After well more than a decade’s worth of experimenting with every which way of roasting chicken, we’ve hit on a most consistently satisfying method. Need we add that the single most critical element for success is the chicken itself?
The horrors of mass-poultry production are well known and need not be repeated here. And yet it should be noted that phrases such as “free-range” and “organic,” are not enough to guarantee healthy, flavorful, and humanely raised birds. In his must-read Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan pulled back the curtain on an even relatively decent large poultry producer, whose birds may technically be “natural” and “organic,” that is properly fed and free of hormones, but not especially “free-range.” According to Pollan, these birds spend most of their time indoors, with so many birds to a pen that they are essentially immobilized. What little time they spend outdoors is in similar confinement, and their slaughter and subsequent processing are what one might expect from a huge operation.
By contrast, true pasture-raised birds, such as those from the Bay Area’s Marin Sun Farms on the Point Reyes Peninsula, or Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, truly are “free-range,” as you can easily see when you drive past them frolicking around the land, eating bugs and other naturally found foodstuffs, as well as supplemental feed. And they taste it too, totally unlike any chickens we’ve had outside of the best in France and Italy—so meaty, succulent, and “chickeny.” Thankfully, this old-fashioned way of raising chickens—and everything else—is hardly restricted to a few Northern California farms, it’s turning into a nationwide movement.
I won’t describe the humane slaughtering process here, but for more on chickens and the above two farms you can check out my article in Edible San Francisco magazine.
Okay, off my soapbox and into the kitchen! While this recipe is for a lemon-accented roast chicken, the same basic method can be adapted into endless variations depending on the seasons and your mood.
Lemon Accented Roast Chicken
1 3 – 4 pound pasture-raised chicken
1 lemon, halved
6 leaves lemon verbena
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
2 sprigs rosemary, 1 whole, 1 chopped
4 pats unsalted butter
1 pound Yukon Gold or other yellow potatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
1 teaspoon Grey Sea Salt
2 tablespoons St. Helena Extra Virgin Lemon Olive Oil
¼ cup white wine
First, because your bird isn’t from the supermarket it’s likely to be swimming in a bit of its own blood. Because this hastens decay it’s a good idea to remove the bird from its bag ASAP, remove the giblets (setting aside for your another use), and using paper towels pat the bird inside and out to remove traces of blood. You may or may not rinse the thing off, but don’t think that rinsing is going to get rid of bacteria. That occurs during the cooking process. If you’re lucky enough to have sourced an intact, head-to-feet complete chicken, leave these on. Experiments with feet- and head-less, feet-only, and chickens as God made them has convinced us that the juiciest, most flavorful birds are the ones that are roasted whole. Yes, they make a hellacious mess in the oven, but it’s well worth whatever more regular cleanup efforts are required.
This is also a good time to pre-salt the bird—an invaluable tip we learned from Judy Rodgers in her superb Zuni Café Cookbook. Using a healthy pinch of grey sea salt, sprinkle in the cavity as well as over the body, being sure to hit the meaty crevices where thighs and wings join the body. Place the bird in a fresh plastic or sealable bag until you’re ready to cook (anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after salting), and refrigerate.
An hour before cooking, remove the chicken from the fridge so that it reaches room temperature, and place in a roasting pan. Being careful not to tear the delicate membrane, and starting near the cavity opening, gently slide you fingers between the skin and the flesh and lift the entire top skin up to the neck. Gather four chunks of a high quality unsalted butter, four fresh lemon verbena leaves (tarragon makes a nice substitute), and the garlic slices. Even place these under the chicken’s skin.
Place the bird, breast side up, on a roasting rack inside the pan. Scatter the potato slices around and underneath the chicken, and sprinkle the potatoes with the chopped rosemary. Squeeze out most of the lemon juice, discarding pips, and drizzle the lemon juice over the top of the chicken. Place the remaining halves in the cavity along with the whole rosemary sprig.
Finally, drizzle St. Helena Olive Oil Co. Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil all over the top of the bird as well as the potatoes, then sprinkle with some Grey Sea Salt (the chicken was pre-salted so there’s no need for more); grind some black pepper over the entire concoction, and add a splash of white wine to the pan.
To roast: pre-heat your oven to 500°. Roast the bird for approximately 12 minutes until the skin is golden-brown and beginning to crisp. Lower the oven to 425° and continue to roast for an additional 10-minutes per pound of the bird’s weight (i.e., 35 minutes for a three-and-a-half pound bird). I also like to baste with the pan juices every ten to fifteen minutes. The chicken is cooked when the thighs easily pull from the body.
Remove from the oven, and let the chicken rest in the pan for ten minutes before carving. This helps retain the juices and results in more complex flavors.
— serves four