I'm sorry if I've been a downer lately, but I feel like I've been on a mediocre dinner party streak. It happens to the best of us, as we saw in the comments section. But culinary redemption is always just one good recipe away, right? And if you're looking for a way to break out of the cooking doldrums, I've got that very recipe for you.
Zuni Cafe's roasted chicken made the blog rounds years ago, and while I love a good roasted bird, the recipe seemed overly fussy in spite of the deafening hype. People looove this damn chicken but the recipe is three pages long. Shouldn't roasted chicken be a simple endeavor? And anyway, I already had a favorite chicken recipe--or so I thought.
Recently, I rediscovered Deb's tweaked version over at Smitten Kitchen. (Yes, this is Smitten Kitchen week over here.) Although the recipe still seemed fairly complicated, she took out a lot of the superfluous stuff and whittled it down to the main essentials. Which is why we all love Deb.
So I tried it out on a Sunday night for Dan and myself. And, wow. That favorite chicken recipe of mine? Out the window. What seemed like a lot of steps on paper actually turned out to be not that much work and resulted in the perfectly golden brown bird of my dreams. Not to mention the absolutely delicious bread salad, a stuffing-like take on panzanella, that goes with it. You could skip this side dish but I can't think of a reason why that would be a good idea.
After my trial run, I made the chicken again (along with some roasted vegetables) for a cozy Sunday night dinner with two out-of-town friends. And, double success! Maybe the meal was especially great because I rarely get to see these friends, or maybe because I pre-tested this recipe, or maybe because this chicken is really effing delicious.
So why is this chicken so awesome? The recipe includes several techniques that make a difference--and that you can apply to your favorite roasted chicken recipe, if you can't let go of your old standby:
1. Obsessive drying
Most recipes tell you to wash and pat your chicken dry. This recipe is almost obsessive about this step. Why? A wet chicken will steam instead of turning golden brown. A dry bird also sticks less to the pan, leaving you with more crispy skin to eat! So grab some paper towels and get to blotting.
Salting the bird at least a day in advance helps lock in moisture and some say it also improves the flavor of the meat. And you can leave the salted chicken in the fridge for up to three days.
3. Herbs under the skin
Seems like a small thing, but slipping a few herbs under the skin of the chicken really infuses the bird with flavor.
4. No extra oil or fat
I usually slather my chicken with olive oil before putting in in the oven. Some people do the same with butter. In this recipe no extra fat is needed. The chicken renders its own fat, leaving the skin crisp and the meat juicy, not greasy.
It's hard not to tear into a perfectly roasted chicken the minute it comes out of the oven but if you let the bird rest for awhile, it's worth the self-restraint. Like letting a steak rest before you slice it, this will help retain the juices and make the chicken more succulent.
Are you sold yet? Here's the recipe.
Zuni Cafe's roasted chicken
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and the Zuni Cafe cookbook from the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco
(Serves 4 people)
1 small (preferably organic) chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lbs.
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
About 1 Tbsp. salt
3/4 to 1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
A little water
1 to 3 days before serving, prepare the chicken. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out.
Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. 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.
Preheat your oven to 475 degrees. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or a large cast iron pan (which is what I used). Preheat the pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
Place the chicken in the hot pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set it on a plate to rest. 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. (I skipped this step.) Let it rest while you finish your side dishes (or the bread salad, below).
Warm your serving platter in the oven under low heat, if desired. (Make sure your platter is oven-proof!)
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. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve on the platter or on top of the bread salad.
Zuni Cafe bread salad
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and the Zuni Cafe cookbook. The cookbook describes this as “a warm mix of crispy, tender, and chewy chunks of bread, a little slivered garlic and scallion, a scatter of currants and pine nuts, and a handful of greens, all moistened with vinaigrette and chicken drippings.” Yum. I tweaked this recipe a tad to save a pan, but it's pretty perfect as-is.
(Serves 4 people)
1 baguette, or an 8 oz. loaf of peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 Tbsp. mild-tasting olive oil
2 Tbsp. Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 Tbsp. dried currants plumped in 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar and 1 Tbsp. warm water for ten minutes or so
2 Tbsp. pine nuts
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions)
A few spoonfuls of chicken drippings, reserved from the chicken (or chicken stock, or lightly salted water)
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens
Preheat your broiler. Cut up a baguette into irregular 2- to 3-inch chunks, wads, bite-sized bits and fat crumbs, enough to make 4 cups.
Toss the bread cubes with a few tablespoons of olive oil and broil them for about five minutes. If you’d like to toast the pine nuts (recommended) you can sprinkle them over the bread about halfway through the cooking time. Be careful, they burn easily.
Whisk 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 the vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. (Kitchen tongs are great for this.) Add a little more salt and pepper, if needed, and toss again.
Heat the pan you cooked the chicken in over medium-low heat. Add the the garlic and scallions, and cook, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape the garlic and scallions into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts, if they were not already mixed with the bread scraps from the broiling step. Dribble a few spoonfuls of the reserved chicken drippings (or stock or water) over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread — a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.
The easiest thing is to pile the bread salad on a big platter, tent it with foil, then place the cut-up chicken on top just before serving. If you want to serve the bread salad on the side, place it in a 1-quart shallow baking dish. (Hang onto the bowl you mixed it in—you’ll use it again.) Put the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the hot bread salad back into the salad bowl. Drizzle and toss with another spoonful of drippings. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again, then serve.