I learned to cook from my Mom, cooking programs on PBS, and a wide range of authors whose books perched on the kitchen shelves, patiently waiting for the moment they were needed. We reached for these books frequently, usually three and four at a time, spreading them across the kitchen table to compare ingredients and techniques. We had a rule – always follow the recipe as it was written the first time, then we could improvise. Of course, we broke this rule frequently,
but there were a few time-honored recipes in our repertoire that we pulled out when we wanted an easy, delicious dinner. Several times a season, we made roasted chicken, either Marcella Hazan’s Lemon Chicken or the French classic Forty Cloves of Garlic chicken. These are comforting, easy dishes to get on the table in September when we’re heading into Fall, with the tumult of kids going back to school and adults back to work.
Both chicken dishes are great because they give so much flavor for so little work. For the lemon chicken, all you have to do is roll two small lemons on the counter to loosen up the juice, poke a number of holes in them with a fork and insert them into the cavity of the chicken. Season with salt and pepper, roast and serve with gnocchi or steamed baby potatoes and whatever green vegetable is in season. When serving, you can up the lemon quotient by squeezing the roasted lemons over the chicken at the table.
The garlic chicken is just as easy – separate 40 cloves of garlic, (but don’t peel them), put some in the cavity and sprinkle the rest around the chicken in the pan with a splash of olive oil. A sprinkle of salt and pepper and into the oven it goes. The roasted garlic cloves will add an earthy depth of caramelized flavor to the chicken and perfume your kitchen. You can mash the roasted garlic into the pan juices; pass them at table for your guests to squeeze out of their skins onto toasted bread or onto the sliced chicken. This dish calls for roasted potatoes, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside and a hearty vegetable like braised greens or sautéed zucchini with herbs.
Why am I talking about chicken? Because the ease and difference in these recipes mirror the wine that goes with them – Chardonnay. Chardonnay is legendary in the wine business as the “stepchild” wine – even evoking the acronym “A.B.C.”, or “Anything But Chardonnay”. The fact is that Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the world, resulting in the other “A.B.C.” acronym used by retailers and restaurants stocking their lists: “Always Buy Chardonnay”.
Why is Chardonnay so maligned? While wine is mysterious to many people, Chardonnay is recognizable to the consumer, easy to say and easy to drink. It’s extremely malleable so that an infinite range of flavors can be created from this one varietal. Here are some of the flavors attributed to Chardonnay: apple, floral, oatmeal, steely, mineral, creamy, nutty, buttery, honey, smoky, tropical, oaky, aqueous, lemon, lime, peach, mint, white flowers, stones, steel, mushrooms, vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, butterscotch, flan…. I could go on, but you get the idea.
All of that from the same wine? Really? Yup. Ever the chameleon, Chardonnay’s flavors are a result of Terroir, handling in the field and by the winemaker, yeast strains, use of malolactic fermentation (or not), use of steel vats, or barrels – and how much toast is in those barrels. Chardonnay can range from the flinty, refreshing Chablis of Burgundy to Australian and New Zealand versions with tropical fruit tones. Unfortunately, in America until recently, Chardonnay was too often produced in overly oaked, sweet, flabby wines that gave this lovely varietal a bad name.
Fortunately, trends have changed, with more U.S. makers treating Chardonnay with delicacy, some even touting the fact that they don’t use oak – stroll through the wine store and you’ll likely see the proclamation “Unoaked Chardonnay” on a few bottles. There’s a new revolution and respect for Chardonnay now, and if you know a few styles, it’s easy to pick the right one to go with your meal.
The lemon chicken is light, and if done right is almost ethereal, while the garlic chicken is earthy and robust – and either one would go with chardonnay, just different versions. The lemon chicken matches perfectly with the unoaked chardonnays – the pure clean flavors balance each other and if the wine has a little fruit, say a crisp cool climate Australian Adelaide Hills version, you have a great light dinner.
The garlic chicken on the other hand requires a wine with a bit more body and complexity. While raw garlic can be detrimental to wine, roasting renders it smooth and rich with a caramelized, smoky quality. This dish can take a Chardonnay with a bit of fruit and a little oak, so go for a good Sonoma or Carneros bottle and you’ll be fine.
Enjoy the fall season, relax, pop a chicken in the oven and open a bottle of a nice Chardonnay. It’s a lovely respite during this busy month, and a pairing that everyone will savor.