Alice Waters and The Art of Simple Food

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Roasting a Chicken

Roast chicken, plump, golden, and juicy, is perfect for anything from a feast to a weekday family dinner. Happily, it is an easy dish to prepare, especially if you follow these few tips.

First and foremost: find a good chicken, one that has been raised with care. Because chickens are so widely available and inexpensive, we don't often think about where they come from and how they are raised. Unfortunately, these days most chickens are produced under factory conditions, cooped up in tiny overcrowded cages, de-beaked, and fed a diet that is heavily laced with antibiotics and frequently includes animal by-products. These conditions are unhealthy and stressful for the birds (and the workers as well) and produce chickens of compromised integrity and flavor. Organic free-range chickens are raised on organic grain, without antibiotics or hormones, in less confined and more humane conditions, resulting in healthier, tastier birds. Starting with such a bird is what makes a really delicious roast chicken. Organic, free-range chickens can be found at some farmers' markets. These are usually pasture-raised in small flocks and are the tastiest of all. If your butcher or market doesn't carry organic chicken, you can help create demand by asking them to do so.

If possible, season the chicken with salt a day or even two days before you roast it. If you roast it the day you buy it, season it as soon as you bring the bird home. The seasoning will penetrate the bird, making the meat more tender, juicy, and tasty. Make a mixture of about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and a scant 1/4 teaspoon of fresh-ground black pepper. Unwrap the chicken. If it is wrapped in paper keep it right on the paper. Swivel the wing tips and tuck them underneath the bird; this keeps them from burning while roasting. Sprinkle the salt and pepper all over the bird, inside and out, wrap it right back up, and put it in the refrigerator. If you want to, this is the time to put herbs and garlic under the skin. Gently loosen the skin and slide thick slices of peeled garlic cloves and tender sprigs of fresh herbs underneath, working them under the skin until they are situated over the breasts and thighs.

Take the chicken out of the refrigerator at least an hour before cooking. A cold bird straight from the fridge won't roast evenly; the outside will cook but the interior will be underdone. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roast the chicken in an ovenproof dish or pan that's about the same size as the chicken. If a too-large pan is used, the juices that accumulate while the chicken is roasting will start to burn and smoke. An earthenware dish or small roasting pan will do, and so will an ovenproof skillet or a pie pan. Lightly oil the dish; put the chicken in it, breast side up; and roast for 20 minutes, then turn the chicken breast side down. Turning the chicken helps it cook evenly by circulating the juices and fat throughout the bird and allows the skin to brown and crisp all over. After another 20 minutes turn the chicken breast side up again and roast until done.

A 3-1/2- to 4-pound chicken takes about an hour or so to cook. Start checking after about 50 minutes. The bird is ready when the legs and thighs are no longer pink and the breast is still juicy and tender. With experience you will be able to judge the doneness of a roast bird by sight, but at first you have to do a little investigating. Don't be afraid to cut into it. The thighs are the last parts to finish cooking, so cut into the bird near the joint between the drumstick and the thigh. The meat should be hot and no longer red. After having roasted countless chickens, I rely on visual cues: I know that when the skin has started to separate from the meat on the drumsticks the bird is done. I also give the leg a little wiggle; if it moves freely, without bouncing back, this confirms what the skin has already told me. It's important that the chicken be cooked through -- but it's equally important that it not be overdone. A dried-out, overcooked chicken is a waste.

Let the chicken rest in a warm place for a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes before serving. The juices will settle, the internal temperature will stabilize, and the chicken will be much more succulent than if you carve it immediately. Remove the chicken to a warm platter. Skim the fat from the juices left in the pan and turn them into a sauce or a little gravy or pour into a pitcher to pass at the table.

To cut up the roasted chicken, slice through the skin between the thigh and breast. Put the bird back in the roasting pan to do this because this will release a lot of juices. Tip the bird forward to drain the juices and then remove it from the pan. Bend or pull the leg out from the body and locate the hip joint with your knife, slicing down firmly through the joint to remove the leg. To remove the drumstick, hold the knob of the drumstick and cut through the joint from the inside. To carve the breast, start at the wishbone at the top of the breast. Slide the point of your knife down each side of the breastbone. Then cut down along the wishbone towards the wings. Slide your knife under the meat, lifting it off the rib cage. Last, holding the meat away from the bird cut down through the wing joint, removing the breast and wing in one piece. Either carve the breast into slices or cut it in half diagonally, making the half with the wing attached slightly smaller. Save the carcass; it makes a lovely stock.

Roast Chicken

4 Servings

Remove the giblets from the cavity of:

1 chicken weighing 3 1/2 to 4 pounds

Inside the cavity there are frequently large pads of fat. Pull these out and discard them. Tuck the wing tips up and under to keep them from burning. Season, 1 or 2 days in advance, if possible.

Sprinkle, inside and out, with:

Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Cover loosely and refrigerate. At least 1 hour before cooking, remove and place in a lightly oiled pan, breast side up. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roast for 20 minutes, turn the bird breast side down, and cook for another 20 minutes. Then turn breast side up again and roast until done, another 10 to 20 minutes. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving.

Variations

  • Put a few tender sprigs of thyme, savory, or rosemary under the skin of the breast and thighs before roasting.
  • Put a few thick slices of garlic clove under the skin, with or without herbs.
  • Stuff the cavity of the bird with herbs; they will perfume the meat as the chicken roasts. Don't hold back: fill the whole cavity.

Reprinted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. Copyright (c) 2007. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

Originally published on LHJ.com, November 2007.

 

 

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