Anna Lee Mains Evans was a tough but loving woman who cherished her family, enjoyed teaching children and playing the organ for her church every Sunday. She also loved to cook and bake and was one of the few truly instinctive cooks I’ve ever met. She never took a cooking class or attended culinary school, and would have scoffed at the idea of having to go to school to learn what came so naturally to her.
I inherited her recipe box and I treasure it. Each recipe carefully written on a 3×5 card now yellowed with age. Pull out any card and you’ve got a piece of history, memories of family gatherings and loved ones now gone. Through her recipes I learned which were her favorites, the recipes she would make for specific birthdays, and who her friends were.
People were more gracious about sharing recipes in those days and there was one special dish that each woman would make for all the community dinners. They were known for it and basked in the compliments they got every time someone enjoyed it. I’m not sure which one Mimi was known for, but no matter what she brought, I know it was one of the first dishes finished, leaving those at the end of the line wistful.
My grandparents lived their adult lives in rural Indiana in the same small town my parents grew up in – where they met, fell in love, and married. Most of the rest of the family was within hollerin’ distance (yep, there were some odd colloquialisms used) but my father had become smitten with the weather in California when he was stationed here with the Navy. As soon as he could, he moved the family out here and it was where I was born. Consequently our visits with our grandparents happened once a year and are treasured memories.
Mimi had eight grandchildren, but I was the only one that really wanted to cook with her. From the minute she would arrive I was glued to her side whenever she was in the kitchen. With an attention level I never exhibited in any other aspect of my life, I watched and learned. She was a natural teacher and I followed every move she made. Everything she made was simple fare, but tasted so much better than anything I had eaten because it was made from scratch and always with a heavy dose of love thrown in.
Unfortunately, Mimi passed away when I was only ten. I’m sure I would have become a much better cook if I had more time to learn from her, but she had already passed along her love of cooking, nurturing the family through her homemade dinners. The spark had been lit and still shines brightly today.
Today I am sharing a recipe for a simple roast chicken, exactly the kind of dinner that Mimi used to make for our family. To go alongside, she would steam whatever fresh vegetables were in season and make plenty of mashed potatoes with chicken gravy to fill us up. And then there would usually be a homemade cake, candy, or another sweet treat for dessert. These were the best meals of my childhood.
This chicken is so simple to make that even if you are new to cooking, you can make this without worrying. The trick is to use a thermometer to judge the doneness of the chicken. There are plenty of other suggestions, but a good instant read thermometer will always let you know when it is perfectly cooked. You can trust me on this one. 😉
And remember that foods continue to cook after you’ve taken them out of the oven – that’s called carry-over cooking – so always pull it out about 5-degrees before it is done and let it rest. This will give it time to come to the perfect temperature and allows the juices to migrate back into the center of the chicken or roast.
When you sit down at the table with your family and enjoy this meal, you can thank my grandmother for instilling in me my passion for cooking.
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
This same technique can be used with chickens, turkeys, turkey parts, game hens, guinea hens, etc. Virtually any poultry except duck.
As long as you don’t buy a pre-brined chicken, this dish is naturally gluten-free!
- 1 (3 to 4 lb) whole chicken, cavity cleaned and rinsed
- Kosher or fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1 small onion, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
- Fresh herbs such as sage, thyme, parsley, or rosemary, rinsed
- Olive or vegetable oil
- Onion powder, optional
- Set the oven racks to the top one is in the lower third of the oven. You want plenty of room for the air to circulate around the chicken. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Pat the chicken dry and liberally salt and pepper the inside cavity. Tuck the wing tips under the back, twisting the backwards until they are secured. Set it in a roasting pan at least an inch or two wider and longer than the bird. Your pan should have sides about 2-inches high. Insert the lemon and onion pieces in the cavity and tuck the sprigs of herbs inside.
- Brush the entire outside of the bird with a light coating of the oil, and don't forget the bottom which will help keep it from sticking as it roasts. If you like, you can use sliced onions, carrots and/or celery stalks to create a "rack" to hold the chicken. This keeps it from sticking to the bottom of the pan and the vegetables flavor the drippings creating the base for an outstanding gravy. Sprinkle the tops of the breast and legs with more salt, pepper, and onion powder.
- Place the roasting pan in the hot oven and let the chicken cook undisturbed for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or until an instant read thermometer inserted into the breast registers about 160°F and the skin is the color of burnished gold.
- Remove from the oven and set aside, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for about 15 minutes before carving and serving. Store any leftover chicken with the pan juices, covered, in the refrigerator.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings
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