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Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Search for the Perfect Roast Chicken

If I had been able to participate in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, I would most certainly have tried to shoehorn in one more unalienable right..."the pursuit of a Perfect Roast Chicken".   Because truly, a perfect, beautifully roasted chicken, is...Happiness, actually.  Does that sound crazy?  Maybe chasing a dream of finding the perfect roast chicken recipe for years and years, does sound crazy.  Believe me, there were times of deep despair.  I mean, seriously, people!   I would ask myself, regularly, after each failed, not-quite-right chicken...

Shouldn't it be easy to make a good roast chicken?

But, oh it is not!  Chicken after chicken after chicken.  Nothing seemed to come close.  My goal:  crispy, golden skin, moist and tender meat that tasted, rich, and well...chicken-y.  Nothing fancy really.

Early attempts included a contraption for the chicken to sit on -- an adjustable v-shaped rack, that would cause much cursing from Steve-the-Dishwasher, since fat and chicken bits used to cling tenaciously to the various nooks and crannies on the rack.  There were ill-fated experiments with a layer of onions or potatoes acting as a rack of sorts, upon which you'd place the chicken.    These vegetable 'racks' were a failure in every respect.  Pale and unappetizing, the fat-drenched vegetables never seemed to cook all the way through, and the underside of the chicken remained soggy and no-fun.

At some point in my culinary history, I had come to believe in Cook's Illustrated recipes with almost religious fervor.  So, of course, there was The Roast Chicken Recipe, with its intricate, numbered steps to heat the pan then flip the bird one way, then another, on its side, etc...
Meh.  Too much flipping, and pestering the poor bird for average results.  The search continued.

I converted and moved on to my Worship The French period.  (Do we see a pattern emerging here?)  Convinced that they had the answer when it came to the best way to roast a chicken, I pursued every possible method associated with France I could find.  This included the American-ladies-in-France...Julia, of course, and Patricia Wells, but also French restaurant cookbooks.  I thought I came close with a recipe from the Balthazar Cookbook that involved messy and slightly dangerous chicken-flipping on the stovetop at high heat.  There was also a momentary affection for Patricia Wells' version from Bistro Cooking, which involved squeezing the lemons that had roasted in the cavity, over the carved meat.  Bottom line though.  No perfect chicken.

Then, I found a book called Roast Chicken, by some English guy.  Super casual know...all "crank up the gas to 375,  toss the bird in a roasting tin, shut the oven door and have yourself a glass of wine."  Utterly unremarkable.  Bugger.

Hope wavered.  I resorted to store-bought rotisserie chickens to cheer myself up.  One of my favorite I-Live-in-San Francisco moments came last year, when I impulsively bought a rotisserie chicken at...
wait for it...
Costco shopping to me is a rather strange experience, but that's another story.  I was at the oddball section in the middle there where they sell denim, and uh, books (!) and I was noticing crowds of people moving over towards the deli section.  They were congregating over there.  Waiting for, I don't know...something.  I thought I'd check it out.  When I got there, I saw what was going on.  Rotisserie Chicken Guy was just then, taking some very plump and nice-looking roasted chickens off the giant skewer and plunking them into containers, fresh right out of the roaster-contraption.  They looked pretty good.  They were five dollars!!  $4.99, to be exact.  I chose one, he put it in the container for me, and I was on my way!
Here's the thing.  It was delicious.  Falling apart tender...savory and yes, chicken-y.  We ate most of it in one sitting.  Granted by the time we got it home, after a long day, it was close to 9 pm, but still.  With great enthusiasm the next morning, I shared the story with my colleagues at work.  Ohmy.  You'd think I'd eaten someone's pet cat.  They pointed out that the Costco chicken was most certainly not free-range, or biodynamically raised, or sustainably farmed, etc...It was classic San Francisco foodie outrage.
You get the picture.  I never spoke of "The Costco Chicken" again.

The Pursuit of the Perfect Roast Chicken continued.
(Long story, I know.  My mother tells stories like this.   Stay with me...)

Then, one night last winter, we joined some friends at the beloved San Francisco restaurant Zuni Cafe, for dinner.  They convinced us to order the legendary Roast Chicken and Bread Salad.  It took some persuading, because typically, I don't like to order chicken when dining out.  I mean, why bother?  Chicken gets more than enough stage time at home, so I want to eat something that is not really easy to achieve in the home-cooking realm.  But, we did, and I must say it was incredibly delicious.  The chicken had that perfectly golden, crispy skin.  The meat was moist and savory, and yes, chicken-y.  The bread salad was delightful.  Uneven chunks of crusty bread, plump currants, toasted pine nuts mixed with some mixed salad greens...all sprinkled with the rich drippings and a bright, tart vinaigrette.  Absolutely fantastic.  When we got home that night, I went straight for the overstuffed bookcase, where a portion of my cookbook collection resides, grabbed The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and started flipping through the book.  YES!  The recipe for that spectacular chicken was there!  First, there was a long essay about chef Judy Rogers' belief in the essentials for a perfect roast chicken.   The recipe covered several pages.  There were lots of steps.  It was a little intimidating.  But, I was a woman on a mission.

I read the recipe more than a few times over the next few weeks and then one Sunday, mustered up some courage and went ahead and gave it a try.  OH MY HEAVENS.  Finally.  Roast Chicken Perfection.  In roughly one hour, give or take five minutes or so, I had created the roast chicken of my dreams.
There was much rejoicing.
And really delicious leftovers for Monday.

Now, if I could just find the perfect way to cook a steak... 


This recipe really does rely on three elements for success, and they're pretty simple:

#1 -- Get a small chicken.  We're talking 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds.  This is key, so don't go getting a jumbo roaster, because it really does matter.

#2 -- Roast at high heat.  (This is where the small bird is important -- they do better at high heat, and will stay succulent.)  We're talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 475 F.

#3 -- Salt the chicken several days in advance.  This concept is HUGE.  Judy has an entire section on "The Practice of Salting Early", but I will spare you this and just say that minimum 24 hours before, or even better a couple of days before, you'll rinse and pat dry that small bird you bought and then sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper.  This is why I typically pick up a chicken on Friday, for dinner on Sunday.

So, easy isn't it?  Oh how I wish I had found this years ago, but I know, I's not about the's about the journey.

Roast Chicken and Bread Salad
adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
serves 2 to 4

For the chicken:
One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds
4 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 long
About 1/4 teaspoon of freshly cracked pepper
A little water

For the salad:
Generous 8 oz. slightly stale/day old, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tabelspoons Champagne vinegar, or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon of dried currants (if you like currants, the way I do, double this amount)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or as needed
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 -3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons chicken stock
A few handfuls of arugula, frisee, or red mustard greens, washed and dried

Rinse the chicken and pat completely dry, inside and out with paper towels.  Be thorough.

Slide a finger under the breast skin, making a pocket on each side, and then loosen a pocket of the skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh.  Shove an herb sprig into each of the four pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper.  (I mix a little ramekin of salt and pepper together and then go to town.

Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders.  Don't worry about trussing or tying the legs together.
Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Preheat the broiler.
Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks, carving off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust.  Brush the bread all over with olive oil.  Broil very briefly, to crisp and lightly color the surface.  Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side.  Trim off any badly charred tips, then tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2-3 inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs.  You should get about 4 cups.

Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.  Toss about 1/4 cup of this vinaigrette with the bread chunks in a large salad bowl.  Taste one of the more saturated pieces and if it's bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and warm water.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 475 F.  (Depending on the size, efficiency and accuracy of your oven, and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 F. or as low as 450 F. to get the chicken to brown properly.  I've been sticking with 475 F. and it's worked like a charm because I have a very steady, electric oven that stays right on the money.)

Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle.  Preheat the pan  over medium heat on the stovetop.  When the pan is nice and hot, wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan.  It should sizzle.

Take the chicken off the stove and place in the center of the oven.  Listen and watch for the chicken to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes.  If it doesn't, raise the temperature progressively until it does.
After about 30 minutes, turn the chicken over.  With a bird this small, it should not be too difficult, but be careful.  (This is when I spoon out much of the fat in the pan.)

Roast for another 10-20 minutes, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5-10 minutes.

Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.

While the chicken is roasting:
Place the pine nuts in a small baking dish and set in the hot oven for a minute or two, just to warm through.  (Watch these babies like a hawk...I've burned so many batches of pine nuts, it's distressing to even think about it.)  Add them to the bowl of bread chunks.

Place a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet (ok, this recipe is indeed a little pot-and-pan intensive...but it's SO worth it.  Now's the time to ply your dishwashing loved one with beer or wine.)
add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened.  Don't let them color.  Scrape into the bread and fold to combine.  Drain the plumped currants and fold in.  Dribble the chicken stock, or some lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.  Taste a few pieces of bread and adjust with more salt, pepper or a couple drops of vinegar, if it's tasting bland and toss well.  These adjustments are important since the type of bread you are using could be different each time.

After you flip the chicken for the final time:
Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil;  set the salad bowl aside.  Place the bread mixture in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time.

Finishing and serving the chicken and bread salad:
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat.  Leave the bread mixture to continue warming for another five minutes or so.

Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate.  Spoon the remaining fat from the pan, leaving the lean drippings behind.  Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

Tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings.
Set the chicken in a warm spot and leave to rest while you finish the bread salad.
Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.

Place the roasting pan over medium-low heat, and bring to a simmer, stirring any golden drippings that have accumulated and remove from heat.  Tip the bread salad into the salad bowl.  Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices.  Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette and fold well.

Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warmed platter and nestle the chicken in the salad.

There you have it.  Perfect Roast Chicken.

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