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Chicken dish gives cook fire lessons


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POSTED: Thursday, May 14, 2009

The other day I decided to make a chicken dish with garlic cloves, lemon, rosemary and olive oil. As the chicken baked, I began smelling chicken and garlic. Then chicken grease smells. Then smoky grease smells.

Running to the oven, I discovered the chicken fat had melted and overflowed from my too-shallow roasting pan, landing on the bottom of my oven and causing the fat to smoke.

I panicked.

I live in an apartment with a building-wide smoke-detector system that automatically calls the fire department, includes a plethora of sprinklers and has an incredibly loud evacuation warning ... and I have no idea what will trigger all of it. Perhaps a certain amount of smoke? A certain degree of heat? Or, smoke plus heat? Then I began to wonder: Will it only activate the sprinklers in my apartment, or all the sprinklers on my floor? Will I be responsible for a floor-wide flood? Does my insurance cover that?

Before completely surrendering to the downward spiral, I turned off the oven, grabbed a dish towel and fan, trying to dissipate the smoke. It worked. There were no blaring alarms, no spouting sprinklers. I removed the chicken from the oven. It was somewhat pale, but cooked, and was delicious and juicy.

Then I remembered my oven has a self-cleaning feature. I set the oven to clean, then jumped in the shower. By the time I got out of the shower, smoke snaked out of my oven. It wasn't greasy, benign, chicken-smelling smoke, but dark, acrid, scary smoke. Apparently, when an oven self-cleans, it uses super-high heat to annihilate drips and crusty food, turning them into ash. Except, I had a pool of chicken fat and olive oil on the bottom of my oven. I created a grease fire.

Once again I was feverishly fanning beneath my smoke detector with my apartment door open. I started to pray.

The toxic smoke hovered menacingly, burning my eyes and scratching the back of my throat. I grabbed the bedroom fan and turned it on full blast before returning to frantically flapping my bath towel. Instead, I somehow made it worse by causing the smoke to swirl around, rather than find its way out of my apartment.

Finally, the smoke's tentacles began to fade. I was exhausted.

Now, I have some new items to add to my "Guide to Successful Cooking in an Apartment, Compliant with All Fire Codes":

1. Do not make Cajun-blackened steak;

2. Do not broil kalbi;

3. Bake chicken in a deep pan so fat does not drip onto the oven bottom; and

4. Should No. 3 occur, under no circumstances should the oven's self-cleaning mechanism be engaged.

I may not be smart, but at least I am educable.