Friday, November 21, 2008

18-Alarm Roast Chicken

I used to say that I was a baker first. Although I knew how to cook some things, my expertise was generally in areas where butter and sugar get creamed. Over the last few years, though, I've become a more interested, and thus a more confident cook. These days, I still make mistakes, and it's not as intuitive for me as baking, but I'm pretty good at cooking things I like to eat.

Part of this growth has been a piecemeal mastery of basic techniques--stockmaking, bean soaking, braising, and roasting chickens. For a long time, I avoided cooking meat because of the vegetarian roommates. Even when I did cook it it, I opted for pre-cut chicken pieces, usually boneless, for quick cooking. Thinking back, most of my specialties from a few years ago involve stirfrying chicken breast. These days, one of my favorite things to do to build technique is roast a chicken.

I like local, organic chickens, so I can't afford them often, but I get so much fun out of each one. I buy it, I think about it, I smell it cooking, I pick it dry, I make stock...the entertainment rewards equal the eating, which makes the occasional splurge very worth it.

Another recent splurge, the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, just paid off big time as chef-author Judy Rogers doubled my entertainment dividends and helped me to cook the hands-down best roast chicken of my life.

Rogers' mantra is "pre-salt." Everything from fish to vegetables gets a little time to absorb salt and flavor, and to firm up. She goes deep into the science of it, but suffice it to say, I'm hooked. I salted the little chicken 24 hours ahead, and got home at 9:30 Tuesday night looking forward to cooking it. First, though, I had to leave it out for an hour to achieve room temperature. Then I plunked it in a preheated cast-iron pan and stuck in in a 475 degree oven.

It roasted beautifully, crisping up, turning warm caramel brown, shedding clear sweet fat. The method was perfect. So perfect. There was just one problem. All that high heat and spattering fat set off my smoke alarm over and over and over again. By the end of the process, every window in the house was open, a fan had been dug out of the closet, and Matt was positioned under the damn beeper with a broom handle, justifiably worried that the neighbors would hate us forever. (It was 11:30 at that time, and our upstairs neighbor is a classroom teacher.)

But it was all worth it. It was the best chicken I have ever roasted. I'm going to do it again soon.
The only thing I forgot to do was to get a good picture. As you can see from Matt's shots above, photo-taking took second place to tearing off drumsticks like starving wolves and stuffing my face. I even pan-roasted some oyster mushrooms with the drippings. Salty, but so good.
Speaking of simple techniques, the Zuni cookbook also yielded perfect mashed potatoes for a dinner the previous Sunday. Apparently the trick to mashed potatoes is to add fat (like melted butter) in first so that it coats the potatoes and then they don't just absorb all the milk. Also, any additions should be as hot as possible. Judy Rogers says that her mashed potatoes (with buttermilk) are one of the few kinds of potato dish that survive well as leftovers. I tried this out two days later with some chicken breast and the potatoes in the microwave. They were lighter and fluffier than on the first day. Judy Rogers is seriously impressive. And I can't wait to roast another 18-alarm chicken, though I am seriously considering cleaning out the oven first. Or maybe just inviting the neighbors for dinner.


Joan said...

THe salting technique was prominently featured in the LA Times this week (and countless other local papers, including ours)as a precursor to Thanksgiving. I suspect the word is OUT and that there will be a run on Kosher salt this Thanksgiving.
I plan to bring said salty bird to my mom's for day two leftovers....
Sounds great.

Katya said...

It's true, the kosher types have known this trick for many years. In fact, I have known about this trick for years, but have simply been too lazy to plan ahead. I am thinking, now, that I have finally learned that it is worth it.