Roasting a whole chicken used to feel like an ordeal to meal. It certainly was a process, one never attempted mid-week. After poking a lemon with a skewer 25 times, smashing garlic cloves, chopping up carrots and shallots, stuffing the cavity and pinning the neck closed, I would swaddle the dear bird with twine, a poor attempt at trussing. Geez Louise — just thinking about all of the steps makes me question why I ever attempted whole roasted chicken at all.
If you, too, reserve roasting a whole chicken for special occasions only, please know that a super moist, most delicious chicken can be achieved in 45 minutes. It’s true. Best of all, it requires no trussing.
Many of you already know about the much adored Zuni Cafe roast chicken and bread salad recipe. Some of you may have even had the luxury of enjoying it at the beloved San Francisco cafe. From oysters to wood-fired baked bread to ricotta gnocchi to chocolate gâteau and biscotti, the Zuni dinner my husband and I enjoyed there with two dear friends rates as one of the best ever.
And the roast chicken and bread salad for us (and many others) remains the most memorable course. The dish is a sort of roast chicken panzanella, a combination of spicy mustard greens, sweet currants, toasted pine nuts, and chewy peasant-style bread. And the bread. Oh the bread! Saturated with pan drippings and a light vinaigrette, these irresistible cubes are the star of the dish. Seriously, I could eat the whole batch of bread salad alone. The Zuni cookbook, one of my favorites for its stories and thoughtfully written recipes, offers detailed instructions on choosing a chicken, on salting the chicken (what they refer to as the “practice of salting early”), and on assembling this whole dish. (If you’re looking for a food-related gift, this book is prefect for any foodie — it’s filled with goodies.)
Anyway, while I rarely make the bread salad recipe — it indeed is a bit of a process — I make the roast chicken at least once a week. I can never find birds under 4 lbs. (Zuni recommends using a 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lb bird) but even so, with a hot cast iron skillet and the oven at 475ºF, my chickens finish cooking in 45 minutes consistently. And they are the juiciest, most flavorful chickens ever to emerge from my oven — the dark meat, my favorite, nearly falls off the bone, and the white white, infused with the flavors of sage and thyme (or whatever herb you’ve tucked under the skin) remains tender and juicy. It’s hard to refrain from gnawing on the bones while carving.
This time of year, nothing tastes better to me than a whole roasted chicken. A whole roasted chicken smothering a bread salad that is. While there’s nothing tricky about the bread salad recipe, somehow it always becomes more of a process than I anticipate. Perhaps it’s the way the recipe has been written — I always find my eyes glued to the book, rereading every paragraph to make sure I’m not missing a step. The recipe does not lack details that’s for sure, but it pays. When you’re feeling up for it, take a stab at this recipe. You won’t be disappointed.
Mustard greens from our Olin-Fox Farms CSA:
Note: If you are making the bread salad recipe as well, read that recipe before starting the chicken. If you only have one oven, you might want to start on the bread salad recipe first — the bread needs to be briefly broiled.
Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Serves 2 to 4
One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2-pounds (I can only find chickens over 4 lbs., but I always dig for the smallest bird on the shelf)
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
freshly cracked black pepper
A little water
The Zuni recipe calls for seasoning the chicken one to three days before serving. I never am this organized and find the cooking method to work just as well when the chicken is seasoned just before cooking. If, however, you want to stick to the Zuni method, use about 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
If you choose to season the chicken just before roasting, start here:
1. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
2. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (I use a cast iron skillet). Preheat the pan over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
3. Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.
Note: Every oven is different, but I have found consistent results with cooking the chicken breast side up for 30 minutes and breast side down for 15 minutes. My chickens (all about 4 lbs.) are almost always finished cooking after 45 minutes total — in other words, I skip the final 5 to 10 minute recrisping of the chicken breast side up.
If you are making the bread salad, continue to recipe below.
If you’re not making the bread salad:
4. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop) and leave to rest while you finish preparing your dinner (or the bread salad (recipe below)). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.
Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two. Cut the chicken into pieces; arrange on the warm platter. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste — the juices will be extremely flavorful.
At this point, drizzle the chicken with some pan drippings if you wish (taste the drippings first — they tend to be very salty, which is perfect for the bread salad, but maybe too much for the chicken alone) or add to bread salad (see recipe below).
Zuni Cafe Bread Salad
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Generous 8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar (I use white balsamic — love it)
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or any vinegar, I used white balsamic again)
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons pine nuts (or more)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried
1. Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the crusts from your bread. Cut into a couple of large chunks. Arrange on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Broil very briefly, to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.
2. Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.
3. Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and water. Set aside. Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, checking frequently and stirring every so often to make sure the nuts do not burn. Remove skillet from heat when nuts are golden.
4. Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.
Taste a few pieces of bread — a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.
Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart shallow baking dish and tent with foil. Set the salad bowl aside to be used again later. Place the bread salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes. (Note: I skip this step. I prefer the texture of the bread at room temperature. When I heat it, I find it loses some of its crisp texture.)
5. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop) and leave to rest while you finish preparing the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.
6. Tip the bread salad back into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again. Arrange bread salad on a platter. Top with carved chicken.