Few things in life are more enjoyable than a good meal with good friends. To sit around a table adorned with food and wine, shared by people with whom you are supremely comfortable, is one of life’s great pleasures. I should know. I am blessed with wonderful friends who prize these times as much as I. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t need to be planned. Some of my happiest times have been around the food table.
One such evening in the backyard, a few of us were having a particularly raucous time. It was a balmy Southern California night, a hint of warm Santa Ana in the air, the night sky dark and clear. I don’t remember the specific foods we ate, it wasn’t that kind of meal, though the dinner was good. What I remember most was the warm glow I felt, not just from the wind, not only from the wine. Sara, Brian, Chad and Claire made life wonderful as we joked, talked, laughed and countered each other late into the night.
At some point, the conversation wandered to the TV show Lost, which, when the show was airing, tended to happen if I was around for I was and remain a fanatic for the show. (Loved the finale, btw. Loved. It. I am in that half of ‘Lost Fandom’ and I feel sorry for and rather above the complainers.) Most of us were watching Lost so we all had our say about those poor people on the island. I then made a simple, honest comment that caused a huge eruption.
I can tell you from experience: if you’re hyperbolic, you will constantly be challenged. It comes with the territory. Oh, really, Tom?? Well, let me say this….. Passion begets passion, I guess. I don’t mind. I was raised by a lawyer (Dad) and a teacher (Mom) so extremely heated arguments were the norm at our dinner table. It’s what we did for fun. Well, mostly for fun… Thus, when challenged, I come back hard. I have to be careful, actually, as I have a big mouth and I’ve learned some painful lessons over the years that intense debate is definitely not fun for everyone. These four good friends, however, love it as much as I, this was not the first nor the last. And anyway, they started it. All I did was make a simple, honest comment. You’ve been there, right? You make a simple, honest comment and then all hell breaks loose. The simple, honest comment I made, stemming from the conversation about Lost, was that I personally wouldn’t mind being stranded on a deserted island alone, particularly if I had a few good books with me, and someone threw me a roast chicken leg every day. (Full leg, with thigh attached, to be clear. And it better have crisp skin.)
The subsequent melee, which was long and loud, isn’t important for today, though just a week ago I did get the best challenge to the idea I’ve yet received. What is important today is the roast chicken.
I am obsessed with roast chicken. What else, really, do you need? The crispy skin, the salt and pepper flavor that can be added to with a variety of spices and herbs, the tender, juicy meat… even the cartilage is incredible. You’ve not experienced true happiness until you’ve picked up a mostly eaten chicken bone and sucked every ounce of liquid goodness from it. I’d do it in front of the Queen of England, I’m not shy. First of all, Miss Manners says it’s ok and second of all, when something is this good, who cares?
Roast chicken is almost always the first thing I try in a new restaurant. I can’t help it. Alice Waters says the way she judges a restaurant is she orders a petite filet and a side of sauteed spinach. She can tell the quality of a kitchen from those two simple dishes. I guess mine is a roast chicken. I love it.
A fellow Angeleno at chowhound.com did a Roast Chicken smackdown last year. She went to many restaurants known for their chicken, narrowed the finalists down to 20, and had the chicken at each place at least twice before ranking the chickens with lengthy descriptions. While I am filled with admiration and am thankful for her list (link here), that I did not think up this challenge and do it myself will haunt me for many a year.
It’s even worse at home. I’ve roasted countless chickens, both whole and in pieces and, even now that I have two ways to do it that are just about foolproof, I still keep trying other recipes just for the hell of it. Some work, some don’t but it is all worth it to end up sitting in front of a perfect roast chicken, with a garlicky salad on the side, and either roasted potatoes or some rice topped with the chicken au jus. This would be my final meal.
Over time, there will be a number of posts, recipes, odes to roast chicken at this site. Walker Percy apparently wrote an essay in praise of the chicken thigh. That Walker Percy, he was a fine gentleman! So today the first chicken post. While I have created my own personal recipe which is pretty amazing and will later come, I have to first post an older recipe I myself only discovered this past year. It is truly the most perfect roast chicken recipe of all time.
There are a few knowing nods out there already, fellow addicts who have discovered that all you need for a perfect roast chicken is a good quality chicken, 2 lemons, salt and pepper, and an oven. It’s that easy, that simple and perfect every time. It comes from Marcella Hazen, born 1924, who, like Julia Child, only discovered cooking as an adult and since became one of the best known food writers and cookbook authors of all time.
If you like roast chicken, or never have roasted a chicken but thought perhaps you might like to attempt one, this is the recipe. It is foolproof and, again, ridiculously easy. Go on, give it a try, you will be amazed. Just throw me a chicken leg, if you please. I’ll be fine.
Marcella Hazan’s Roast Chicken With Two Lemons
(with a few italicized comments from me)
1 3-4 pound chicken (the recipe adapts to larger sizes if need be)
2 small lemons
1) Preheat oven to 350°F. Wash lemons and set aside to dry.
2) Cut off all the strange hanging fat from the chicken. Pat dry.
**There is currently much debate about whether or not to rinse a chicken before cooking it… I’ve come down on the don’t wash side, given the comments of great cooks I trust. If you feel the need to rinse, go ahead. Just make sure the chicken is dry.
3) Liberally season the bird with lots of salt and pepper, both inside and out. This is not a time to be reticent.
4) Roll the lemons on the counter with your hands. (This will soften them up.) Prick each of them about 20 times with a toothpick or fork. Stuff lemons in the chicken’s larger cavity.
5) Using toothpicks or trussing string, close the cavity opening as best you can. (Don’t make it airtight, or the chicken could pop.) Tie the chicken’s legs together at the ends, but not tightly. They should remain in their natural place. This is very easy. If you are nervous, google ‘truss a chicken’ and you will have a variety of videos from which to choose. But you can’t really mess it up.
6) Place chicken breast-side down into a large (ungreased) roasting pan. The chicken will baste itself. Roast in the upper third of the oven for about 30 minutes. Turn chicken over, so now the breast side is up.
This is perhaps the trickiest part. I used to use tongs but now I get two cloths and just grab the chicken on either end and turn it over. Go fast, just do it.
7) Roast chicken for another 30 minutes. Then, turn the oven heat up to 400°F and roast for 20 minutes longer, depending on the weight of the chicken. (By the end of the cooking time, you should have cooked the bird about 20/25 minutes for each pound. So a 4 pound bird would have a total cook time of 80-95 minutes.)
8) Remove bird from oven and let sit 5 or 10 minutes for juices to redistribute.
This is the most important part of roasting or grilling any meat, not just chicken, and is so often overlooked. Let it rest after cooking! Besides it making the meat taste better, it makes your life easier as you don’t have to worry so much about timing and everything finishing right as you want to eat. Remember also, whatever meat you are cooking continues to cook after coming out of the oven so if you cook it in the oven to the perfect temperature and then pull it out, it is going to end up overcooked. You can always add cooking time, there is no shame sticking a chicken back in the oven or throwing the meat back on the grill. There is, however, no return from overdone.
As always, please leave comments below! Just click on comments and you will see where to type away.