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A BIRD IN THE HAND
CREATIVE ROAST CHICKEN, FROM SIMPLE TO A TWO-DAY CITRUS SOAK

For a tragically large number of Americans, "chicken" has come to mean chicken breast, and they shall have no other poultry come before them.

Boneless. Skinless. Joyless. Like dietary monastics, they have taken vows forswearing taste, texture and pleasure, prostrating themselves before St. Cottonball the Bland. But man does not live by breast alone. Roast chicken is its polar opposite. Juicy. Rich. Passionate.

Thomas Keller is one of America's most sophisticated chefs. He has a foie gras terrine recipe that takes four days -- if you don't want to make the complicated version. Yet a simple roast chicken "never fails to excite me," he writes in "Bouchon," his most recent cookbook.

"I take the chicken butt for myself," says Keller. "I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip -- until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself."

Keller's recipe for roast chicken could not be simpler: Take one chicken, season with salt and pepper, and place in a 450 degree oven until done. The result is a crispy-skinned, moist bird that calls for being pulled apart by hand and eaten with a loaf of crusty bread. (Keller suggests mustard on the side and a green salad as well).

But you don't have to take the simple route. One technique that adds flavor is roasting your bird on a charcoal grill. Barbecuers have long cooked chickens sitting up, a beer can in its body cavity providing a platform and internal moisture.

Liquid in the can provides steam while the outside browns in the heat of the covered grill; it produces a chicken that oozes when it's cut. If you have smoke wood, such as hickory, oak or mesquite, you can drop some pieces on the coals to heighten the fire-kissed aroma.

Gas grill adherents are out of luck here, since gassers' looser-fitting lids are practically useless for roasting. You could use an oven, standing up the chicken on a sheet pan, but the smokiness won't happen.

Besides technique, there are flavor steps to consider. Whether you have a few minutes or several days' notice, you can boost the chicken's tastiness quotient.

In a hurry? A dry rub applied inside and out adds aroma and a bit of flavor, though much of the added flavor will remain on the skin.

If you have eight hours or overnight, brine your bird. A simple salt-and-sugar brine can add considerable moistness and flavor to any hen. Kosher chickens, already brined, don't need the help.

If you have time to plan, a marinade applied a day or two before cooking can deliver marvelous results. That's enough to turn a $5 chicken into an object of wonder.

In New York City, Peruvian rotisserie chicken is much prized in certain neighborhoods for its citrusy-cumin tang and savory meat. We've tried to duplicate the secret recipe, with a stiff dose of lemons, limes, oranges and garlic, and think we've gotten close.

Chinese roast chicken glories in its crackling skin, produced through a laborious process that we decided not to pursue. We did capture most of the taste, though, with a marinade that includes five-spice powder, a combination of star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon and pepper, that's available at Wegmans or many Tops Markets.

Now, you could just put the bird in a pan, pour the marinade over it and put it in the fridge, serene in your ability to remember to turn it every few hours. If money is no object, triple or quadruple the recipe and make enough marinade to submerge the bird.

If you're ambitious enough to marinate your birds, though, you should invest in a box of gallon Ziplocs. They're perfect for marinating whole chickens.

Put the chicken in the bag, and pour in the marinade. Then you can hold the bag upright and carefully squish the chicken against the kitchen counter until liquid rises to the lip. Snap the bag shut, with little or no air inside, and you can let it soak undisturbed until called upon for its glorious end.

In 36 to 48 hours, marinades will soak into the bird. Ventilating the chicken beforehand might not be strictly necessary, but it seems to help. Using a chopstick, barbecue fork or similarly barbaric implement, poke some holes in the bird. Think of Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas" with his mom's butcher knife, and aim for the main muscle groups.

Whatever the technique or approach, start your roast chicken off the same way. Rinse the chicken in cold water. Remove any innards. Pull off any wads of fat from the body cavity. Before cooking, pat it dry with paper towels, inside and out. Damp chickens won't get nearly as crispy.

Rubbing chickens with butter or shortening is common, but unnecessary. Your chicken comes covered in its own tailored, svelte fat jacket. It's called skin. Subject it to the right temperature for the right interval, and the chicken will baste itself.

Set your oven to 450 degrees and it'll take a three-pound chicken 50 to 60 minutes until done. If it's done, you can prick the thigh and the juices run clear, and a leg wiggles freely. More precisely, insert a thermometer in the thigh, not touching bone, and look for 160 degrees.

However you boost the bird's flavor, your cooking options are wide open. Oven or grill: Choose your weapon.

Chicken on a throne

Although some barbecuers will insist that only a beer can will do, the truth is it doesn't matter what kind of beverage you use, or what's in it. (A Pepsi can half-filled with water is fine.) Remember to use an open can, or it will explode.

Light up about 2 quarts of briquettes. When they're ready, push them into two piles on either side of the kettle. Push the chicken down on the can, arrange the legs so it sits upright. Drop a few pieces of hickory or other smoke wood on the coals, if you're using it, and carefully close the lid.

Refrain from the temptation to lift the lid and brag about your creation. Check for doneness after about 45 minutes. Remove when done, and let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting.

Thomas Keller's easy roast chicken

1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, rinsed, dried, salt and pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme (optional)

1/2 fresh lemon (optional)

4 strips bacon (optional)

Rain salt over the chicken, including inside the body cavity. Add pepper to taste. Roast at 450 degree, on bacon if desired. After 45 minutes, if using thyme, drop thyme into pan juices, and spoon over chicken as it finishes cooking. You could also squeeze the lemon half over the chicken at this point. Spoon those juices over the chicken and let it crisp up again in the oven as it finishes roasting.

"Peruvian" marinated chicken

1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, rinsed, dried and ventilated

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1/2 cup orange juice (not from concentrate)

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup chopped garlic

1/4 cup vinegar

1/2 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons dried oregano

Put everything except the chicken into a blender or food processor and whir until the garlic is well minced. Put the chicken into a 1-gallon Ziploc bag or equivalent. Add the marinade. Leave in fridge for 36 to 48 hours. Grill, or bake at 450 degrees until done.

Chinese style chicken

1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, rinsed, dried and ventilated

1 cup water

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup chopped garlic

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1/2 tablespoon five-spice powder

Put everything except the chicken into a blender or food processor and whir until the garlic is well minced. Put the chicken into a one-gallon Ziploc bag or equivalent. Add the marinade.Leave in fridge for 36 to 48 hours. Grill, or bake at 450 degrees until done.

Simple overnight brine

4 cups water

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup salt

Dissolve sugar and salt in water.

Pour over chicken, making sure the chicken is covered, making more brine as required. Or, use Ziploc bag and remove air. Refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours. If you're adventurous, swap honey, brown sugar or maple syrup for the sugar. If you're avoiding sugar, just skip it; the salt's the main event.

Curry dry rub

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Combine ingredients. Apply to rinsed and dried chicken. Cook as desired.

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