Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quick and Juicy "Weeknight" Roast Chicken

It seems there are as many ways to roast a chicken as there are feathers on the same. Having spent a few years experimenting with myriad different methods, flavors and birds, I've finally settled on my favorite recipe. I call it my "weeknight" roast chicken, so dubbed for its ease and brevity of preparation, though I often serve it on weekends too.

After being asked by so many friends for this recipe, I've decided to share it with all of them, and with you, because really good recipes should never stay a secret.

The first thing I tell anyone wanting to reproduce my weeknight roast chicken is that they simply must start with a good bird. My favorite fowl comes from Bell & Evans, but if you can't find Bell & Evans (as I sometimes can't), then any free-range chicken raised organically--without animal-based feed, and without hormones/antibiotics—will do just fine. I insist on this for any meat I would actually eat, sticking to my philosophy that a happy animal in life is a tasty animal in death.

Another thing I tell my friends is that they must pull their bird out of the oven when it registers 160-165 degrees(F). All harmful bacteria dies at 160-165(F), so there's absolutely no need to cook the bird beyond that point, it will only serve to dry out the meat, not kill any bacteria. This is another reason why my roast chicken is so popular, I manage to keep it glisteningly moist firstly by not overcooking it. I go so far as to use two different meat thermometers when checking the temperature, to be sure they're still reading correctly. If I had only one thermometer, how would I know it was always precise?

Another important technique for keeping roast chicken moist is to baste it. After about 30 minutes in the oven without basting, you should start to baste it as often as is practical for you—but the more the better if you want not only a moist bird, but fabulously crispy skin.

Those important tips aside, here's a rough recipe for my weeknight roast chicken, au jus.

One Roasting Chicken
Fresh Rosemary and Thyme
3+ Shallots (depending on the size of the bird and its cavity)
Olive Oil
Coarse Kosher Salt, Freshly Ground Black Pepper, and Dried Parsley flakes.

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees(F). Rinse the Rosemary and Thyme and set aside. Skin and halve the shallots and set aside with the herbs.

Rinse chicken thoroughly, then move it to a plate lined with a bed of paper towels and dry the inside and outside of the bird completely with more paper towels (the drier the skin of the bird, the better—think Peking duck and the fanning method).

When the bird is bone dry, discard the paper towels and dress the bird on the same plate. If you're working alone, you will want to make sure your coarse salt and freshly ground pepper are at-the-ready. Don't use your raw chicken-covered hands to grab the salt or grind the pepper, have these set along side the herbs to avoid cross-contamination. If you're working with a helper in the kitchen, just have one of you hold the bird while the other uses their clean hands to dress it.

Start by salting and peppering the cavity. Don't hold back, a bird can take a lot of seasoning because it has little innate flavor. Next, fill the cavity with the herbs and shallots (you can vary the herbs or use different kinds of onions, I do when I'm out of my first choices, but shallots do have a more refined flavor than other onions). Finally, pour some olive oil directly on the outside of the bird and rub it all over the chicken. Then generously salt and pepper the bird. At this point, I also sprinkle on some dried parsley flakes—they add no flavor, but they help to crisp the skin and they add to the bird's aesthetic appeal. Rub the salt, pepper, and parsley evenly all over the bird.

A four pound chicken will take just over an hour in a 425 oven. I begin by setting my timer for 20 minutes, and I don't open the oven during this time (the high heat seals the bird and keeps its natural juices inside). After the first 20 minutes, I open the oven, turn the bird, and set my timer for another 20 minutes. Because I don't have a convection oven, I turn the bird several times during roasting, always at the 20 minute mark, to ensure it roasts evenly.

After about 30 minutes in the oven, start basting the bird. If you baste it before about 30 minutes, the salt, pepper and parsley aren't completely stuck to the skin yet and basting can rinse them completely off the bird, and we don't want that.

With a 4 pound chicken, I start taking the bird's temperature after an hour, and I test it frequently (the more cooked a chicken gets, the more quickly its temperature rises—it takes less time for a bird to go from 150-160 than it does for it to go from, say, 90-100).

When the bird reaches 160 to 165, take it out of the oven and move it, rack and all, to a resting plate, and let it rest while you do the quick pan sauce. I never tent a bird in aluminum foil, this creates steam, and steam kills crispy skin.

For the simple pan sauce, just put your roasting pan directly on a burner at high heat. Add a liquid to the pan to deglaze it, and, ideally using a wood spatula, scrape all the lovely brown goodness from the pan. I use my home-made chicken stock for the liquid, but you can use water, wine, port, cream, etc. Let the sauce boil for a minute or two, then pour it through a fine sieve. If you don't want too much oil, you can spoon a lot off the top of the sauce, or just use a fat separator.

You don't actually need the sauce, if you do things according to these tips, your bird won't be dependant on any sauce to hide its dryness. I just like the sauce for the potatoes I always eat with my roast chicken. Plus, this method can be used to make a quick, yummy sauce from any pan-cooked meats (whether on the stove or in the oven).

I can't go a full week without roasting a chicken this time of year. Not only do I love to eat it, but I adore making stock from it, as well as using any left-over meat for risotto, soup, crepes or sandwiches. So next time you find yourself singing "Baby It's Cold Outside," grab yourself a good chicken and warm up with some roasting. The prep time is minimal, the flavors are anything but.