Tuesday, May 26, 2009

BBQ Chicken Rubbed and Roasted, or Did You Just Offer Me A Knuckle Sandwich?

We all know what happens when food is overcooked. It gets dry, or burned, and is essentially rendered inedible. But what about when a cook spends too much time in the kitchen? Do they also run the risk of getting a little crispy around the edges? 

Judging from my experience this past weekend, the answer is a loud, cartilage-crunching "yes." I had planned on serving my guests one of my go-to party-pleasers - chicken that is first slow-roasted with a fragrant and spicy rub to the point where it practically melts off the bone, before being dunked into a kicking BBQ sauce. Like I said, that's what I'd planned on serving them. But what I brought to the table instead was something that I have since shamefully been referring to as The Knuckle Sandwich. 

Before getting to the meat of the story, so to speak, I should issue a warning now: If you are a cook, what you're about to read might make you gasp in horror. Or maybe it will elicit some empathy and a nod of knowing recognition. If you're a vegetarian, the following could make you gag in disgust, or you just might cackle with vengeful glee. (At my folly, not the bird's fate, obviously.) And if you're someone I've promised to invite over for dinner, this tale might make you think twice about accepting that invitation. 

Since there is a recipe below, I'll try to get quickly to the point. 

I'd spent most of Saturday and well into Sunday morning this past weekend preparing and wrapping three types of gobs. They were scheduled to make an appearance in The Mission and of course I wanted them looking and tasting their Sunday best. At about 1 AM Sunday morning I'd frosted and fitted the last of the halves, individually wrapped the finished, and now-whole, gobs, and sealed them up in the fridge. Less than five hours later, I was awake, back in the kitchen, diving into the prep work for that evening's Memorial Day soiree that we were hosting. Guests were due to begin arriving at 6:30 or 7 PM.

At around 11:30 AM I ran out to deliver the gobs. By the time I returned it was close to 1 PM. I looked at my prep list, looked at the clock, and decided I was, for once, miraculously ahead of the game. The chicken, which has been slow roasting since about 10:30 AM, smelled intoxicating when I opened the oven door. There was a fiery note from the cayenne, a mellow yet rich aroma from the dried anchos, and a wild, flowery scent from the coriander. Everything was coming together nicely. (The weather was, to quote our local weatherman Spencer Christian, "Fargo-like," over the weekend otherwise the grill would've been fired up.)

Over the next few hours I prepped a black bean salad as well as a slaw. Both were intended for my vegan and vegetarian friends, but the latter was destined to serve double duty. It could easily have topped the pulled, BBQ chicken on the rolls. I was originally going to repeat one of the stars of my Cinco de Mayo meal and make corn blinis and serve the chicken on those but all of the other cooking from the night before had honestly left me a little whisked and sifted out. I opted for, go ahead and gasp if you want, store bought rolls. They were fine.

That quick decision, and my willingness, to alter my menu should have been my first sign that I wasn't my usual hosting self. But I chocked it up to the "entertaining family and friends is its own reward" motto that I try to live by. (And anyone who's seen me nervous and frenetic, rushing around the kitchen, still in shorts and a T.Rex T-shirt, as the first guests start to arrive probably wonders how much masochism is in that "reward.") 

I looked at the clock again, and felt confident. I made the BBQ sauce on top of the stove. I blanched the cabbage for the slaw, drained it, quickly tossed it with the carrot and granny smith apples, then lightly drizzled in some fresh squeezed lemon juice. I added some kosher salt and black pepper. It was delightfully fresh. The chill that still clung to the cabbage after its plunge from the boiling spring atop the stove into the ice cube bath made for a wonderfully sensual experience. The sweet cold crispness, along with the tart lemon juice and coarseness of the salt and pepper were all simple and satisfying. Alice Waters would've been proud. 

If, that is, she'd eaten it within the next twenty minutes. Unfortunately I was working ahead and the slaw still had another.... four hours before it was going to be served. 

I'm still not sure what kind of culinary vortex I fell into in the ensuing hours but before I knew it I was scrambling to take the chicken apart, comb through for any bones, skin or cartilage, and get it into the pot of BBQ sauce. It needed to slow cook on the stove so it could continue to break down into shredded threads of meat as it became infused with the flavors of the sauce. 

Well, as often happens, I forgot to eat. I think the last thing I taste-tested was the black bean salad before I tossed in the rice vinaigrette. 

That vinaigrette, as I discovered later, never got added. I'd completely spaced on it. Making matters worse? Well, in addition to the things I didn't put into the foods were the things that I somehow never took out. 

After everyone left I finally sat down to eat something. I just can't eat while I'm hosting, so once everyone was out the door I made a plate for myself. I took a bite of the BBQ chicken sandwich I'd made.... and was greeted by a loud crunch. I quickly spat out the mouthful of food and examined it. There, along with the beautifully shredded chicken, was a piece of cartilage. "Better that I found this than one of our guests," I thought as I took another bite. And immediately heard another crunch. And then another. And another. And, please dear God, make it stop, another. 

I think it's safe to say I was apoplectic. I looked at Lon and shrieked, "There are pieces of cartilage all through this!!! Why didn't you let me know?" 

"Because I didn't notice it." 

"How could you not notice it?" I practically demanded.

"Because there was nothing to notice." 

Answered like a truly supportive spouse. Whether Lon did or did not find anything other than chicken in the pot, isn't the point. Sensing my increasing anxiety, the only way to quell what I saw as a horrible problem was to tell me that there was no problem. 

"And no one else noticed anything either. I cleared the plates, I washed them, and I didn't see any signs that anybody stopped eating."

I almost didn't even hear that comment. I was focused on the fact that I'd overextended myself in the kitchen the past two days, and as a result I had been a terrible host for the night, possibly serving my guests something ghastly.

If anyone did find anything wrong with the meal, no one uttered a word to me. They were incredibly gracious, sending thank you notes over the next two days. I was still fixated on how I'd somehow let everyone down by not being at my best as a cook, when I suddenly became aware of the lesson my friends had taught me over the weekend: How to be a good guest.

Maybe they really didn't receive anything but decent food on their plates, but to me it's obvious they appreciated the effort. It made me smile. The kitchen, like friendship, really offers its own rewards. 

I adapted this recipe from an old, now defunct mag called Eating Well. That this adaptation of it has been used every warm season since 1998 speaks to how well it goes over. Plus it's relatively labor-free - providing of course you thoroughly check the bones!

Rubbed And Roasted BBQ Chicken 
For the rub... 
1.5 turkey thighs or 2 lbs chicken thighs, preferably skin removed
1 TBS brown sugar
1 TBS cracked black pepper
1 TBS paprika
1 TBS coriander
1 TBS ancho chili powder
2 tsp chipotle powder
1/2 TBS dry mustard
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne (to your taste)
For the barbecue sauce.... 
1/2 cup good quality ketchup
1/4 cider vinegar
1/4 cup apple juice
1/4 cup bourbon (use something with a higher sugar content like Maker's Mark)
1 TBS black molasses
2 tsp brown sugar
juice of half a lime
1 TBS Tabasco 
1/2 TBS Worcestershire sauce
1. Preheat oven to 300 F. 
2. Put all dry ingredients for spice rub into a bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly. Rub into chicken (or turkey) thighs. Set aside.
3. Place pieces of fowl in a roaster, covered with foil, and slide into oven for about an hour and a half. Remove foil and check. Allow to continue cooking for at least another half hour without the foil cover. At the end of two hours, check a piece for doneness (approximately 180 to 185 F.) If pieces are cooked through, remove from oven and allow to sit, at least ten minutes, so pieces can seal. This will also allow it to cool to the touch so that you can shred it off the bone. 
4. In a nonreactive pan place all ingredients for the barbecue sauce, except the lime juice. Allow sauce to build from a simmer to a slight boil, stirring frequently. Turn off heat and stir in lime juice. 
5. Add pieces of shredded meat to the BBQ sauce, place back on stove and heat to medium high. Serve on rolls. 
NOTES: I've made this with both turkey and chicken and I admit I like the turkey better. It has a more, well, wild flavor than the chicken. The dark meat of both birds is perfectly suited for this slow roasting as they stay moist longer. You can make the BBQ as the meat is cooking and allow it to sit on the stove. The flavors of both the spice-rubbed meat and the BBQ sauce only get better as they meld so there's no rush to get them together unless drying out is an issue.


Table Talk said...

I loved reading this post; really well done. We can all relate to "forgetting to eat" and having things go a little hay wire now and then. I hope you are taking it easy this week!
p.s. The chicken recipe sounds really good. I'm sure your guests loved it.

Steven said...

Thank you. :) The most important thing I learned from that meal had nothing to do with my cooking skills and everything to do with friendship. It was particularly heartening since we just relocated here to SF last Fall and everyone in attendance was someone we've met since November. Am I still a little horrified? Sure. But much less than I was! Thank you again, and oh, yes, this rub is great. Add some oregano or thyme to it, and some cumin. It works really well on turkey too!

Larry said...

The cook wore shorts! Always the herald of an excellent evening. And this rubbed/roasted chicken recipe is so out-of-sight that the last time I had it I embarrassed myself with it. A truly fantastic dish. And now I can make it for myself. Thank you for the recipe.

Steven said...

Larry, I actually even had time to get dressed so that really should've tipped me off that I was off my game! Yes, you have had this before, only with turkey. I think that was served atop the the corn/ mesa flour cakes. A good meal and good company. We miss you and Rachel, so thanks for the note!

Sammy said...


I loved this post. Well, I love all your posts. Your guests are very lucky indeed! And it's not because of the incredible food you serve.

Steven said...

Sammy, Thank you, but like Larry and Rachel I think you've been relatively fortunate with what has gone from my kitchen to your plate! Thanks for the feedback and hurry up and get out here for a visit, please!