February 17, 2009

roast a chicken

After an incredibly stressful day, I came home and I focused my energy on dinner. Specifically, I roasted a chicken. Is it strange that I find roasting a chicken to be as calming as a hot bath? Roasted chicken is easily one of my top 5 favorite things to make. I love how simple and how rewarding a roasted chicken is to make.

The great thing about roasted chicken is that it lends itself so well to almost any sides. My French friends served roasted chicken with spicy Dijon mustard, bread, and a salad; my friend Grace taught me to enjoy roasted chicken with steamed short grain rice and salty seaweed wrappers; my friend (ok, not really) Ina Garten roasts the chicken over a bed of potatoes, onions, fennel, and carrots. So many ways, all delicious.


Simple roast chicken
adapted from Thomas Keller and the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
(updated December 2010)

I have changed my chicken roasting technique over the years. For a long time, I turned to Marcella Hazan, whose chicken with 2 lemons is a classic preparation. Then Thomas Keller became my chicken guru, with his tender, juicy, very little fuss chicken. One fateful weekend, I made Judy Rodgers' famous Zuni Cafe bird and found her chicken to be superb, maybe even better than Thomas Keller's. The only problem? It requires you to flip the chicken twice. The first time I tried it, I left all of the skin on the bottom of my skillet! I'm a skin person, and so that was a dealbreaker. This recipe is an amagalm of my two favorite methods. First you dry-brine the bird in the fridge for 2-3 days, then you proceed with Keller's recipe. It works so well, you guys. Try it.

1 small bird, best quality, around 2-3 pounds (no bigger than 3 1/2 pounds if you can manage it)
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Seasoning the chicken [1 to 3 days before roasting; give 3 1/2 pound chicken at least 2 days, preferably 3):

Rinse the chicken and then dry it very thoroughly, inside and out. A damp chicken will steam, which you want to avoid for the sake of crispy and bronzed skin. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now, gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. You have made 4 pockets; shove an herb spring into each. 

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections more heavily than the wings, and don't worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Roasting the chicken:

On the day you wish to roast your chicken, preheat the oven to 450F. pull the bird from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature (this takes around 30 minutes). Next, thinly slice a medium sized potato and arrange the slices in a single layer on the bottom of a cast iron skillet or roasting dish. (The potatoes help to soak up the juice and to reduce the smoking that occurs.)

Place the chicken on the potatoes and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. Thomas says: "I leave it alone—I don't baste it, I don't add butter. Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board." I take the chicken out when it hits 165F and let it rest 10-20 minutes, covered with foil.

Making bootleg chicken stock

So, Thomas Keller would take one look at this "stock" and deem it unfit for consumption. I don't use the correct proportion of bones and flesh (not even close), sometimes it gets cloudy, and sometimes I don't let it simmer for 4 hours. So what? It still makes an excellent base for all sorts of stuff (blended vegetable soups, chicken noodle soup, and other odds and ends) and it tastes so much better than storebought stock I can't even deal. My advice: don't get bogged down by the idea that it's not perfect. If you care so much, well, this might not be the blog of you.
  • 1 roast chicken carcass, picked clean of meat
  • any other chicken parts you have lying around, like giblets (but not the liver or heart!), chicken wings, wing tips, necks, backs, etc. 
  • 1 large onion or onion scraps
  • 1 carrot, or carrot trimmings
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 stalk celery (optional)
  • 3-4 whole peppercorns
  • sprig of thyme or parsley (optional)
(If you don't feel like making stock, you should totally stash the carcass in your freezer until you do. Sometimes I'll save 3 carcasses and make stock with them at once.) Add your carcass to a pot, breaking it into pieces if you need to, and add the remaining ingredients, all roughly hacked into chunks. It should fit in the pot snugly, so that no more than 6 cups of water are needed to cover everything. But don't sweat it if you need to use extra water; you can always reduce the stock later.

Bring the water to a simmer over low heat. It should bubble gently, though if it boils harder, it's ok too -- your stock will get cloudy, which isn't the end of the world. Simmer at least 2 hours; 4 hours would be nice but beyond that is not so productive. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight. The fat should rise to the top, which you can then skim off and discard. Use within 3 days, or freeze.