What a Chicken
November 25, 2007
I’m sure that most Americans couldn’t possibly bear the sight of a roasted bird a mere two days after Thanksgiving. But I didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner and in fact arrived to my dinner destination after the turkey had already been pulled from the oven. So, I don’t mind writing about roasted chicken today. Especially one this spectacular.
When I first started cooking, the thought of trimming the excess fat off a boneless, skinless chicken breast was enough to make my heart thump. And any red meat? Forget about it. While I quickly overcame these fears in my early cooking days, I still couldn’t fathom dealing with an entire chicken. In fact, I averted my eyes at the butcher’s counter, much preferring the already dismembered parts. So I was shocked when a certain roasted chicken recipe—from San Francisco’s Zuni Café cookbook—began to pique my interest. At the time, the recipe got a lot of discussion on Chowhound.com’s Home Cooking message board. The marvels and swooning over this particular recipe finally got to me. I had to try it.
The key to this recipe is the pre-salting and the high heat. Because this was the first roasted chicken recipe I’ve tried, I can’t speak to how it measures up to others. And this recipe will probably be the last roasted chicken recipe I try because it’s that good. And because my husband would certainly revolt if I abandoned his beloved bird (which we refer to as simply “Zuni”).
From the very first time I tried it, the recipe has not disappointed. Every time, the chicken comes out golden and crisped on the outside, with incredibly flavorful and succulent pieces of chicken. This is how chicken is meant to taste. I typically surround the chicken with thinly sliced potato rounds, which fry in the chicken drippings—a tip I picked up from one of the Chowhound Zuni faithful. The potatoes are extremely decadent and I usually can’t justify having more than one or two rounds, but my husband has no problem polishing off hefty mound. Served with a pile of spicy greens, it is a simply perfect dinner.
Zuni Roast Chicken
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
One 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lb. chicken
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary, or sage, about 1/2-inch long
About 1/4 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
Seasoning the chicken (1 to 3 days before serving; for 3 1/4 lb. to 3 1/2 pound chickens, at least 2 days): Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough—a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making a little pocket. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of the thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and the pepper (we use 3/4 teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken). Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Roasting the chicken: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. (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 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during the course of roasting the chicken to get it to brown properly. If that proves to be the case, begin at that temperature the next time you roast a chicken. If you have a convection function on your oven, use it for the first 30 minutes; it will enhance browning, and may reduce overall cooking time by 5 to 10 minutes.) Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle, a good and convenient option. Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle. Place in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. On the other hand, blistering is great, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking aggressively, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast the bird for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.Finishing and serving the chicken: Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools. Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste—the juices will be extremely flavorful. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve on the platter with the pan juices.