This week, I’d like to take you back to basics. After teaching classes for nine years, I was always amazed when these sharp, young, professional women would come to class and not know how to cook. They literally didn’t know how to prepare a boneless, skinless chicken breast (the least desirable way to eat chicken, in my humble opinion.)
I do not know what these women or their families ate for dinner. I used to take great satisfaction knowing that just maybe the women would be inspired to try the recipes from class at home. Other times, the ladies informed me that their husbands cooked. Cheers to that, ladies.
This week’s recipe comes from “The Zuni Café Cookbook.” The restaurant is famous for its perfectly roasted chicken. And while I realize that doesn’t sound like something to write about, once you’ve made this chicken, you’ll understand. While I’ve never personally dined at The Zuni Café, my friend Julie, who lives in the Bay Area, talks of it with that tone of voice that makes you want to purchase a plane ticket and head there for dinner. Judy Rogers, the late chef of Zuni Café, delights newer and well-seasoned cooks with her thorough explanations in this book and with nuggets of information that will transform the way you cook. One example of this is her explanation of why salting the chicken one to three days before roasting it is truly worth the effort.
In a day where so many pick up rotisserie chickens on the way home – and we’re all guilty of it in a pinch – it sure feels good to give the bird some forethought. This recipe is delightfully simple – only a few ingredients, prep a couple days in advance and you’ll experience the best tasting, juicy chicken with crispy skin. Salting the bird early promotes juiciness and improves texture of the meat. How does it happen? Scientific explanations aren’t the way I cook or write recipes, but I sure have appreciation for chefs and authors who take the time to explain.
The salt helps dissolve and break down some of the protein around the muscle fibers. First, the salt extracts the moisture from the chicken, and then with time, the seasoned moisture reabsorbs in reverse osmosis. It’s all pretty science geeky to me. All I know is it really works and better understanding the “hows” in cooking helps us all understand the process better.
Serve this chicken with your favorite sides. Cooler temps have me roasting every vegetable I find at the store – beets, sweet potatoes, broccoli and onions. You can also never go wrong with some roasted garlic mashed potatoes. I like to keep at least six heads of roasted garlic in the freezer ready at all times. It takes time to make it, and its just so handy to have in the freezer. I hope you at least consider trying this method for roast chicken. I find it delicious, and think I’ll head off to the store to grab a chicken myself.
Zuni Roast Chicken
One small chicken, 2 ¾ to 3 ½ pounds
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Season the chicken one to three days before serving (for 3 ¼ to 3 ½ pound chickens, at least 2 days). Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Pat the chicken very dry (a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown).
Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets, then use a fingertip to gently loosen a pocket of the skin on the outside of the thickets section of each thigh. Push an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
Using about ¾ teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken and pepper to taste, season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity and on the backbone. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
When you’re ready to cook the chicken, heat the oven to 475 degrees. Depending on your oven, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during roasting to brown the chicken properly.
Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. 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 watch for it to start sizzling and 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 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 for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Pour the clear fat from the pan, leaving the drippings. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl. 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. As the chicken rests, tilt the roasting pan and skin the last of the fat. Place drippings over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape.
Cut the chicken into pieces and pour the pan drippings over the chicken.
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook