Chicken, by popular demand

It was recently brought to my attention that, although I mention roast chickens all the time, I’ve never actually given a recipe. I’ll seek to remedy that shortly, but first, I should mention something of my history with the dish. I more or less taught myself to cook through experimentation and hours spent watching Graham Kerr, The Frugal Gourmet and, Great Chefs every day after school. By the time I was thirteen, nearly every meal prepared in our house had passed through my mostly untrained hands.
As I got older, I began to apply myself with more direction, attempting to master specific dishes and techniques. In college, I wanted to learn to roast chicken. I began by researching the topic, and was thrown into confusion by the masses of contradictory information. To baste or not to baste? Breast up or breast down? Low oven or high oven? There seemed to be very little agreement, so I assumed that it must be tremendously difficult to produce an edible bird.
Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef helped to change my mind. Now, it can be argued that Mr. Oliver is almost a parody of himself, too cute and too buoyant to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is true, I still love his books. I actually cook from them regularly, sometimes a rare thing with important, glossy chef books. He focuses less on recipes, times and temperatures, and more on tasting, poking and not taking the whole thing so seriously. He convinced me that roasting a chicken didn’t have to be stressful, and much of my own technique is borrowed from him. I’ll give both my favorite roast chicken and later the slightly simpler flavored, lower effort version.

First, some general thoughts:
-Get the best chicken you can. I don’t always do this, but I have found that I get consistently better results from organic, free-range, or kosher birds.
-Roast a smallish chicken. I like 3 1/2 to 4 1/4 pounds. They cook quickly and evenly and will serve four people with adequate veg.
-If you think about it the night before, go ahead and rinse and dry the chicken. Then, put it on a bed of paper towels uncovered in the refrigerator. Again, this isn’t necessary, but a very dry bird will have a crispier skin.
-Have a lot of paper towels on hand as well as some antibacterial cleanser. I generally end up splashing raw chicken juice around a bit.
-For the sake of your gravy, use a pan that isn’t nonstick and that you can put on the stovetop as well as in the oven. A real roasting pan is nice, but a 9″x13″ cake pan will do the trick, particularly if you don’t roast often enough to justify investing in the real thing.
-Now that I’ve typed it out, I realize that the recipe looks long and complicated, but it isn’t. Really. I’ve tried to be specific and detailed, but really, all you’re doing is seasoning a chicken, putting it into the oven, and forgetting about it. So just read it through in advance and try not to over-think it.
My Favorite Roast Chicken
Thirty minutes to an hour in advance, rinse the chicken inside and out and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. If you do this the night before, take the chicken out of the refrigerator 30 minutes to an hour before you plan to cook it to let it come closer to room temperature.
Chop a mixture of herbs. I like about 1 part parsley, 1 part tarragon or basil, and 1/2 part thyme or rosemary. Mix this with the grated zest of 1 lemon, two or three minced cloves of garlic, a generous pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and begin to prep the chicken. Cut three or four deep slashes through the leg and thigh meat (this lets you season them better and makes them cook more evenly). Next, put your fingers under the breast skin to loosen it; you’ll feel where the skin is connected between the two breast halves. With a paring knife or kitchen shear, gently snip through that breast skin connection, trying not to cut or tear the skin (but it’s not really a big deal if you do).
Stuff about half of the herb mixture generously in the pocket under the breast skin. Slip your finger into the leg and thigh slits to loosen that skin, the tuck more of the herb mixture into the slits and under the skin. Rub the outside of the chicken with olive oil and season it inside and out generously with salt and pepper.
Put half of the lemon you previously zested into the cavity with a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary and two cloves of crushed garlic. Tuck the wings under the body. If you plan to tie it up, do so now. I used to truss it properly. Later, I would just tie the legs together. Now, I sometimes don’t even do that, and I don’t think it makes much difference.
Cut an onion into thick rings and place them, along with a few cloves of peeled garlic and optional chunks of carrot and celery into the bottom of the roasting pan and place the chicken on top. You can use a rack, but the vegetables will bring flavor to the sauce later.
Put the chicken into the oven and bake for between 50 minutes to and hour and 15 minutes. Don’t mess with it. Don’t baste it or turn it or irritate it in any way. Have a glass of wine and relax. As the oil melts down into the pan with the herbs, it may make loud popping noises. This is perfectly okay; don’t panic. Maybe have another glass of wine.
The exact time will depend on a number of factors, including how hot your oven runs and the size of the chicken. When it’s done, the skin will be very dark golden, the leg will wiggle freely, the juice will be clear when pieced between the thigh and body, and instant read thermometer will read about 170 degrees in the thigh. It’s a good idea to take the temperature in the beginning, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll probably just be able to tell when it’s done.
When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan and set it aside on a cutting board or platter. If there is a lot of fat in the pan, remove all but a few spoonfuls (or don’t, the fat is delicious). Put the roasting pan onto the stove over one or two burners turned to medium. Whisk in a generous spoonful of flour and cook, scraping the pan and mashing up the vegetables a little. Pour in about half a cup of wine (either white or a light pinot noir or merlot) and about 3/4 cup of chicken stock. Keep whisking, keeping an eye on hot spots in the pan, until the sauce simmers and thickens. Either strain the sauce for serving or just fish out the vegetables.
Carve the chicken into quarters and serve with the gravy. Remember that it is the chef’s right to pick the leftover morsels of meat of the carcass with her fingers.

Posted in Food, Tasty Ponderings
6 comments on “Chicken, by popular demand
  1. tejal says:

    Yes! The Queen of Roast Chickens divulges… Thank you!
    Reading this reminded me very much of eating a series of roast chickens at your place in Boston. Sigh. And now I’m feeling nostalgic as well as hungry.
    As for Jamie, you’re right about him being super cute and lispy (not to mention a Sainsbury’s rep–the picture of him making mayo on the floor is sort of ridiculous) BUT I love him. I do. I always will.

  2. neil. says:

    awesome, i’ve been waiting for this post…ever since someone mentioned it a few days ago in a comment thread. my roast chickens (smear with olive oil, salt, rosemary, pop in over at whichever temperature whoever my roommate is recommends) is, as you would imagine, highly variable.
    ps. can you guys add a links list?

  3. payal says:

    Excellent! Thanks for posting this, Martha. I will try roasting this way and report back.

  4. mostlymartha'smom says:

    I remember very well when you first told me you wanted to cook. You were about 11 and 1/2 years old. At first we were treated to canned spag. sauce. Before long it was home made spagetti sauce. Our grocery bill grew as your cullinary skills progressed. Giving up the kitchen to you was the easiest part of raising you. Your brothers and I haven’t eaten as well since you left for college. There’s just something about a Kroger bought and packaged roasted chicken that just doesn’t measure up to yours. It doesn’t really matter how many glasses of wine you drink while it warms in the microwave. Love you!!!

  5. tejal says:

    Am I the only one who was brought to tears by MM’s comment? It’s just so sweet! I even read it out loud to Glyn.

  6. Kymm says:

    My roast chicken technique comes from The Naked Chef cookbook as well. I think I may have cooked only one other thing from that book, but something about the way he writes about roasting a chicken makes it seem approachable, and the result is very good. My husband even made very good roast chicken using that book for a dinner with friends when I was stuck at work.

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