Ever since I started learning to cook with Ben in Philly a few years ago, I’ve been trying to perfect the art of cooking chicken. One of the reasons I keep coming back is the wonderful versatility of the elegant bird. You can roast it, grill it, pan fry it, bake it, boil it, broil it or stir-fry it, and better yet, it virtually sucks up the flavors of the dish you’re making, whether it be spicy or salty, savory or sweet. In fact, many of my all-time favorite culinary creations have been based on this ubiquitous poultry. But, since one of the trickiest things to make is the perfect roast chicken, I think its fitting that my inaugural post here on #food relates to the sacred art.
Judy Rodgers, the chef at Zuni Cafe and an inspiration for more than a few of my cooking adventures, says that there are 3 keys to making roast chicken. First, the bird should be small — 2.5 to 3 lbs. It goes without saying that the bird should be fresh and free-range, not one of those hormone-pumped chickens from the supermarket. Second, the bird will benefit from at least a day of salt brine, which is the trick to making a super juicy, succulent roast. Lastly, cook it hot — like 475 – 500 degrees hot. About 45 minutes is all you need for a 3 pound bird.
The bread salad that goes along with this dish is an amazing pairing with the roast chicken. You can cook the chicken by itself and serve it with anything else, but I recommend trying this whole recipe at least once. Judy Rodgers spends about 5 pages in her cookbook explaining the ins-and-outs of this dish, so I’ll summarize for the sake of our collective sanity. As always, measurements are approximate — use your senses and judgment.
For the chicken
2 small chickens, 2-3/4 to 3-1/2-pounds (note that I like to make one chicken for every two people. I usually make this dish for 4 people, since its a bit of a production. However, the recipe can easily be halved.)
herbs of your choice (I recommend rosemary or thyme)
For the salad
1 loaf chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough. batard or fat baguette works well.)
champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
handful dried currants (plump by soaking in red wine vinegar)
handful pine nuts
6-8 garlic cloves, chopped
about 8 scallions, chopped (leave out most of the long green ends)
drizzle of chicken stock or lightly salted water
a few handfuls of arugula or frisee
1. Prepare the chicken.
A day or two ahead of time, rinse the chickens under cold water, pat dry, and rub the chickens liberally all over with coarse salt and pepper. About 3/4 teaspoon of salt per pound of chicken is good. Pepper to taste. Don’t worry too much about getting salt and pepper in the cavity, although it doesn’t hurt. Also, stick a few sprigs of herbs under the skin around the breast and thighs (after carefully prying a hole under the skin with your finger), and a couple more in the cavity. Cover and stick in the fridge for at least 12 hours.
2. Prep the Bread.
An hour before you want to eat, start the bread salad. Pre-heat the broiler first, on high. Cut the bread into a few (4 or 5) big chunks, and then carve off the bottom and side crusts with a bread knife. Try not to take off too much of the fluffy white stuff. Brush all sides of the bread chunks generously with olive oil. You’ll probably use 1/4 – 1/2 a cup of oil for this.
3. Toast the Bread.
Put the bread chunks under the broiler. That shit is hot, so watch carefully, cause it will burn fast. Let it get nice and browned on the top side (just takes a couple minutes) and then flip the chunks over so it gets browned on the other side. If it gets a little burned, don’t worry — just scrape off the blackened bits. Once they’re nice and toasty, tear the chunks up into an assortment of big wads, bite-size pieces, and fat crumbs.
4. Roast the Chickens.
Turn off the broiler and get the oven going at a nice hot 475 degrees. Also, put 2 cast-iron skillets or other oven-safe skillets on the stovetop on high heat, to get them nice and hot. Pop the chickens out of the fridge, pat dry with a paper towel. Once the skillets are hot, drop the chickens, breast-side up, onto the skillets — one in each. They should sizzle nicely. Put the whole skillets into the oven. Its going to roast for about 20 minutes breast-side up, then 20 minutes breast-side down, and then 5 minutes breast-side up to re-crisp the skin. While its doing its roasting thing, turn back to the bread salad.
5. Assemble the Bread Salad
(a) Make a simple vinaigrette with about 1/3 cup of olive oil and 1/4 cup of champagne or white wine vinegar. Drizzle it over the torn bread and mix well.
(b) Saute a couple green onions (chopped) and garlic (chopped) in a little olive oil. Once soft and smelling good, drop it all onto the bread.
(c) Add a handful of pine nuts to the bread.
(d) Add a handful of dried currants to the bread. It helps to plump the currants first by letting them soak in red wine vinegar for 20 minutes or so.
(e) Fold the bread together with all this good stuff you’ve been adding. Its starting to look like a salad. BAM.
(f) Drizzle a couple tablespoons of chicken stock (or lightly salted water) over the salad, to moisten it. Taste a piece of bread and add some salt/pepper if needed, more some vinegar if its not flavorful enough. Scoop the whole salad into a glass roasting pan, cover with foil, and put in the oven when you turn the chicken over the last time. It will get super steamy and hot.
6.Finish the Salad.
Pull the chickens out of the oven after its 45 minutes of roasting, if they look good and brown. It not, give it a couple more minutes. Take the chickens out of the skillets, and put the birds on a cutting board to rest. The skillets should have lots of nice brown bits stuck on the bottom. Put one skillet on low heat, and pour a tablespoon of water in it. Scrape to deglaze and soften all the little brown bits. Taste — should be delicious. Take the foil off the bread salad in the oven and drizzle the deglazed chicken juice over the salad. Leave the salad in the oven a few minutes longer, while the chicken rests.
Carve the chicken. Google “how to carve a chicken” if you don’t know how. Toss a couple handfuls of frisee or argula with the bread salad. Plate the salad, and drop a chicken piece or two on each plate. How good does that look? You’re such a boss.