Saturday, May 13, 2006

Cooking. Roast Chicken.

I think roast chicken is one of my favorite foods. I love the crispy shards of skin, the juicy tender breast meat, the deeply flavored, succulent dark meat. Coming home to the smell of roasting chicken is one of the best things I can remember. I have probably made hundreds of them in the past ten years. It started in high school. "KAIRU!!!!" came the yell from upstairs. "CAN YOU STICK THE CHICKEN IN THE OVEN FOR ME????" "HOW!? I'VE NEVER ROASTED A CHICKEN BEFORE!!!" "FIGURE IT OUT!!" First came the unwrapping, pulling the raw chicken from its plastic wrapper, rinsing it, excavating the neck and various unidentifiable organs from the body cavity, pulling off any extraneous fat. Wiping everything dry with fistfuls of paper towels, placing the chicken on a rack in the roasting pan, sprinkling it with salt and pepper. Consulting Julia Child for roasting temperatures and times. I figured it out.

Nervousness led to several slightly overdone chickens, a little on the dry side but still good. Sometimes overconfidence would lead to chicken still pink at the joints, oozing just a little blood, which meant a return trip to the oven. Various experiments and modifications followed. Salting just before roasting, brining, roasting breast-side down, breast-side up, rubbed with butter, anointed with oil, stuffed with lemons or onions or garlic or rosemary. Never trussed. I always felt like trussing the chicken was a completely pointless endeavor, a waste of time that led to symmetrical presentation at the cost of even roasting.

Last year I found a cookbook by Thomas Keller, Bouchon (after his Yountville bistro), full of simple (yet incredibly complicated) recipes from his restaurant (everything takes two days and a battalion of equipment). His brine involves salt, garlic, rosemary, honey, lemon, and parsley (which I always forget to buy), among other things. Brining the chicken for several hours left the flesh moist, juicy, tender, flavored with all the ingredients from the brine. Yet somehow I felt that the essential flavor of the chicken was lacking. Masked by the lemon, herbs, aromatics, the real taste of the chicken felt muted. And combining all those ingredients, simmering them, letting the mixture cool (preferably overnight) was tedious. I always got honey all over the place, peppercorns skittering across the counter and bouncing off to crunch beneath my feet. There had to be a better way.

Now I prepare my chicken (always free-range, sometimes organic) in the morning before I leave for work. Sprinkle it with kosher salt inside and out, place it in the roasting pan on a rack, and stick it in the fridge to rest all day. When I get home, I preheat the oven, let the chicken come to room temperature. Sometimes I put a couple of sliced onions in the pan. Add a little water, or wine, so the juices don't burn. I roast the bird breast down for half an hour at high temperature (about 425), and then breast up for another half hour so the skin browns and becomes crisp, and then turn the heat down for the remaining roasting time. The chicken is perfect.

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