Sunday, September 21, 2008

Death Row Chicken

This is my death row meal: roast chicken with roast potatoes and boiled green peas. That I have roasted a chicken once a week for several years without tiring of it says a lot about the pleasure of this simple, essential feast. During the summer months, when the weather is too hot to warrant turning on the oven, part of me longs for the return of cooler temperatures and thus my weekly ritual.

Knowing how to roast a chicken is a basic life skill as far as I'm concerned (that is, if your life includes eating meat). There are few things more satisfying than pulling a fragrant roast chicken from the oven, hearing the crackle and pop of the juices bubbling in the roasting dish and tucking into your favourite parts of the bird before it has even reached the table.

Roast chicken is good economy as well. Leftover meat can be used in sandwiches and salads, or simply picked off the carcass in the fridge as a late-night snack, dressed with mayo. Save the roasting juices to make insanely good roast potatoes on a day when you need a culinary hug. And of course, once you have picked the bones clean, throw them in a pot of water with an onion and some celery to make chicken stock, the basis of the easiest and most comforting and delicious soups.

Everyone has their own chicken roasting recipe. Certainly, cookbooks are no help to finding the essential roasting method. Roasting temperatures will range from 325F to 450F depending on who you consult, and the variations of preparations are endless.

There is also some debate over cooking position (of the bird, not the cook). As a flightless bird, the breast muscle is unused by the chicken and as a result, the meat is lean and flavourless. The back and legs, which get all the action, are sinewy, riddled with blood vessels, and full of fat and thus flavour. Some cooks compensate for the breast meat's lack of flavour by roasting the chicken breast-side down, the theory being that the back fat will permeate the breast on its way down to the bottom of the roasting pan. Some cooks position the bird breast-side down for the first half of roasting, then flip it over for the remainder of the cooking time to brown the breast. (This, incidentally, is how I roast my turkey, which is never dry and always tasty.)

I've roasted chickens in several different configurations of breast up or down, and in every position, the meat tastes pretty much the same to me. I stick to breast up now. No result warrants neither the sacrifice of crisp, golden breast skin, requiring prolonged exposure to the oven heat to achieve perfection, nor burning my hands trying to wrestle with a hot, slippery, half-roasted bird. This effort I perform only once a year, usually with the assistance of my father, as we coordinate our movements to turn a 16-pound stuffed turkey in its roasting tray. No easy feat.

Through all of the experimentation, I have found a system that is simple and easy: no flipping or fuss. I like cooking that requires minimal effort to achieve grand results. My method is largely based on Nigella Lawson's direction save a few details, specifically the oven temperatures. Perhaps my oven is hotter than hers, but if I roast my chicken at 450F-425F, the fat splatters so much that my kitchen is filled with smoke within half an hour. Here is how I roast a chicken:

Serves 3-4
1 4lb (2kg) roasting chicken
1 lemon
salt and pepper
1 tsp butter
Remove the chicken from the fridge 1 hour before cooking so that it reaches room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.

Most chickens come from the butcher or supermarket already trussed. If the chicken has been in your fridge for a couple of days, then rinse it with cold water and dry it inside and out with a paper towel. Place it breast-side up in a roasting tray deep enough to collect the roasting juices. I use a 9 x 12 in. oven-safe glass dish.

Reach into the chicken cavity (located between the legs) and pull off any large fat pieces. (The fat looks like butter and is located just inside the cavity.) Generously sprinkle the cavity with good salt and pepper (about 1 tsp large-flake salt). Cut the lemon in half and stick half directly into the cavity. You may need cut the half-lemon into smaller pieces to fit it into the cavity without having to untie the bird. If you need to truss, do this next.

Spread the butter over the breast and legs and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (again, about 1 tsp large-flake salt). Put the chicken in the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375F/180C. Roast for one more hour. Test for doneness by piercing the thigh with a knife. If the juices run red, return the chicken to the oven for another 10-15 minutes. When the juices run clear, the chicken is done.

Remove it from the oven. Squeeze the remaining half lemon over the chicken and sprinkle with a pinch more salt. Let the chicken sit under a kitchen towel for at least 15 minutes before carving.

NOTE: Cooking time is roughly 15 minutes per pound, plus 15 minutes for a room-temperature bird. However, I always forget to check the weight of my chicken before throwing the butcher label into the trash, so I don't slavishly follow this guideline. I just roast for anywhere between 1.25-1.5 hours, depending when I remember to take it out. After an hour, it's generally done. Another way to tell if the chicken is done without releasing its juices with a knife is by the amount and quality of the juices at the bottom of the pan. If there is very little juice or if it is either clear or bloody, then the chicken is not done. The juices should be golden brown, plentiful and bubbling.

Serves 2
2 baking potatoes (such as russett or yukon gold)
leftover chicken drippings, duck fat, or oil
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Put the drippings/fat/oil (about 1/4c) into a baking dish and put in the oven to heat.

Bring to a boil a medium-sized pot of salted water. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks, size depending on your taste. Boil the potatoes for 10-15 minutes or until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and add the potatoes, ensuring to cover the potatoes on all sides with the hot fat. Return to the oven for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are crisp and browned.

If roasting the potatoes alongside a chicken, add the boiled, drained potatoes to the roasting pan 30-45 minutes before the chicken is to come out of the oven.

Photo: Death Row Chicken, before and after roasting.


milanese masala said...

I am salivating after reading that recipe! I adore roast chicken and potatoes but I've never made it myself. My hubby doesn't like chicken after a traumatic experience at daycare. No joke! But since I have other willing guinea pigs at home I just might try it this weekend.
Just so I understand correctly, the chicken should be cooked breast side up and not turned over? And do you have any trusty roast turkey recipe you'd like to share?

Kristen Peterson said...

Breast side up the whole way.
And, I'll be doing a Thanksgiving post later on. In the meantime, Nigella Lawson's turkey recipe is just fine, from How to Eat.
I'm curious about the traumatic chicken experience! Sounds maudlin and kind of funny at the same time. Chicken is like the white bread of the meat family: hard to imagine anyone not liking it. K;)