I tend to look backward a lot. In this very literal backward glance, it was a good thing. I captured my Vizsla, Phoebe in a glorious, wind-beneath-her-ears moment, her head held high, looking upward and outward toward the road that was leading her to the ectasy-inducing State Forest park, just a mile away from our house. But when I say I look backward a lot I don’t mean it this literally. I mean that I dwell often in the murky waters of the past: in what happened, what didn’t happen, what could have or should have or might have. It is not a good thing, trust me. Reflection can be educational, reminiscence can be sweet, but there is a big drop once you cross over the razor’s edge of nostalgia and free-fall into to the endless black hole of regret. Does it sound like I’ve had a bad week? Well, let’s just say there have been some detours and bumps along the road to my proverbial State Forest.
Sometimes I feel like my life is like this picture of fennel. It’s not magazine perfect. The bulbs have been hanging around a day too long to be pretty. The light isn’t great. Just as I wanted to capture the sun streaming in, it hid behind clouds that threatened a coming storm. There are scuffs and scars. The dish towels are stained. Sigh.
Not to worry. Next week is the ultimate antidote to our human frailties and failures: the Jewish New Year. This idea of a chance at a new beginning, a slate wiped clean, our names inscribed in the book of life’s bounty, is one we see echoed in every religion’s rituals, from confession to karma, celestial virgins to second comings. Like everything else Jewish, this chance for redemption, these days spent in prayer, comes with a big meal.
This dish, with it’s honey and orange juice glazed chicken, roasted over fennel and orange and thyme, conjures up all that I can hope for in the new year. I hope to taste the sweetness of success that follows my hard work, and the bright zest of health and vitality. I want to savor moments with my children, and my husband, made golden by the love and respect we have for each other. I want bitterness to melt away into a warm and comforting acceptance of processes that are beyond my control. I want to take the thyme, lots of thyme, to be grateful for the bounty I have been given. I want to feel full, with just a little room left over for desert, that sweetness to come.
You don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of this opportunity for a new beginning and a great meal. Both are easy to pull together. The dish takes a few ingredients: some cut up chicken, fennel, thyme, an orange or two, a big roasting pan and some heat.
The new beginning? Stick your head out the window early in the morning. Feel the breeze on your face. Get excited about what the road ahead may bring. Don’t, for a second, look back because you may miss what’s right here, right now. Wag your tail. Hit the ground running toward what and whom you love. Happy New Year.
Honey-Orange-Thyme Roasted Chicken with Fennel
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
2 bulbs fennel, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (slice off tops, remove outer dirty “leaves”, slice in half, remove hard, woody core, then cut into slices)
1 large navel orange, cut into eight pieces
1 large navel orange, zested
3 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice (use orange that you zested)
2-3 tablespoons honey
3-4 whole sprigs of thyme and 2 teaspoons thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 whole (about 3-pound) chicken, cut up, or about 3 pounds drumsticks, split breasts and thighs (or combo of parts you like best)
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Coat the bottom of a large roasting pan with half of the oil. Add the sliced fennel. It may not all fit in one layer. It’s OK to overlap. Add the sprigs of thyme. Drizzle remaining oil over fennel and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to fully coat the fennel with oil and seasonings. Roast 12 minutes. Meanwhile, cut up chicken, if you are starting with a whole one. Using paper towel, blot the chicken so it’s dry, especially the skin side . This will help the seasoning and basting mixture you’ll be using adhere better. Season the chicken well with salt and pepper on both sides.
2. Warm (about 12 seconds…don’t boil it!) the honey in the microwave or in a small saucepan so that it becomes thinner and easier to work with. Add the orange juice to the honey, along with the thyme leaves.
3. Remove the fennel from the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 400. Top fennel with the chicken parts, skin side up. Spread the orange pieces throughout out the pan, in between the chicken, peel side up. Ideally, you’ll have a layer of fennel pretty much covered by a layer of chicken, but it’s fine if some of the fennel roasts uncovered. Spoon some of the oil from bottom of pan into they honey mixture and stir to combine. With a pastry brush, (or if you don’t have one, use a spoon) dab each piece of chicken with the honey/oil/juice mixture. If you have any of the mixture left after coating all the pieces, coat them all again!
4. Roast for 15 minutes, then baste chicken with pan drippings and rotate the pan. Roast for an additional 15-20 minutes, depending on the degree of doneness you prefer. If the skin has not crisped up fully after the total cooking time, you can switch to a HI broil setting for 3 minutes or so, but do keep watch over it, as it can burn quickly.
5. Remove pan from oven. To serve “family style” remove all the chicken pieces to a separate dish. Place fennel on a large platter. Replace chicken, skin side up on top of the fennel. Decorate with charred orange pieces. Pour any pan juices over the chicken. Sprinkle with orange zest.
6. For individual plating, serve each piece with some fennel and a little of the pan juices spooned over. Garnished with orange zest and roasted orange wedge.