What a paradox is the chicken in the food world. Beloved by the non-adventuresome and chefs set, it is often lambasted by foodies and overlooked by diners. In many circles this world-wide staple bird has a pedestrian status. To some, chicken is the bland choice of dieters and picky eaters alike. To others its ubiquitous presence makes it too obvious of a choice to serve or order. No matter what your view of our feathered friend, there is no escaping its importance in the culinary world. In fact, ask anyone who grew up with real farm raised chicken (or any Frenchman for that matter) about their early memories of the bird, and I am sure it will bring a smile to even the staunchest beef-eaters face. There is a reason the chicken is important to the diets of so many peoples. One chicken can provide the base for several meals - from the meat to what my grandmother calls "the essence".
When you roast baby new potatoes with a chicken they go from bland starch to a sticky sweet garlicky morsel for absorbing sauce and juices. After picking every last bit from the carcass, a wise cook will make stock and bring that flavor into anything from soup to sauteed veggies. The meat can be sliced and served with a delicate sauce, cut into chunks and tossed with homemade mayo, fried, stewed, poached, roasted - is there any method of cooking that you cannot use on a chicken? Ok, maybe ceviche... nevertheless the poor chicken may be the most versatile food we can put on our tables.
As part of digging into how to crank out a simple roasted chicken, we have to explore why so many people turn up their noses to this classic. The very properties that make the chicken a nearly perfect food may be responsible for its current challenges. Since one chicken can become so many different meals, it quickly became a symbol for prosperity - a chicken in every pot. Like so many other foods, our desire for convenience meant compromising the quality. Today's supermarket birds are bred to be abnormally large, falsely colored, unduly soft, and void of any flavor. Furthermore the way they are "factory farmed" is nothing short of inhumane and frankly unsanitary.
The good news is that the taste and quality of organic chickens is so remarkably better that you can now find them even in megamarts. The current spotlight on farmers' markets means that we can buy not only organic but fresh, local birds. When you shake the hand of the woman or man who cared for the animal you are about to cook, you see their pride and know that what you have is of greater quality than anything you can buy in the megamart. So why isn't everyone flocking back to the bird? Unfortunately, factory farms have made it hard for local and natural framers to compete financially. I would like to tell everyone that if we all buy an organic bird tomorrow that the price will drop instantly; but as any economics 101 student will attest, widgets do not work that way. Any cook will tell you they are not trying to change the world, just please the guests at their table. If you care about food you will have no problem with the price tag.
Now that I have waxed on about the philosophy of the hen, it is time to examine how to prepare a simple roasted chicken. So far we have looked at recipes that are both simple in preparation as well as ingredients. The roasted chicken is a little more involved, but also provides the basis several other dishes. There is a trick to chicken cookery that will virtually guarantee a remarkably moist and flavorful bird and it is one that we will use again in coming preparations: the brine. You probably know the concept of brining and undoubtably know the brine's cousin the marinade. A brine, at its most basic, is salt dissolved into water to the point of being hydroscopic. That does not quite sound like simple food. Let's try again, when you soak a chicken overnight in a salty bath, the end result is a bird that is flavored to the core and has moisture literally locked inside. There are recipes for the perfect brine, but I want to let you in on a secret -you cannot mess it up.
* Fill a bowl large enough to hold your bird about 3/4 of the way with cool water. * Using a whisk, stir in about a 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of brown sugar - I say about because the bird (and water for that matter) will only take what it needs. In other words, you cannot over do it, it's self regulating. * Add a few bay leaves and a few cloves of garlic, crushed under with the broad side of a knife * Add chili flake and/or black peppercorns to your liking * Place the chicken into the brine and stash it in the fridge over night.
* Remove the chicken from the brine and pat it dry with towels. Allow it to come to room temperature. * Preheat your oven as hot as it will go - that should be between 500F and 550F * In an oven-safe dish just large enough to hold your bird, add sliced onion and/or potato along with a few crushed garlic cloves. Season the vegetables with sea salt. The size of the roasting dish is important. Many recipes call of placing a bird on a rack in an overly large roasting pan. The result is that the juices burn off before having a chance to flavor the veggies, let alone provide you with a sauce. A snug dish will keep the bird side-by-side with the veggies and the juices in the pan. I cannot stress this point enough - use a snug roasting vessel. * Nestle your chicken amongst the veggies * Using your fingers, pace two obscenely large pats of butter under the skin of each breast. Simply wiggle your finger between the skin and meat and create a pocket, slip the gianormious pads of butter into the pocket. * using a pepper mill, liberally coat the entire contents of the roasting dish * if you like, add a few leaves of sage to the inside of the bird
* Place the roasting dish in your hot oven. * After 30 minutes, use a meat thermometer to check the temperature of the thigh joint. *The goal is 155F * In all likelihood you bird will require as much an another 60 minutes of cooking, but it is crucial to keep checking every 15 minutes. Once the bird goes past our target temp, there is no bringing it back. * A deep mahogany color is good, remember the difference between great restaurant food everything else is that deeper shade of brown. However, if your bird is going from brown to black, cover the dish with aluminum foil for the rest of the cooking. *Once you hit 155F, remove the entire dish and allow to cool for 20 minutes (the residual heat will bring the bird to 160-165)
That is right, 20 minutes. Carving a steaming hot chicken is tantamount to torture when it is right out of the oven - even for those of us with "asbestos fingers". While you wait for the hen to cool, quarter a lemon. I find that fancy platings are fun in fancy restaurants, but it is more exciting to carve a bird that you hand picked, brined and roasted in to your table guests. It does not get any better than that! This is a dish where family-style shines. Transfer the chicken and roasting veggies to a serving plate and make sure to cover everything with the juices from the pan- there should be a surprising amount.
After a meal that requires a trip to the farmers market, a soak in salt water and careful roasting, how can we even think of calling this simple? While this dish takes more time than the fish or salads we have tackled before, the ingredients are still simple. This is a one dish meal that will satisfy anyone - the potatoes soak up the beautiful chicken flavor, the meat will be toothsome and flavorful and the skin is both sticky and crunchy. My grandmother is wise to call the drippings/juice/sauce "essence" because it contains all the flavor of the chicken and garlic as well as an umami unctuousness. What is not to love?
Of course, anyone into cooking simply will make sure to save the bones for a simple chicken stock. Throw them in a zipper bag and toss in the freezer. Check back here soon for our look at one of the most fundamental culinary liquids.
One more note on the brine - this is your canvas. The salt and sugar are going to act like public transportation taking any flavor you add into the bird with them. Feel free to add any flavors you like. For an asian touch add some ginger and basil. A Northern African flare can come from raisins and cinnamon. In the American South West you might enjoy dried chipotle chills and sage. The choice is yours!
One final note: while 160F should be more than sufficient to kill any harmful bacteria, the USDA recommends cooking chicken to 180 or above. Ultimately that is your choice, but it is advisable to ensure doneness when cooking for children, elderly or the immuno-compermised.