Chicken with an Italian flair

November 17, 2013

Note: I swear I shot a picture of this. But it isn’t on the SD card. Oh, well.

It’s been a good while since I made an Italian roast chicken — and a lot longer since I learned to make it.

Crittenden County (home of the infamous jail slaw, of which I have written repeatedly), where I spent the majority of my adult life, has a sizeable Italian community. In your history lesson for the day, here’s how that came about.

In 1927, the Mississippi River levee broke in several places during a spring of unusually heavy rain. Huge portions of the Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana delta counties flooded. One aftermath of that was the implementation of the first-ever national disaster relief aid. Another was a giant migration of African-American sharecroppers from the flooded plantations of the South to the factories of the Upper Midwest.

If you ever want to learn any more about that period and those events, I highly recommend James Barry’s Rising Tide: The Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. Great book.

The floods eventually receded, but the sharecroppers didn’t come back, and Delta planters looked elsewhere to replace the sharecroppers. Some were Chinese, descendants of immigrants brought in to help build the transcontinental railroad a couple of generations earlier. Some were from the Middle East, primarily Lebanon and Syria. And some were Italian peasants.

The Percy family of Greenwood, MS (read Lanterns on the Levee, by Will Percy, for yet another great book on life in the South between the two World Wars) had a big plantation near Lake City, in the southeastern corner of Arkansas, called Sunnyside. And it was the destination of a good number of those Italian peasants, who for the most part swapped hardscrabble farming in Italy’s mountain regions for cotton farming in the rich, flat Delta. And after a generation or two, thrifty folk that they were, they commenced drifting north, buying property all along the river in Arkansas. And several families of them ended up in Crittenden County.

One of those families, the Alpes, had a restaurant for a good while in Marion, called Marco’s. Best lasagna in the world. Another one, the Marconis, several years after Marco’s closed, opened Uncle John’s in Crawfordsville, nine miles to the west. More wonderful lasagna, “spaghetti gravy,” and ravioli, along with barbecue and steaks. It’s become a destination dining spot. I don’t know if the Grisantis, a restaurant dynasty in Memphis, came from the sharecropper stock as well, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Anyway. One of the many Italians in Marion when I first lived there was a lovely lady named Vera Simonetti. She was a justice of the peace, and was always up around the courthouse, where I was frequently working on newspaper stuff. She took a liking to me. She trusted no one but me to write her every-other-year announcement that she would run for re-election.  I covered Quorum Court, the county’s governing body, made up of the JPs, which met at 9 a.m. every third Tuesday, and she’d often take me home with her afterward and feed me lunch from leftovers.

The first time I ever had one of Miss Vera’s leftover meatballs, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. She had cooked them with, of all things, green beans. They were marvelous.

Fast forward a few years, and I had a new baby. She came by to see me and see the baby, and told me, “Honey, I’m gonna cook dinner for you.”

My mama not having raised a fool, I thanked her effusively. And sure enough, next day, she was back with one of those big blue speckled blue enamel roasters.

“Now, heat your oven to 350 and put this in, and bake it for an hour and a half,” she said.

I peeked. It was a whole chicken, with veggies around it. I don’t think I even noticed it had stuffing.

I baked it. My husband got home from work and said, “What in the world is cooking? It smells wonderful!” About that time I pulled it out of the oven and took the lid off. It looked pretty wonderful, too.  And we fell into it, and ate off  it for two days, and I wrote Miss Vera a thank-you note and begged her to show me how to make that chicken.

And she did.

You take a whole chicken; you can use a baking hen, or you can just use a whole broiler.Rinse him good, take out his little package of innards (I get farm-raised chickens, and the only innard they have is a neck, stuffed down into the body cavity, which is sort of disconcerting.) Dry him off, and plunk him in the center of the largest covered roaster you own. I have one of those big blue speckled enamel ones. You get ’em, or did when I got mine, at Fred’s Dollar Store, for 10 bucks. It’s about the only single-use kitchen dish I have.

Take a pound of ground beef; add to it an egg, about half a cup of grated parmigiano cheese, about half a cup of cottage cheese (or ricotta, if you happen to have it on hand), some basil, some oregano, some red pepper, a pinch of thyme. A small package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and wrung as dry as you can wring it. Squash it all up together with your hands, and pack the chicken with it. I did not have spinach in the freezer, so I left it out. Didn’t matter much.

You will have stuffing left. I’ve put it up and used it for a meal a night or so later, or I’ve just made it into meatballs and put them around the chicken.

Peel half a dozen or more potatoes (I used Yukon Golds this time). Cut them in half and scatter them around the chicken. Quarter an onion and put it at the compass points. Scatter some carrot chunks over all, like you would a pot roast. If you made meatballs with the leftover stuffing, distribute those around on top of the veggies.

Miss Vera did quartered bell peppers, too. I loathe bell peppers, so I don’t.

Drizzle a good olive oil over the whole thing, and sprinkle it with the seasoning of your choice. I used Spade L Ranch chicken seasoning, because I had it. A combo of seasoned salt and the same spices/herbs you used in the stuffing works, too.

Cover that baby and plop him in a 350-degree oven. Just to be sure — it’d been a while, after all, since I made it — I checked the stuffing and a thigh with the meat thermometer after an hour and 15 minutes. 150. I uncovered it and went 10 more to crisp the skin, and There It Was.

The juices from the stuffing baste the bird from the inside, so it’s marvelously juicy. No dry breast meat, here. The drippings also baste the potatoes and the carrots.

Sweet Baby Jesus.

If you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em use a baking hen, this will feed a significant crowd of folks. With a four-pound broiler, we fed three, and there’s enough chicken left to do something else, and I’m thinking the stuffing may find its way into a lentil soup at some point. And the left-over potato and carrots — well, that’s lunch tomorrow.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful dish. Only a moderate amount of prep, and then you’re watching TV and cruising Facebook while you’re waiting on dinner to cook.

Do this. Then be thankful for the Flood of 1927.



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