“Los Angeles? That’s just a big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco” – John Lennon
Why am I telling you about a roast chicken? BORING! Well, we are having this chat for three reasons as it happens. First, this really is the ultimate home-cooked roast chicken – perfectly tender meat, brown crispy skin – the best us mere mortals can achieve unless we have a brick oven in the garden or one of those fancy Gaggenau ovens with a built-in spit-roasting thing (you know who you are). Secondly, the chicken cooks entirely in its own fat – no added olive oil, basting in butter and no bacon draped over the top or any of that nonsense. Thirdly, this recipe fulfilled all my criteria for Roasts Without Traditional Side Dishes and it was so good that I have made it three times in a month.
I am on the lookout these days for ideas for Sunday roasts that avoid the usual side dish suspects: roast potatoes/gravy/yorkshire pudding/three different vegetables and maybe even cauliflower cheese. This is partly a health thing (if I have one roast potato I simply must eat seven) but predominantly a laziness one – I have never managed to get the whole roast timing thing down and invariably end up in a frenzy of keeping things warm while juggling 3 vegetable cooking pans on the hob around the gravy tin. Yes, a green salad or some fancy couscous is all very well with a roast chicken but I want something a bit more exciting but which also ups our weekly vegetable and wholegrain intake.
I have previously told you about Nigella’s exemplary Tahini & Soy Pork, which we eat with brown rice and something like broccoli, which I can just about manage to steam on the hob while the pork rests and the rice cooker takes care of the rice. Roast chicken that involves a stuffing that doubles up as the main accompaniment also fits the low maintenance but healthy bill. Particular favourites of this genre include Gordon Ramsay’s roast chicken stuffed with chickpeas – which results in a wonderful chilli and lemony humous that you mash up to eat alongside the chicken and a simple avocado salad – and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s version stuffed with pearl barley or spelt flavoured with walnuts and dried apricots.
But I am here today to tell you about this roast chicken and bread salad combo from Zuni Café in San Francisco. This was, I believe, the great signature dish of the late Judi Rodgers (the co-owner and head chef, and Chez Panisse alumna – isn’t everybody?), and it remains on the menu today cooked in their fabulous (in both a cooking and interior design sense) brick oven. Certainly, if you google it you will find a million articles/recipes/images/homages to it. It isn’t difficult to see why. Leaving aside the perfect chicken for a moment, the ‘salad’ is incredible. It is described in the Zuni Cafe cookbook as “sort of a scrappy extramural stuffing, a warm mix of crispy, tender, and chewy chunks of bread, a little slivered garlic and scallion, a scatter of currants and pine nuts, and a handful of greens, all moistened with vinaigrette and chicken drippings“. It can be made in advance, popped into a small roasting tin and then heated through in the oven once the chicken comes out to rest. And what possibly is there not to like about THAT?
There is no great magic to the roasting of the chicken, just a few simple rules: 1) A small bird (1.5kg max so do two or more for bigger groups), 2) a hot roasting tin to sear the bottom of the bird quickly before putting it into 3) a very very hot oven – 250C or as hot as yours will go and 4) 24 hours in the fridge salting beforehand. Oh, and a quick flip of the chicken half way through the (very short) cooking time. It might sound like a bit of a faff compared with how you usually cook your chicken but the fridge and oven are still doing most of the work and, really, the results are worth it. I mean look at it. JUST LOOK AT IT!
ZUNI CAFÉ ROAST CHICKEN AND BREAD SALAD (for 6-8)
adapted from the NYT and the Zuni Café Cookbook by Judi Rodgers
Crazy Ingredient Rating: Low
You need to start this at least 24 hours before you want to cook to allow for the salting time.
You will need:
- 2 x 1-1.5kg chickens (top quality if you want that lovely golden skin)
- 8 sprigs of thyme, rosemary or sage
- salt & pepper
- 450g rustic bread (something with a good open texture with lots of holes), ideally a day old but not critical)
- 2 tbsp currants (or sultanas or raisins if needs be)
- 2 tsp red wine vinegar
- 4 tbsp champagne (or white wine) vinegar
- 125ml plus 4tbsp regular olive oil
- 125ml extra virgin olive oil
- 8 spring onions, chopped into 1cm pieces including some green parts
- 6 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 2 tbsp toasted pinenuts
- some lightly salted water – you need about 4tbsp but make up a bit more as you may need more to dress the bread depending on how dry/thirsty it is.
- 4-5 very big handfuls of rocket and similar salad greens.
In order to avoid this post becoming unimaginably long, you can find the chicken cooking instructions here on the New York Times website and I will instead just witter on about the salad. A couple of thoughts on the bird though:
- I have done this with chickens in the bigger (1.3-1.5kg) ballpark and didn’t bother to salt them for more the 2 days that the recipe suggests for this size but doing it for 24 hours does make a difference – I forgot once and salted it about 5hrs before cooking and it wasn’t quite as good. Still very good but not as amazingly tender as with the overnight salting.
- Cooking time for an organic 1.5kg bird was 50 minutes (30 minutes then 15 mins flipped over and 5 mins flipped back) which doesn’t sound like a lot but it was cooked perfectly. Resting it for 15 minutes or so is a must, but you’ll be reheating the bread salad anyway.
- Make sure the chicken is nice and dry before you put it in. Particularly the bottom so that it sears quickly in the hot pan before going into the oven- this will also make it easy to flip later. Also, wet chickens steam rather than going lovely and brown.
For the salad:
Preheat the oven to 200C.
- Put the currants into the red wine vinegar with 2tbsp of warm water and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Mix up the extra virgin olive oil, 125ml of the regular olive oil and white wine vinegar to make a vinaigrette.
- Cut about 50% of the crust off your bread and cut into bite size chunks. Toss with 4tbsp of regular olive oil.
- Put the bread in a single layer on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 5-10 minutes until it is just turning crispy. Tip into a bowl and toss well with 3/4 of the vinaigrette and season well. Set aside for at least 30 minutes.
- Gently fry the spring onions and garlic over a low heat until soft but not coloured. Cool slightly and then tip into the bread, along with the drained currants and the pine nuts.
- Add the rest of the dressing and 4tbsp of the lightly salted water. Taste. The smaller pieces of the bread should be slightly soggy but the rest should be soft but with some crunch left. Season again. Add a little more salted water if the bread is very dry but remember that it will be going back in the oven to warm through and will become softer again (particularly if you are intending to serve this with the chicken – and its juices – plonked on top).
- Tip into a baking dish or tin that takes it all quite snugly and cover with foil.
- Reheat on the bottom shelf of the oven that the chicken has been in (I turned it down to about 200) and warm through for about 10 minutes and then whip off the foil and cook for a further 2-3 minutes so that the top crisps a little.
- Remove from the oven and stir through the greens – they should wilt a little in the heat.
- Pile onto a platter, top with hacked up pieces of chicken and drizzle the chicken juices over the top.
Kitchen (Dancing) Song of the Day: That’s Not My Name – The Ting Tings (We Started Nothing)