It’s the time of year for counting one’s blessings, and I have been having a great time with that. Unsurprisingly, an awful lot of my blessings have to do with food. Creamed spinach. Persimmons. Green peas and butter. Salad with walnuts and blue cheese. Oysters…I could go on.
And of all the blessings that make it worthwhile being a human born into this body of limitations and inevitable suffering mixed with joy, one of the greatest is Roast Chicken.
My roast chicken.
My roast chicken is simply the best, having been honed to perfection over years of tinkering. Tinkering and then eating. So you can trust me on this one.
I used to think Nigel Slater’s was the best. Simple. You just slathered a load of butter on a good organic bird, salt and pepper, maybe shove a garlic clove or two into the cavity, then roast it at 400 degrees until done, still a tiny bit rose colored at the joints, and gilded brown all over.
That’s a pretty good recipe, to tell the truth.
But then I discovered BRINE.
The brined roast chicken. If you are into roast chicken (and I think we know by now I’m into them, yes?), this is the recipe for you.
First…and most important…the bird. It should be organic, and the best quality you can get. No, really, I’m not kidding. I cannot emphasize this enough. This is not just so you don’t have to push out of your imagination the torture some poor Arkansas bred creature went through to get broasted at Costco with so much paprika and cayenne that you can’t taste the fact that the bird itself is, well, tasteless. This is not just for hippie idealistic reasons (although, momentary commercial interlude, THE HIPPIES WERE RIGHT, okay? live with it). This is because most nonorganic birds have by now been so badly treated by techniques of mass production that they have just about no flavor. If we are going to eat meat, we need to understand that the higher morality is the higher practicality. In this as in so many other things.
Okay, now you have your bird. Take a brief moment to mourn the days when it would come stuffed with its own neck, giblets and liver, all of which come in very handy in the Good Eating Stakes. But never mind. We’ll get a good chicken broth out of the bones at the end, which is one of the advantages of roasting your own good chicken. (This is impossible with a supermarket rotisserie chicken. Take my word for it.)
Now you brine the bird. This may seem like a lot of hoopla, but there are times when hoopla adds so much to your quality of life that it cannot be avoided. This is one of those times.
Say you have a bird that’s about three to five pounds, the usual size you find in the market. For a good brine, it should soak about three hours. You can do more if you like a brine-ier bird (which I do). Not more than six hours, though—too salty at that point. (And if I say it’s too salty, believe me…)
Here’s how you make the divine brine:
1 ½ cups of salt (just table is fine) with
1 ½ cups of sugar (here, if anywhere, is the proper use for white) in
A gallon of water (or as much as it will take to cover the bird)
Crush into the liquid a handful of BAY LEAVES (as many or as few as you can spare)
Squash a head or two (two is better) of garlic and add the cloves, even with the skin still clinging to them as all we want is the flavor, you’re not going to eat them (this is a very important step, it adds a dimension to the chicken that is way out)
Now submerge your bird. Refrigerate. From time to time, turn the bird over in the brine. Don’t fuss about this—just when you think of it is fine. And if you don’t think of it, that’s fine, too.
An hour and a half or so before you want to eat the bird, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you want, do what I do: plan to cook the bird in a ridged cast iron pan, in which case, put the pan in the preheating oven to preheat itself.
While all this is going on, drain the bird (garlic cloves and bay leaves can go happily on the compost), dry it off with paper towels, inside and out. If you’re not going to use the cast iron option, put the bird breast down on a rack in a roasting pan.
When the oven is hot (and so is your ridged cast iron pan, if you’re with me on this one), add the bird breast side down. It’s going to take about an hour to cook, but I like to leave it upside down for the first twenty minutes.
After twenty minutes, turn it right side up. NO NEED TO BASTE! Really! I’m not kidding! The brine does something magic to the chicken so you don’t have to bother.
Roast for about forty more minutes, though I would check it at thirty. If you have an instant read thermometer (and really, you should, really you SHOULD), the dark meat joint, where the thigh attaches to the bird, should read a little under 180 degrees when it’s done to my idea of perfection. You’ll have your own ideas, of course.
Take the bird out, let it sit (under a tent of foil if you must, but I usually just leave it out so the crispy skin stays that way) for five or ten or fifteen minutes. Then carve.
Then eat. Then oooh. Then aaahhh.
And if you’ve roasted a few carrots, perhaps even a few potatoes, in the same oven, have them on the side. By the way, I generally serve my portion on top of shredded lettuce, with a little wedge of lemon for possible squeezing.
This is truly the Greatest Roast Chicken in the world. And here’s the other advantage it has over those Costco rotisserie chickens: as you eat, throw the bones into a pot with a scrubbed carrot, a bit of celery and parsley if you have them, a couple of garlic cloves, a bay leaf, and a peppercorn or two. Cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer. As you eat the chicken, add the bones to the soup. Or save all the bones in a bag in the freezer and make the soup later. Either way, simmer everything together until it smells beautifully like chicken broth (at least an hour, but more won’t hurt), and then cool, drain, use or freeze. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that brined birds can’t make good broth. I don’t know where they got that idea. From some unsalted galaxy far far away, no doubt.
Happy eating. And a happy, happy, happy new year to all. Safety, warmth, creativity, and good food for all.