Tempestas In The Forest

The piles of oleander branches surprise me as I crest the hill.

We knew about the massive clearing of the forests underway all over Portugal, wherever the intensely flammable mixture of eucalyptus, pine, and bamboo have been allowed to sprout high, tangle, and die without care. When that happens, fire takes on nature’s role of destruction and renewal, which we witnessed so desperately last summer, and the remains of which stopped us in our tracks this winter during our trek up north to the high country east of Coimbra and south of Viseu.

Before the fire returns to finish its blazing tempest, the government has decreed that practically the whole of the nation, in cascading priority, must clear the decks. Some property owners began early, pruning and shaping the trees around their homes, taking out the ones too near, and applying for the preservation of protected cork oaks. Men clung to branches in the canopy of the umbrella pines, to shake the dead cones down, and slice off those limbs that threaten to fall. For this we give thanks, as it makes our forest walks less of an air raid from above.

It’s the reason I don’t run in the forest on windy days, for fear of those branches swaying, hanging by a sliver of bark, ready to fall on me and the pups. It’s not an irrational fear–I’ve heard the creak and crack and tumble-to-the-ground of trees giving way. So the cleaning has already been a blessing.

Now in the early weeks of March, the mass removal of the forest undergrowth attacks from all corners. Every day: chainsaws buzzing, saws whirring, and trucks lifting the choicest items away. The remainder lay in piles, akimbo. Some logs, obviously set aside for next year’s firewood, stack high on these lots, but much of the debris collects in swells, rising like the waves brought up by the March tempestas offshore. We wonder at them–if they don’t get hauled away, surely the fire hazard grows more dire as they dry out in the inevitable (though faraway-seeming) summer heat. We see the careless cigarette butts and empty Marlboro packs tossed aside everywhere, and know that this negligence kills.

I figure a certain toll has been extracted in lives by the rather random and ad-hoc way the forest cleaners shim up the trees with their scant ropes, no helmets (ha! are you kidding?)–and little in the way of any safety crew. Often I don’t know that someone is aloft until cones rain down in front of me onto the road. Maybe we won’t kill ~100 people like the fires did in 2017, but I’d be in shock if an unlucky climber or two didn’t fall to his death in this ramshackle process. And yes, they are so nearly all men I can honestly say “his” without hesitation.

While the tempestas roar, the waves crash, and the saws growl outside, we find comfort food within. With spring in our sights, it’s a good time for a roast chicken, stuffed with lemons and brined with the salt leftover from preserving those lemons. Along with potatoes, carrots, spring onions, and cabbage–the giant, deep green winter ones larger than my head–it will fill us for Sunday roast, and create Monday’s dinner of bubble & squeak.

Roast Chicken with Lemons and Spring Onions

Frango Assado com Limões e Cebolinhas

1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds, rinsed and patted dry

1/4 cup sea salt

1/2 cup (one stick) butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

2 branches fresh rosemary, chopped

1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon dried tarragon or 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped

4 lemons, halved, with juice reserved for another use–or the remnants of halved lemons from preserving lemons

2 medium yellow or sweet onions, peeled and quarted

2 large-bulb spring onions, trimmed and halved lengthwise

2 medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 2-inch pieces

4 medium potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold or other waxy, King Edward type, scrubbed and cut in a 1-inch dice, skin on

Chicken stock or water for the roasting pan

Cabbage or broccoli, as a side dish

Kitchen twine

  1. Prepare a roasting pan with rack. Rub outside skin and inside cavity with salt. Place on rack nestled in the pan, and set in the fridge for about one hour.
  2. Meanwhile, chop rosemary and sage together; mix with tarragon and pepper. Using a fork, blend these herbs and spices into the butter in a small bowl.
  3. Take the chicken from the fridge and rinse the salt from the exterior; pat dry.
  4. Preheat the oven to 425˚F/215˚C.
  5. Loosen the skin on the chicken’s breasts, thighs, and back with your fingers. Divide the herbed butter mixture into six parts and rub the butter both under the loosened skin and over the surface of the skin.
  6. Insert one of the yellow onions, quartered, into the cavity of the chicken, along with both halves of one lemon. If there is more room in the cavity, add more lemon halves.
  7. Truss the chicken by tying its legs together with the kitchen twine (you may omit this step if twine is not available, or if you prefer your chicken legs akimbo).
  8. Place the rest of the lemons, onion, spring onions, carrots, and potatoes in the roasting pan below the rack. Pour about 1/2 cup stock or water in the pan.
  9. Place the chicken with one breast tilted down towards the rack, and put into the oven.
  10. After 15 minutes, rotate the chicken so that the other breast is tilted down towards the rack and return to the oven. I refer to this as “flipping the bird” and it helps to get an even browning on the skin if your oven has hotter and colder spots. A pair of long kitchen tongs comes in handy for this move.
  11. After 15 minutes, rotate the chicken so that the breast side is down and return to the oven. Turn the oven down to 350˚F/175˚C.
  12. After 30 minutes, rotate the chicken so that the breast side is up and return to the oven. Check the pan; if the vegetables appear to be turning too dark for your liking, add 1/4 cup more stock or water.
  13. After 15 minutes, check the temperature at the thickest portion of the breast. Once it registers 165˚F, remove the chicken from the oven to rest at least 5 minutes before transferring to a preheated serving dish.
  14. Meanwhile, remove the vegetables from the pan and place in another preheated serving dish. If you wish, make a gravy from the drippings left in the pan according to your preference. Try the roasted lemons; they may not be to your liking to eat “straight,” but they add a pleasing, piquant note to the pan drippings and vegetables as they roast with the chicken. Serve the chicken with a side of steamed cabbage or broccoli, if you like.