I promised yesterday that I’d get back to practical things here on the blog, and that means returning to our mini-series on Old Standards and New Favorites.  It’s good to get back to sanity this morning, because quite frankly, I’m not up for much else — it’s cold and rainy, I’m tired, and the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.

Last night was a reminder of two things: 1) how ambivalent I generally tend to feel when the Fall hits and the calendar fills up with commitments; and 2) how much advance planning and prep work in the kitchen save my rear end when this time of year arrives.  In my COPIOUS amounts of spare time (snicker, snicker), I’m a singer and Section Leader with a very serious choral group, the Providence Singers.  Last night marked our first night back from the summer break, so from now until June, every Tuesday evening will be filled with 3 hours of intense rehearsal — plus, of course, many weekends of dress rehearsals and concerts.  It’s always a slight tug-of-war, the advent of the choral season, because although I love singing and wouldn’t give it up, it does make scheduling in our household just a wee bit more complicated, to say the least.

However, as I mentioned, advance planning for the meals, at least, makes things much easier.  Yesterday we arrived home at about 5:30, with my mental clock already ticking;  the absolute latest that I could possibly leave the house to get to the rehearsal hall on time was 6:40.  Triumph #1: Opening the door to the smell of meatballs and sauce (containing some of the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes from Pak Express, of course), leaving nothing to do for dinner but stick the meatballs in some buns, broil them with a little cheese, and set out a plate of raw veggies for everyone to choose from. Dinner was tasty, filling, and most importantly, DONE.  In retrospect, the 20 minutes it took me to make the meatballs and sauce and stick everything in the slow cooker on Monday night were well worth it.

Triumph #2: Unexpectedly, a use for some of the raspberry-rosewater syrup that’s hanging out in the fridge.  It was so cold and rainy that instead of bringing my customary water jug to rehearsal, I thought I’d treat myself to a travel mug of green tea.  At the last second, I poured in a tablespoon or two of the syrup and headed out the door.  The flavor it gave to the tea was floral, slightly fruity, and not overly sweet.  I may be hooked.

Triumph #3: Upon arriving home at quarter past 10 last night, I found the boys asleep, J. upstairs working on a last-minute tweak to a major presentation for work…and no lunches packed for the morning.  Frankly, the last thing I want to do after a long rehearsal is pack lunches.  (I’d much rather be snacking…rehearsals make me hungry!)  I dragged myself to the refrigerator, dreading the process — until I realized that there were plenty of options, already made, that only needed a little assembly to become spectacular lunches for the kids.

The star of the show was the big container of leftover chicken from our Sunday Roast — it was almost gone, but there was just enough left for me to perform a little wizardry.  For P., a quick “pizza” made of shredded chicken, diced broccoli, and cheese on a flour tortilla, baked in the toaster oven just until the tortilla got super-crispy and the cheese was bubbly.  For L., a chicken sandwich on whole wheat bread with sharp cheddar cheese and purple basil leaves.  Both kids got some of the homemade peach sauce we’ve been living off this summer.  And among the assorted other odds and ends in their lunches, L. got a new surprise: popcorn peas.

If you’ve never roasted a pea, you should give it a try.  I hadn’t done it until this past Sunday, but now I intend to do it again as soon as possible.  After reading something about roasted crispy chickpeas, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same type of treatment would work on the fresh green peas that were hanging out in my crisper drawer.  And although I’ll definitely have to work on my technique — I cooked them too long, and most of the smaller ones burned — I thought the results were pretty terrific.  Even J., who’s not a pea fan, said “I’ll have to hand it to you — I’d never know those were peas.”  They came out crunchy, salty, and tasting surprisingly of popcorn, but with a slightly sweet, pea-like aftertaste.  Hopefully L., who loves popcorn, will take to these funny little nuggets when he finds them in his lunch today.

It’s a good feeling, knowing that attending to the business (or busy-ness) of life doesn’t have to take away from my ability to keep Getting Everyone Fed.  It’s an even better feeling today, because I realize that — with the exception of the peas, which I was admittedly dying to try — I was mentally fighting myself tooth and nail over all the little things that helped me out this week.  On Sunday, with the family’s departure, I was tempted to scrap the planned chicken and just give everyone leftovers from the big meals we’d had all weekend.  On Monday, I considered not dealing with the slow cooker at 8 p.m., just because I didn’t feel like dirtying the freshly cleaned kitchen.  I hadn’t really wanted to make scones, after the baklava adventure, but I was spurred on by the desire to figure out another use for the rosewater.  I hadn’t wanted a pitcher of raspberry-rose syrup in my refrigerator, but it was a byproduct of the scones.

So the moral of the day is: stick with the plan, unless it’s completely impractical to do so; and cook when you can, because in modern family life, it seems like there are more occasions when cooking is difficult and stressful than there are Cleaver family dinners.  And I’ll add one more thing.  If you can, make the Sunday Chicken.  There are few things as rewarding as a beautiful roast chicken dinner followed by a week’s worth of possibilities.

Sunday Chicken
We always make two chickens when we have Sunday chicken — it seems like a lot, and it is, but it means that a) you’ll be prepared for unexpected guests; and b) you’ll have enough leftovers to make several lunches, or to pop into a whole second dinner (chicken pot pie, anyone?).  I also save the carcasses for making homemade chicken stock, so nothing goes to waste.

2 whole roasting chickens, approximately 4-5 pounds each
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced, or 1 tablespoon of garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste (remember to be relatively generous with the seasoning — you’re salting and peppering two whole chickens)
Optional: Herbs — fresh or dried — any combination you like.  We often like dried herbs de provence in the wintertime; for fresh herbs, rosemary, thyme, parsley, fennel, and even basil or dill can be used.  You’ll need a few tablespoons of minced fresh herbs, or one tablespoon of dried.
Also optional: Something to stuff into the cavities of the birds — we usually quarter a lemon, an orange, and a whole onion (don’t bother peeling anything), and stuff the cavities with a mixture of the fruits and onion.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Remove giblets from the cavities of the chickens.  Rinse inside and out with cold water, then dry thoroughly with paper towels.  Place them breast-up in a large roasting pan (or two smaller pans, if you don’t have a big one).

In a small bowl, combine the softened butter, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and herbs.  I run my fingers between the skin and the meat of the chicken to loosen it, then rub half of the butter mixture under the chicken skins and half over the top of the chickens — the butter on the meat itself, locked under the skin, keeps the meat really juicy and flavors it nicely.  Rubbing herb butter over the skins browns them well and makes the skin nice and crisp.

Stuff the cavities of the chickens with the lemons, oranges, and onions.  Roast the chickens at 400 degrees for about an hour and a half, depending on the size of the birds.  The way I figure time for this is to take the average weight of one of the chickens (say, 4.5 lbs) and calculate 20 minutes per pound (that would be 90 minutes for a 4.5 lb chicken).  What you want is to be able to prick the spot where the chicken’s thigh meets the breast, and have the juices run clear.  After cooking, let the chickens rest on the countertop, covered with foil, for about 15 minutes prior to carving.