Tributes

Roasting a Chicken Like Laurie Colwin, in Memoriam

On what would have been Colwin's 75th birthday, one writer revisits her recipes.

June 14, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin
No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.
Laurie Colwin, 'Home Cooking'

If time travel were possible, and I could somehow hop back as my current self to the early 1990s, I would like to have met Laurie Colwin at a party somewhere. Or even better, drop into her book-filled garden apartment in Chelsea for supper one night. Once we got to chatting, I think we both would have been delighted by how many things we had in common.

I wish I could remember what it was, this past February, that made me go find my copy of More Home Cooking. Maybe it was because I had been kicking around a few essays about life and food, making a general mess of things, which is what I like to do in early drafts (and in the kitchen), and I was craving inspiration from her clear, intimate, and comforting voice.

I hadn’t reread her collection of food essays since it came out in paperback in 1993. At that time, all we had in common were tiny Greenwich Village apartments.

Like her oft-described place on Bethune Street, I had my own small studio where I tried to work magic with a partial kitchen. My apartment on 13th Street had exactly 12 inches of counter space, a fridge that never fully got cold (the milk would sour in mere days), and a wonky stove with an oven that only got hot on one side. This should have been enough to make me throw in the kitchen towel and just be grateful to live in a city with staggering takeaway options and hundreds of speedy delivery saints. Sung Chu Mei, the popular Chinese restaurant on Hudson Street at the time, was so fast I used to joke it was like the Lucy episode where she makes a fake call in front of Ricky to order the hat she had already purchased: The delivery man rings the doorbell as she hangs up the phone.

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“Oh, and my favourite Laurie Colwin chicken recipe, my family's very favourite chicken recipe (they, who have been spoiled with the Zuni roast chicken, and my grandma's roast chicken, and every other conceivable chicken) is the one where chicken pieces are covered with mustard and bread crumbs, dotted with butter, and roast in the oven. My version came from the NY Times. It is divine. ”
— Monika
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Seemingly possessing the same fortitude as Ms. Colwin, despite the circumstances, I was determined to entertain. This was my first Manhattan address after years in the outer-boroughs, and although it was small, it had a beamed ceiling, an exposed brick wall, and an almost-working fireplace. There were only two windows in the apartment, but they were light and airy thanks to the asphalt basketball park that it overlooked. To further enhance the urban romance, it even had a fire escape where you could carefully balance a glass of wine.

Gathering people around meals seemed to be in my DNA. I once cooked stuffed Cornish game hens for a visiting pal in a toaster oven in my college dorm. For intimate dinners, I had a card table tucked under my bed that could be covered with a French cloth. If I sat on the bed, one other person could be opposite in my desk chair. Eventually I bought a few used folding chairs that could also hide under the bed, and I could accommodate up to four. Any more than that and it was a buffet, and guests would perch where they could because space was tight.


As I made my way through Colwin’s collection of essays this past winter, I realized it wasn’t just the village we had in common. I, too, had eventually progressed to a larger apartment in Chelsea, just a block away from her place. I was delighted to learn that we shared several culinary heroes: Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, and John Thorne, who greatly deserves to be more widely read. Colwin and I both loved transferware and collected tablecloths. We shared an affection for potato salad, flank steak, biscuits, and roast chicken. The further I read, the connections accumulated, so much so that I started Googling for more details about her life. We even had a connection with Issac Bashevis Singer—she had worked as a translator for him, and I once escorted him to the stage at the Metropolitan Museum where he was being awarded the Governor’s Arts Award. He was frail at the time, so as one of the Arts Council staff members working the event, I helped him up the stairs and stayed by him at the podium while he railed against modernism. Despite the fact that I was twice his size, several in the audience assumed I was a grandson.

As any of my acquaintances can tell you, I was in complete agreement with Colwin that

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.

I have to admit, these are my happiest times at the table. A very prominent writer and scholar once huffed away from a dinner party I was attending, mid-meal, because she said there was “too much talking about food.” I’m pretty certain I was the guilty party.

The biggest surprise, however, was that we shared a current connection. While I sat in my Litchfield Hills studio in Connecticut and reread her essay “Catering on One Dollar a Head,” she not only mentions West Cornwall, which is just down the road from where I sat, but also writes about an open studio she catered for a painter friend. That very day I happened to have come across the painter’s name in my Facebook feed, as the Cornwall Library was hosting an exhibition of his new paintings at this very moment.

I’d been unknowingly following in her footsteps for many years.

On my way home I started wondering who might still be around that knew her. It occurred to me that my favorite farmer had been in these parts for quite a while, and on a hunch, once I got back to my studio, I looked at the acknowledgements at the front of the book that I had (as almost always) skipped past. There, in the paragraph beginning “In West Cornwall:” I found his name.

“I remember Laurie being very enthusiastic and supportive of our farm early on,” Gordon told me later. “Things do not always go well on a farm. It is very important for us to have cheerleaders who value our work and products and keep us going.”

So even in this regard I find myself once again following her path. In addition to the occasional trips to the farm stand, during the season I visit with Gordon weekly at the small but more-than-adequate Cornwall Farmers Market on the pristine green in Cornwall Village and kibitz about organic vegetables, recipes, and politics.

“Thanks for remembering a pioneer foodie,” he said.


I feel so grateful to live in a place where I can buy meat and vegetables and actually know where they come from, to be able to see where the orchards are and the animals are pastured, and to know none of it had to travel very far to make it to my kitchen.

That was the one place, yet, where I hadn’t followed Colwin: into the kitchen. Like so many others, I enjoyed her vivid and intimate writing but had somehow never made any of the recipes in her books. In honor of my pilgrimage and her upcoming birthday (June 14), I decided I would dive in that very day.

From my recent reading, the three recipes that received the most mentions were her roast chicken, her spinach and jalapeño dish, and gingerbread. That also seemed like a very satisfying menu, so after a quick trip to the store for the few items I was missing, I started cooking.

I roast a lot of chickens. In recent years I’ve become fixated about food waste, and also about money waste: why pay $6 a pound for chicken breasts when you can buy a whole bird for $2 a pound. When I was working a nine-to-five job, six days a week, it was a part of my Sunday game plan. With a roast chicken, I knew I could get at least three meals out of it and a few chicken sandwiches.

As Colwin says in her essay on the subject, “A chicken sandwich is a mood elevator. If they were served in prisons people would commit felonies to get in.”

Because it was my almost weekly habit, I would also save the livers in a container in the freezer until I had enough to make pâté or a mousse. The roasted bones and giblets would all go into another bin with the carrot shavings and onion peels and herb stems to make stock. I’m now somewhat astonished I haven’t purchased chicken stock in years. I freeze it in pint-sized containers which, for me, are much easier to deal with. Anything bigger and it just ends up in freezer Siberia because it’s usually more than I need, which is generally for sauces or stir-fries. Three minutes in the otherwise barely used microwave, and I can have a pint of hot stock.

Also, because roast chicken became such a habit, I learned that it really is okay not to brine, marinade, truss, or fuss. I’ve done all of those things, but now I mostly shower it with salt and pepper and bung it in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes and then lower it to 325 until it’s done. I also know about wiggling legs and juices running clear, but I’m devoted to my instant-read thermometer. It was a surprise gift from a friend that arrived in the mail at my office one day, and my colleague said, “Oh, that’s going to change your life!” She was right.

Of all the things I have tried with roasting chicken, however, I had not tried Colwin’s method, and I was a bit trepidatious.

“If you tell people that you roast a three-pound chicken for almost three hours they gasp with horror. ‘But it must be completely dry!’ they shriek,” Colwin says in her roast chicken chapter. “Actually,” she continues, “it is completely moist and juicy, crisp and tender, all at the same time. The secret is to slow-roast at between 250 degrees and 300 degrees F. and baste constantly. This is the chicken of my childhood, and it is the chicken you get at my mother’s and sister’s houses, and none of us has ever had any protests.”

I’m not certain I could even find a three-pound chicken in my grocery store, and in truth, I don’t want to. Whenever I’m going to make the effort in the kitchen, I always want to maximize it, and I do want those other meals to follow (stir-fries, enchiladas, pasta with chicken and Brie, to name a few). In that regard, I veered from her instructions and my bird was closer to six pounds. I roasted at 275 degrees since that was the median of her range. Since my bird was twice as big as hers, I was sure I’d be in for the full three hours. I decided “constantly” basting meant every half-hour. In the early stages there was nothing in the pan to use to baste, so I melted a little butter and started with that. By the third basting there was plenty to drizzle over the hen. I also dusted the skin, as she said she and her mother would, with salt and pepper and some paprika for color and slight smokiness.

While that was in the oven, I worked on her Creamed Spinach with Jalapeño Peppers.

I followed this recipe nearly to the letter, though I had no celery salt (a spice she seems fond of), so I used celery seed and salt. The recipe calls for 45 minutes of cooking at 300 degrees, so I put this in the oven with the chicken after two hours and 15 minutes, and goosed the heat to 300 figuring I could pull the chicken if it was done before that. It wasn’t. But just at the three-hour bell, both bird and side were ready for the table.

I wanted to make the gingerbread that night and have it for desert to round out our tribute meal, but I think two new recipes might be my maximum when the super-sous-chef husband isn’t around and I’m alone in the kitchen.

I don’t know if it was the best roast chicken I’ve ever had, but it was very, very good. One thing about her chicken that did stand out: I think the combination of low temp and basting kept the chicken very tender. It wasn’t quite as taut as chickens cooked at higher temperatures have been, and that was very appealing. And there were those mood-elevating sandwiches for the next two days...

The spinach was delicious, and I could easily imagine it with many other mains or even on its own for a vegetarian supper with some rice or buttered orzo on the side, or topped with a fried egg as Kristen Migliore suggests. My husband had the leftovers with his lunch the next day and thought about sharing it with some colleagues in his office, but once it was out of the microwave and he tasted it again, he decided otherwise. Since he is the most generous person I know, this means it was really, really good.

A few days later, we made the Damp Gingerbread.

I’d had this gingerbread once before when a friend brought it for dessert to a dinner party at our house and I liked it so much, I asked her for the recipe. Six years went by and I still hadn’t made it, so I’m very glad I finally did.

The batter came together easily and quickly with common pantry items, the only slightly tricky bit being the Lyle’s Golden (cane) Syrup, but my local market happened to carry it. I’m certain you could try replacing it with honey or maple syrup or corn syrup, but I really wanted to try the recipe as it was written.

Do not do what I did and eyeball your pan to decide whether or not it’s the right size. Measure the darn thing—across the bottom, please, and the sides. It turned out my pan was not nine inches wide and two inches high, but rather eight and a half inches wide and an inch and a half high! I learned this when I opened the oven door at the 30-minute mark and, instead of a fragrant beauty, was greeted by Jabba the Hut. Boy oh boy, was I happy we had stuck it on a rimmed sheet pan.

But here was the interesting takeaway: Those blobs on the sheet pan were pretty hard to stop eating once the cake was done. The bottoms even caramelized in a very pleasing way that made me think one could experiment on purpose with this batter. Miraculously (thank you parchment), once the edges were trimmed to release the blobs (mostly on one side of the pan thanks to our, apparently, slightly tilted oven), the cake came out in one piece. Served upside down, to hide the ragged edge, it was delicious for dessert later that day with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. I’m sure a lemon glaze or cream cheese frosting would be lovely, as many have suggested, and powdered sugar would be fine, but what I loved most about this gingerbread was its elegant simplicity.

It is a comfort to know I have many more recipes to cook from these books, and at the same time sad to realize that there won’t be more of her calm and levelheaded advice to follow into the future. I think what she had to say about roast chicken could have easily been said about her:

There is nothing like roast chicken. It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.

That last bit, I think, summarizes her enduring appeal to so many armed with only a wooden spoon: She will never let you down.

Though it is often repeated, it is true that, given the chance, everyone congregates in the kitchen. It’s an easy place to find comfort and solace, especially when someone else is cooking. But as the designated cook, I find that the kitchen can be a place where it is hard to have a friend. In my 40 years of cooking, I’ve still only had a few pals that didn’t drive me completely crazy in my cooking zone: Please, seriously ... don’t help ... stay over by the table … seated … with a glass of wine … and chat with me.

As far as I’m concerned, the myth of the fun of everyone “cooking together” quickly devolves into a turf war for counter space akin to a game of Risk, and instead becomes a competition about who can make the biggest mess and use the greatest number of dishes. I once had a dear friend who thought it was okay to chop carrots on the Formica kitchen counter just because it was designed to look like butcher block. Those gashes are still in that countertop, I’m sure.

As Colwin writes, “No one who cooks, cooks alone.” With confidantes like her in the kitchen, we have the best kind of friend, indeed: helpful, agreeable, perfect no matter what the circumstances.

What has Laurie Colwin taught you over the years? Let us know in the comments below.

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22 Comments

Bevi July 8, 2019
I was reading Home Cooking just last night. My favorite Laurie Colwin recipe is her lemon chutney. It's has a deep, layered flavor and best used after at least a 3-month rest. A catchphrase of hers that I always find charming is her use of "I myself", which, in some way I can't explain, draws me into her life and her kitchen experiences. Her gentle New York wit is enduring in her writing.
 
Linda E. June 28, 2019
What an evocative delicious tribute. A real joy to read . More please Mr. S!
 
alison P. June 20, 2019
this was a joy to read. i love laurie colwin,
and after i read her books - and made several of her recipes- i was sooo sad to learn that she had died before i even knew about her.
i felt, like everyone, that we could have been great friends.
she is always a comfort in the kitchen. she will not let you down.
 
Maureen G. June 18, 2019
I devoured her writing with as much delight as everyone devours her recipes. The roast chicken is perfect every time and the Black Cake was a revelation to me. Her gingerbread rivals my grandmother's, which was superb. Loved reading her work and was sad that she died too young. I can pick up any of her books or articles and feel like we are sitting at the kitchen table together. What a treasure! Thank you for this lovely remembrance of her.
 
Monika June 18, 2019
Just this morning, I looked at the two fight high (and eight foot long) pile of cookbooks in my bedroom, and spied my copy of More Home Cooking. And I mused "hmm, need to fish that out again, and make some recipes... especially that wet gingerbread!". And then this article... it is fate! Wet gingerbread this week it is! --Oh, and my favourite Laurie Colwin chicken recipe, my family's very favourite chicken recipe (they, who have been spoiled with the Zuni roast chicken, and my grandma's roast chicken, and every other conceivable chicken) is the one where chicken pieces are covered with mustard and bread crumbs, dotted with butter, and roast in the oven. My version came from the NY Times. It is divine.
 
Carol R. June 18, 2019
I have all her books and read them over and over. She taught me to be fearless in the kitchen. I deeply, deeply regret her early passing; she was such a treasure. I discovered her stories in The New Yorker (about the same time I discovered Jamaica Kincaid).
 
Digna June 17, 2019
I have made the black cake and also the creamed spinach with jalapenos. Rave reviews. The other recipe everyone wants to copy is her Nantucket Cranberry Pie, which appeared in a Gourmet article. So delicious, especially with the almond essence.
 
jamries June 17, 2019
I discovered Laurie through her columns in Gourmet. I remember one in particular about how to get something decent into your kids before they head out to trick or treat. One day I was running around doing errands and heard on the radio that she had died...I thought how can that be possible, she can't be much older than me. It made me sad for her kids and husband.
On another note my sister gave me an apron that says "I can go from hostess to bitch in 3.8 seconds" everyone thinks it is funny but they stay out of my way in the kitchen when I am wearing it.
 
Sara M. June 17, 2019
I read her books once a year. She was a genius. I haven’t made black cake yet but I will.
 
Jessica F. June 17, 2019
She first awakened in me the grace involved in a home cooked meal.
 
Robin June 17, 2019
I keep 2 of her cooking memoirs in my cookbook cupboard. I read them in my early 30s and have had them ever since. I could write my own cooking memoir now that I'm in my 60s! But, I don't write....too busy gardening, drawing, reading other people's memiors! Laurie's Lemon Chutney is really delicious, fun and simple to make. Several times I've made it, sealed it in jars, and made pretty labels that I glued to the jar lids, and then gave away for gifts.....just as she suggests. The chutney is good on anything! I think I'll make it again soon. Thanks for the reminder.
 
Laura M. June 17, 2019
I have always loved the way Laurie moved about her kitchen.
 
Lori L. June 17, 2019
I too would love to talk to Laurie, but I would most likely ask her about her novels, many of which I have read multiple times. I loved her Gourmet columns, her Home Cooking books, but her novels spoke to me. I use her Gingerbread recipe every Christmas and other recipes here and there.
 
VanessaJo June 17, 2019
Thank you for a beautiful and evocative essay celebrating the quiet genius of Laurie Colwin. Might have to make some gingerbread tonight.
 
Nancy June 16, 2019
A beautiful appreciation of a writer (Laurie Colwin) who was taken from us far too soon. And a mention of another (John Thorne) who, I agree, should be more widely read.
Have read all her books and most of her Gourmet columns.
My enduring link to her (her recipe I make most often) is a lemon chutney that is cherished by the friends who receive it as gifts. It was adapted from a lime one with Indian roots.
 
Nancy June 16, 2019
Oh yes, and as you mentioned, the gingerbread recipe. Very fine.
 
BerkeleyFarm June 15, 2019
Ah, thank you for reminding me of my best "birthday buddy". She's been gone so long (I discovered her books shortly after her untimely death) it feels like she would be older than 75. Her husband died last year.

Her recipes have never steered me wrong and her prose has cheered me on gloomy days. Her pot roast is a thing of beauty, but it is all good. I will remember her by cooking something from her books.
 
BerkeleyFarm June 15, 2019
I also thought of her a lot when I made Emily Dickinson's Black Cake. It had some differences from the Black Cake recipe she published, but I knew from that story that Black Cake wasn't the average boring fruitcake so was able to press on.
 
miamineymo June 15, 2019
Loved her when I discovered her books shortly after she passed away. I also discovered her recipe for Katharine Hepburn's brownies, which my family still insists is the best one ever. This has inspired me to revisit other recipes. Thank you!
 
witloof June 15, 2019
The genoise cake in the essay Four Easy Pieces is, as Colwin promises, one of the best cakes I have ever made or eaten. I bake it all the time in the summer to serve alongside macerated berries, and in the winter with a scoop of homemade ice cream.
 
lindamc June 14, 2019
I love her books and used them to start teaching myself to cook when I was young, poor, and clueless. My particular favorites are Extremely Easy Beef Stew, Karen Edwards’ Buttermilk Cocoa Cake (super easy, tastes even better after a day or two), and the soup with lamb shanks and barley. I lived on the veg chili for a while and got tired of it. I still remember where I was when I heard she had died (on my way to a grad school class on political economy). Thanks for the reminder to revisit these beloved stained and tattered books!
 
S H. June 14, 2019
I was very glad to read this appreciation of Laurie Collin. She was a wonderful writer; in addition to her books, she also wrote columns in Gourmet magazine. Her recipes for Rosemary Walnuts & Pear Crisp frequently appear on my table (both are in “More Home Cooking”). And I do not give the leftovers to my guests to take home!