pick my brine

You know how sometimes you have to have something quite cheesy and melty, and other times it’s salad or bust? How certain things appeal at certain times, while at other moments, they stand before you and there is no answering hanker? Me, too. Except for Southeast Asian food. Despite my genetic routing through Eastern Europe, it is the call of lime, cilantro, chile and basil that dial direct to my appetite. I am always hungry for it.

I just came back around to eating meat, after many years off. I am a pretty reluctant carnivore, and it takes a fair amount of seasoning to make it at all palatable to me. We had a good-size roasting chicken in the freezer, thanks to a farmer friend, and when I began to think about steering it toward the table I aimed right for my favorite page of the culinary atlas.

It isn’t out of the oven yet, but it smells like I was on the right road.

Brining serves the same flavor-enhancing function as marinating, plus thanks to the salt’s effects on the molecular structure of the protein, allows more moisture to be absorbed by the meat, giving you a juicier outcome.

Thanks to playing hookey from my life yesterday, in the name of research of course, and to a small detour on that trip, I was able to lay siege to a massive Asian grocery store and load up on all manner of things to enhance this dinner, including some fresh shiso leaves so I can finally make Laura’s shiso pesto (so unbearably good, even if you have to substitute sunflower seeds for the almonds and preserved lemon for the yuzu, that I may have none left by dinner time, especially since it sounds like my husband just found the bowl). There’s going to be some green rice (more on that later), and stir-fried Chinese chives. Ding ding goes the bell, and I start drooling.

This sounds like a lot of fish sauce, but conventional brines seem to call for as much as cup of salt, and fish sauce is about 25% as salty, spoon for spoon, as salt is, but packs a humungous flavor wallop. In fact, if you like things super-salty, you may want to add a few tablespoons of kosher salt to the brine.

Looking ahead to next week and all the fun we are going to have, you might want to consider laying in some dried chickpeas. I said I was back to eating meat; I didn’t say I eat it all the time. Old habits die hard.

thai-brined chicken

1 c fish sauce

1 c water

1-2” fresh ginger, peeled

2 or 3 dried red chiles, or ½ t sriracha chili sauce

5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed with the side of a broad knife

1-2 T honey

stems of one large bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped (or use basil stems, if cilantro does not appeal)

3-5 fresh lime leaves, torn (or use a stalk of lemongrass, outer leaves and woody tip trimmed, bulb smashed with the side of a broad knife)

1 roasting chicken, rinsed

ice cubes

about a tablespoon of some mild oil

In a small saucepan, bring the fish sauce, water, ginger, garlic and dried chiles to the boil. Remove from heat, throw in the tender herbs and honey, cover and let steep a few minutes.

Pour this mixture into a lidded container large enough to snugly contain the chicken, and add a handful of ice cubes to cool it down. Put the chicken in the container, and add enough cold water to make the brine cover the chicken as much as the container will tolerate. If it is not entirely submerged, as mine was not, just make a mental note to turn the bird a few times. Refrigerate the container. You can brine to for as little as 4 hours or up to 24, I’m told.

When you are ready to roast, let the bird come to room temperature in its bath. This will take an hour or two.

Preheat the oven to 450. Pull the chicken out, pat it dry, and set it on a roasting pan. Strain the solids from the brine and stuff those in the cavity. Discard the brine. Rub the whole exterior of the chicken with some oil.

Put the chicken in the oven, and after about fifteen minutes, reduce the heat to 350. Roast for about 15 minutes to the pound (to help you estimate the time) and to an internal temperature of 170 (the only way to be sure you have thoroughly cooked and not overcooked the chicken). If, after the estimated time has passed and things are not quite at the desired temperature, but you don't want things to get much browner, reduce the oven heat to 325 for the rest of the cooking time. Starting with a cold chicken will make the cooking take longer, natch, so factor that in if you rushed the coming-to-room-temp step.