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OUR ANNUAL COOKBOOK SPECIAL

Some Like (the Oven) Hot

December 12, 1996|DONNA DEANE | TIMES TEST KITCHEN DIRECTOR

Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.

*

Barbara Kafka compares the art of roasting to fashion's little black dress: "Simplicity, when it is good, has to be artful--there is no concealing the flaws." But, she says, the age-old art has been lost.

According to Kafka, the key to perfect roasting is a hot oven. With high heat you get the browning of the surface that makes for rich juices and flavors. Everything in "Roasting: A Simple Art" (William Morrow, 1996, $25)--from poultry and meat to vegetables, fish and fruit--is roasted at 500 degrees.

As Kafka likes to say, "There is a method and there are rules." And she does have very explicit rules, all outlined in the beginning of her book, along with a lot of very good tips.

I tested her fail-safe recipe for simple roast chicken. It came out terrific; the skin was crisp, the meat very juicy and tender. The secrets? Have the bird at room temperature before putting it in the oven; use the right size pan to keep juices from burning (and make sure the bird isn't touching the sides of the pan); have the oven rack in the second position from the bottom; leave the bird untrussed; put it in the oven legs first, to ensure even cooking; roast it for 10 minutes per pound, breast side up, without turning or basting (that's the secret of crisp skin).

Kafka's roast game hen and Jerusalem artichokes in tomato-olive sauce was also great-tasting and easy to fix. The only problem I had was in finding 1-pound game hens; the ones I bought weighed 1 1/2 pounds. I adjusted the timing to fit her recipe; the inside juices were a bit bloody at the end of the cooking, so I just roasted the hens another 10 minutes.

Kafka's recipe for roasted broccoli in lemon-garlic bath worked well, as did her roasted bread (kind of like big garlic croutons). The savory roasted Asian pears with Asian glaze also tasted great.

This is a great cookbook, written in a simple, down-to-earth style. It is brimming with cooking tips that should be considered by anyone looking for good, easy dishes. It's also a great gift cookbook, with mouthwatering color pictures that will make anyone want to start roasting.

SIMPLEST ROAST CHICKEN

1 (5- to 6-pound) chicken, wing tips removed

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon, cut in half

4 cloves garlic

1/4 cup butter, optional

1 cup homemade chicken stock or canned, water, fruit juice, or wine

Remove fat from tail and crop end of chicken. Freeze neck and giblets for chicken stock. Reserve chicken livers for another use.

Season cavity of chicken and skin with salt and pepper to taste. Stuff cavity with lemon halves, garlic and butter, if desired.

Place chicken in 12x8-inch roasting pan breast side up. Put in the oven legs first and roast on second level from bottom at 500 degrees 50 to 60 minutes, or until juices run clear. After first 10 minutes, move chicken with wooden spatula to prevent sticking.

Remove chicken to platter by placing large wooden spoon into tail end and balancing chicken with kitchen spoon pressed against crop end. As you lift chicken, tilt over roasting pan so juices run out and into pan.

Pour off or spoon out excess fat from roasting pan and put roasting pan on top of stove. Add stock or other liquid and bring contents of pan to boil while scraping bottom vigorously with wooden spoon. Reduce by half. Serve sauce over chicken or, for crisp skin, on side in sauce boat.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

642 calories; 465 mg sodium; 211 mg cholesterol; 46 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 51 grams protein; 0.05 gram fiber.

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