Nature Morte

I went to the butcher today. Obviously.


On Reclaiming Maligned Ingredients and the Search for a Perfect Roast Chicken

Apologies for having only a chicken carcass to show you as a visual representation of the roast chicken I made the other night; we demolished it before I thought to take a photo. That is a good sign, of course, and so perhaps the most appropriate way to illustrate this post. Read on.

I am a bit embarassed to be talking about roast chicken recipes on here, as roast chicken is quintessentially the kind of dish that should require no recipe. It should be simple, warming, and something that you know how to make just so. There should be no measurements involved.

It is also one of my very favourite foods. Whenever I find myself in one of those “what would you eat for your last meal?” conversations (ok, I am often the one to start them), I usually do a little dance around all of my favourite comfort foods and end up in the same place: roast chicken and mashed potatoes (ok, occasionally it’s fried chicken. But always mashed potatoes.) Sadly, though, despite my devotion to this classic comfort food, I have never mastered making it.

This is why every time I roast a chicken, I try a new recipe, in search of the tablespoon of butter here, or the clove of garlic there, that will lead me to glory. I have never made a bad roast chicken, but I have also never made that one that you want for your last meal. To me, this ability to try out new ways of creating such a classic dish is the heart of why I love cookbooks and recipes. They help me experiment, giving me new ideas for how to chase the elusive craving that I can’t quite seem to satisfy. Roast chicken can be prepared in so many different ways, all of them delicious, and it is fun to examine the options. To date, I have probably tried a good dozen roast chicken recipes, the most memorable recent ones being Julia Child’s melt-in-your-mouth bird from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and this awesome one with a million cloves of garlic from Nami-Nami. Both were awesome. But of course there are still more recipes to explore.

This past Friday evening, my dear friend Vero came over for dinner, and I wanted to prepare something simple and easy to throw together that was Passover-friendly. Roast chicken it was. Excited for the opportunity to try a new recipe, as well as a chicken from a new-to-me Quebec farm that I picked up at the butcher’s the other day, I turned to one that I have had my eye on for a while: the “Simple Roast Chicken” from Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes.

Let me take the opportunity to mention how much I love this book. I have read, and enjoyed, much of the contemporary canon on “whole foods”, the “slow food movement”, “food ethics”, “nose to tail cooking” and all that jazz. While I am a proponent of everything I’ve put into scare quotes there, I get frustrated by the underlying puritanism of the rhetoric that sometimes comes out of this stuff, especially regarding what is considered “healthful eating”. To me, ethical eating should also be joyful, as pathologizing food and eating, especially food that comes from meat, is disrespectful both to the animals that were killed for my consumption, as well as to myself. What I love about McLagan’s book in particular is that, while she really excellently debunks the demonization of saturated fat and does explain the place of fat in a healthy diet, she also focuses on pleasure. Fat makes food taste good. It does beautiful things to our ingredients and transforms them into food that is filling and flavourful. It helps us to justice to the ingredients that we treasure. The book really solidified a lot of my distaste for the fear of fat found in everyday disucssions of food and cooking; it is part of what has made our food cultures joyless, disconected from our various heritages, and hung up in dysfunctional ideas that confuse nourishment, pleasure, diet, health and morality. Reading Fat, and making sense of my ideas about how I do and don’t want to use it myself, is one of the most important ways I have really pushed my own cooking forward over the past couple of years. McLagan’s book is really liberating; not only has butter become a more regular staple in mine and Graeme’s cooking, but more importantly, we are not apologetic about it anymore. We allow ourselves to admit out loud that we prefer chicken thighs to breasts; that we don’t think the lardons they serve at one of the brunch places we frequent are gross. We get a wink from the butcher when we tell him not to cut the fat of our roasts. Life is good.

That said, I have not tried that many recipes out of the book to date; I have loved it primarily as a really great study of fats, and the recipes are sort of like the (buttercream) icing on the cake! But McLagan’s roast chicken has been calling out to me for some time, because it seemed a perfect combination of unfussy and indulgent. And it did not disappoint. When I first slathered on the 100g of butter that she suggests, I thought the bird would end up greasy and over the top (as I thought it did when I tried the otherwise delicious and extremely buttery Julia Child recipe). But cut with herbs and citrus it was not overly rich at all, it was just juicy, comforting and a perfect relaxed Friday night dinner. We ate it with mashed potatoes (of course!), sauteed broccoli and snowpeas, caramel apples for dessert courtesey of Vero (an unexpectedly original Passover-friendly dessert!) and Graeme’s incredible chicken soup as a starter (which he will be blogging about shortly, under threat of divorce if he does not). We were a very satisfied bunch at the end of the night, and the carcass above was all that remained (which we have since demolished, gobbling up the leftover bits of meat and freezing the bones for stock). I am not sure that I’ve found my perfect roast chicken just yet, but this recipe has me well on the way.

Simple Roast Chicken
Adapted from Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes
Serves 4

One 3 lb/1.5 kg chicken
Handful mixed herbs (I used fresh parsley and rosemary)
1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped (I used 3)
7 tblsp/100g unsalted butter, softened
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, cut in half

Preheat the oven to 450F/230C. Pat the chicken dry. Set aside a couple of herb sprigs and chop the rest. Using your hands, mix the butter, chopped herbs and garlic together until blended. Smear the herb butter all over the bird, placing a little inside of it, too.

Season the bird well with salt and pepper. Place it in a roasting pan and squeeze the lemon juice over the top. Put the lemon halves in the bird’s cavity with the reserved herb sprigs.

Roast the chicken for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and baste the chicken with its own juices (I usually do this with a brush). Reduce the heat to 375F/190C and continue to roast, basting occasionally, until the thigh juices run clear when pierced with a skewer or the temperature of the thigh registers 165F/73C, 45-55 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the oven door, and leave the chicken in the pan in the oven to rest for at least 15 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and cut into serving pieces. Add any juices from the chicken to the pan, and place the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, deglaze the pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve, and serve the pan sauce with the chicken.

Until next time!