During the winter as the mercury drops, I find myself craving the warmth of roast chicken. There is something special about the smell of roast chicken wafting through the house, especially on Friday evening. The alluring aroma of the herbs, spices and garlic evokes sensations of warmth and comfort. I can almost feel my blood pressure drop as the smell fills the kitchen. I would venture to guess that many of us connect the smell of chicken crisping in the oven with fond memories of family and friends gathering around a special table to close out the week together or celebrate a holiday.
Many theories abound as to why chicken became the Shabbat dinner mainstay. Even the poorest shtetl households of our great-grandparents in Eastern Europe referred to Shabbat as the Queen and looked for ways to elevate this weekly meal to food worthy of royalty. Chicken was the most available and affordable meat, even if little other meat was eaten throughout the week.
The pleasurable tradition of roasted chicken for Shabbat has lasted from the old country until today. Some of us have a special herb-and-spice combination passed down from our Bubbe–or someone else’s Bubbe. Some recipes call for stuffing the bird with and onion or, more modern, with citrus and others insist on an empty cavity. Some people use a dry rub while others bathe the bird in herb-infused oil. One change for nearly everyone today is the cooking time, going from a more traditional slow-roasted method to higher heat making it possible to fill our houses with comforting smells of Shabbat dinner in just an hour. The highly effective system of roasting vegetables in the same pan as the chicken remains an alluring solution for busy people.
While I appreciate the simple roasted chicken as much as everyone else, sometimes I like to add my own modern twist—like my recipe for Roasted Chicken with Mango Peach Salsa. This recipe developed out of need. My favorite foods are fresh, local, organic and seasonal. When I see something that fits all those categories, I tend to stock up. And I’ve been known to sometimes buy too much, even for my seemingly always-hungry family of five. I hate to throw foods away, so when I see something starting to turn, I need to find something delicious to do with it. When I had a peach and a mango that needed rescuing, this honey-mango chicken was born and has since become a regular visitor at our Shabbat table.
To boost the nutrition of the traditional roasted-potato side, I use sweet potatoes. They are high in vitamins B, C and D, iron, potassium and magnesium, which often is called the anti-stress and relaxation mineral. What could be more perfect for Shabbat? Simply cut the potatoes into equal bite-size pieces, lightly toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast them alongside your chicken until tender and golden brown.
Of course, a comforting Shabbat meal on a cold winter night isn’t complete without a steaming bowl of hot soup. While matzah ball soup has simmered on pre-Shabbat stoves for generations as far back as we can remember, I like to mix it up each week. Lentil-squash soup is a crowd favorite that is so filling, it could serve as a meal in itself.