When I first set out to impress my future mother-in-law some 40 years ago, I knew right from the start that this was going to be an uphill battle. A native of North China, she was the daughter of a warlord’s lieutenant. And imperious. And a champion scowler. And in utter denial over my alleged existence.
Charm didn’t work and my Mandarin was hopeless, so I spent weeks that autumn reading a pile of old Chinese cookbooks in our Long Beach studio apartment. My self-appointed job was to decipher the flavors she dreamed of, the Tianjin-style dishes she hadn’t enjoyed since she left her mother’s home four decades earlier. Before long I became adept enough at my newfound skills to feed my boyfriend scallion-flecked steamed breads tied into ornate little knots. Pots of soups, both sweet and savory, simmered away in the background as I meticulously shaped tiny thimbles out of chestnut paste. Soon I graduated to other Tianjin specialties, like vaguely tomatoey braised spot prawns, deep-fried dough twists speckled with black sesame, and meaty baozi so juicy that they dribbled their juices down our arms.
My confidence soared to the point where we finally splurged on a whole duck. We splayed and then braised the bird until its dark, velvety sauce permeated the marrow. We mopped up our plates with flaky flatbreads, our faces glowing with equal parts duck fat and success. My boyfriend called his mom, and soon she was showing up on an almost weekly basis to eat the foods of her childhood.
It at first didn’t occur to me to use our oven for those frantic feasts. But then one day inspiration struck as I roasted a chicken for just the two of us. I had read somewhere that peeled garlic cloves could be stuck under the skin to both perfume the flesh and crisp up the skin, so that’s what I did. Next, I jammed a bunch of trimmed green onions into the cavity to both flavor the chicken from the inside and keep the breast meat moist. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I grabbed a bottle of oyster sauce and lacquered the half-cooked bird with its briny flavor. An hour later, my boyfriend and I knew just what we were going to serve his mom that coming Sunday. Yes, it was vaguely Cantonese in flavor, and yes, it definitely looked more American than Chinese, but that chicken was many degrees beyond delicious.
Sure enough, this became one of my main go-to recipes for my mother-in-law’s visits. The chicken’s insane aromas quickened her steps as she walked the short distance from our car to the front door. She’d look nothing short of ravenous by the time I greeted her with a cup of tea. Conversation would center around what was for dinner. And then she’d look me in the eyes and smile.
Garlic Roast Chicken Recipe
Serves 4 to 6
1 whole head garlic
1 free-range, organic, or kosher roasting chicken (about 5 pounds)
1 bunch green onions, trimmed
½ cup soy paste or oyster sauce
Step 1: Place an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and another one just below that. Line a baking sheet with foil and place it on the lower rack to catch any spattering. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees while you prepare the bird. Select a roasting pan that will hold the chicken snugly and has sides at least 2 inches high. For a suggestion on how to peel the garlic cloves effortlessly, see the Tip below.
Step 2: Wipe the bird dry inside and out with paper towels. Fold the wings under themselves. Stuff the green onions into the bird’s cavity. Use your fingers to carefully separate the skin over the breast and thighs from the meat. Slide the peeled garlic evenly under the skin. Don’t truss the legs, just leave them sprawling open.
Step 3: Set the bird into the roasting pan and then on the oven rack. Roast for about 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 375 degrees, without opening the oven door. After 30 minutes, brush some of the paste or sauce over the chicken, being sure to coat the breast area thoroughly. Then continue roasting, basting the chicken every 15 minutes or so with the paste or sauce and then the juices. The chicken is done when an instant-read thermometer stuck in the thigh reaches 165 degrees, about 60 to 75 minutes. The sugar in the paste or sauce will blacken on the skin by this time, but don’t be alarmed, as it will still taste delicious.
Step 4: Remove the bird from the oven, tent a piece of foil over it, and let it rest uncovered for at least 30 minutes. To serve, discard the green onions and skim the fat from the pan juices, if you like. Gently tear the chicken apart and serve it with the cooking juices alongside anything from steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables to French bread and a salad. And, by the way, those juices are especially good the next day when they’ve chilled into a divine, savory Jello.
I don’t remember where I first read of this, but a great way to peel a whole bunch of garlic is to break up the head into cloves. Put these in a microwave- safe bowl and microwave on high for around 15 to 30 seconds, or until you begin to hear popping sounds from the garlic. Remove the bowl and wait a minute or two for the garlic to cool, and then slip the garlic cloves out of their sheaths.
Carolyn Phillips is an artist and food scholar, and the author of At the Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes, All Under Heaven, and The Dim Sum Field Guide. This recipe from At the Chinese Table is reprinted with the permission of W. W. Norton.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning