sure of myself that I even turned the oven off and closed the doors and windows.
Several minutes later, however, I begin doubting the doneness of the chicken. Reason has caught up with me and I realize that there's no way it could be cooked thoroughly after such a short time period. I cut into the area between the thigh and the body (in the spot where the thermometer had been), and to my disgust I find bloody meat. By now, the oven has completely cooled and I have seen the carnage inside caused by the offending lemon. After all this, there is no way I'm going to eat raw chicken. I could nuke it so we can eat, but come on... you don't nuke a Whole Foods chicken that has been "certified to the Global Animal Partnership's 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program"! Irritated and mumbling obscenities at the bird under my breath, I turn the stupid oven back on. Before throwing Princess in again I decide to cut my losses and yank out the lemons, but the damage has been done.
Not surprisingly, because the oven is such a mess, once it reaches a certain temperature the whole smoke-billowing-out routine starts up again. Knowing what is to follow, my husband and I immediately throw open all the doors and windows, but because the room hadn't completely cleared out from the first round, the smoke detector goes off without delay this time. Since our roof is not removable, there is nothing more we can do so we wait it out. Finally, the fans start to clear out the particulate-filled air enough so that the screaming stops (the smoke detector's, not mine), but the room remains thick with smoke and chicken fog. The smell in the air is no longer all that appetizing. Our eyes are watering and our ear drums ache.
After another 30 minutes, we miraculously had a cooked chicken - and even more miraculous was the fact that it wasn't overcooked. It was just right, although, after all that it had no discernible lemon flavor. Well... whatever. Princess was on the table and disaster had been averted.
After dinner, I faced the greasy oven racks and roasting pan with a heavily-soaped scrubber and determination to never stuff poultry with citrus again. Fortunately, I thought, the oven has a self-cleaning feature so I would be able to avoid having to clean the inside by hand. Easy, right? Wrong. Here's a tip: when your oven has been heavily spray painted with grease and lemon juice, use a little muscle to wipe as much off as you can before hitting the self-clean button. If you thought about it, you could almost question the usefulness of the self-cleaning feature in the first place, but I digress....
Once the cleaning cycle started, we heard all sorts of strange noises coming from the oven; kind of like an airplane taking off. I was praying that the installation had been done properly last year when our kitchen had been remodeled. My husband and I began discussing the need to have a fire extinguisher or two around the house. The realization that we didn't currently have one on hand, as our oven was groaning to reach 5,000 degrees, made us a little edgy.
We eventually accepted that the noise coming from the oven was "normal", and although smoke continued to billow from every crevice, we had made our peace and retreated to our recliners to pray, watch a little TV, cough and dab at our eyes. We had no choice but to sit enveloped in a San Francisco-style fog that was beginning to feel homey. It had even crept down the hall creating tendrils reaching into every bedroom. I knew we were going to sleep that night with the scent of roast chicken in our nostrils.
Finally, by 10:00 that night, the oven beeped and fell quiet. No fire had erupted and we were grateful. I crept over and cautiously opened the oven door, expecting a gleaming, clean oven. Instead, black ash and what looked like an extra layer of black enamel covered the sides and bottom, and the glass in the door looked like someone had thrown black paint on it; dried, blackened drips covering every inch.
Days later, with muscles in my arms aching, I finally got the oven as clean as I was able, which is to say it has about 90% of it's former spiff and shine and that's good enough for me. My husband had volunteered part of an evening and together we had scrubbed, scraped and sweated - me scrubbing with both hands together, practically lifting myself off the floor trying to put more muscle into it than I have. When all else fails, throw your weight into it, I always say. It's got to be good for something.
I am thankful that my husband remains in charge of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. I shudder to think what Armageddon-like scene would follow if I was left alone with a 24 pound turkey. I am obviously way in over my head.