Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Best Roast Chicken Ever. Ever!

Seriously. Ever.

I don't remember my first roast chicken, but I haven't done all that many. Maybe a handful of fowls have met their ultimate end in my roasting pan. Modern American cooks are not as likely as their forebears to choose a whole chicken in the grocery store or butcher. The lure of the ready-made is too appealing - the slick packaging of neat pink slabs of boneless skinless chicken breasts, injected with hormones antibiotics and water and artificial colouring, are hard to resist. I still buy the occasional pack myself. And there's no guarantee that buying a whole chicken is any better for either you or the chicken. There is something to be said, however, for less processing of the chicken's mortal remains. Even though it means subjecting the thing to further indignities (detailed below), at least a human hand is doing it, rather than a machine. It certainly puts you more in touch (literally) with your food.

I would love to remain here on my high horse, but the view is a little vertiginous, so I'll climb down carefully and say that I tend to buy my chickens at the Commissary, because they are cheap and readily available, so I'm not exactly Miss Righteous about where my poultry's been hanging out and how meaningful its last hours on Earth were. That said, I've been told that chickens purchased from local butchers, who've been gently reared and hand-fed their grubs and corn, were much happier and are therefore much tastier. Get your chickens where you will - dead is dead, in the long run.

One other advantage to buying whole chickens instead of chicken parts is that whole chickens are MUCH cheaper per pound, they can feed more for a lot longer, and you can even make chicken stock with the carcass - not just a healthy thing for the budget-conscious but also for those who want to put every bit to good use.

There are about six thousand ways to roast a chicken, and everyone thinks they've discovered the True Path to Chicken Enlightenment. Liquid in the pan, liquid in the chicken, totally dry, totally wet, to brine or not to brine - a cook can get positively dizzy thinking of all the poultry possibilities! A paltry (poultry?) pun, I know. I'll stop now. Maybe.

I think I experimented with dry roasting (which always turns out...well, dry...for me, although some people swear by that method) at first, but stumbled upon this way of roasting because I wanted to substitute fatty butter for something a little healthier. Enter my favorite secret ingredient: plain low-fat yogurt! This method yields the tenderest, tastiest, meltiest-in-your-mouthiest chicken Ever. Ever, I say!

This method involves removing chicken bits, sliding your hands under the skin and squishing around yogurt under it, and (to be indelicate about it) shoving lemons and onions up the chicken's nether regions. If any of that makes you squeamish, you'd probably be better off stopping here and reading one of the vegetarian recipes.

One chicken. 2-4 lbs-ish
About 1/2 c. low-fat plain yogurt
1 lemon, halved or quartered (depending on the size of the lemon and bearing in mind where it will be)
1 small white onion, peeled and sliced in quarters
Seasoning mix (about 1/2 T. each)
Curry powder
Ground cumin
Ground coriander
Chili powder (not that much)
Kosher salt (about 1 T.)
Freshly ground black pepper

  • Preheat oven to 400F.
  • Pat your chicken nice and dry with some paper towels. Check inside the bird to see if the shop where you got it put the heart, liver, and gizzard in a little plastic bag. If they did, remove the bag and save for another use. I have forgotten this step before, and trust me - the plastic bag doesn't hold up well in the oven! 
  • Combine all the spices above in a little bowl. If you want to experiment with other spices or use a pre-blended mix of something you really like, feel free. These ingredients are just suggestions. I bet the bird would be really good with Cajun seasoning, for example!
  • In another bowl, combine the yogurt and a couple of teaspoons of the mix you just made and stir well.
  • Figure out which end of the chicken is...well, the end. Squeeze a little of the lemon into the cavity, then insert the onion and the lemon into it. 
  • Next, take some of that seasoning mix and rub it good and well all over the chicken. Really get into all the crevices, like between the wings and thighs. Get it nice and seasoned! 
  • Now, very carefully so as not to tear the skin, slide your fingers or a dull knife under the skin to loosen it away from the body, just enough so that you can take a spatula or a spoon (or your fingers) and schlurp the yogurt mixture UNDER the skin. Work the yogurt as far as it will go under the bird's skin, taking care not to tear it. 
  • If you didn't buy a bird that came with the legs pre-tied together, truss 'em now with some butcher's twine. Here's a little guide for you (I've always been lucky enough to have the chicken come pre-tied).
  • Gently lift the bird onto a roasting pan and cover loosely with foil.
  • Roast for about 45 minutes, then remove the foil. Continue roasting (monitoring to make sure the little guy doesn't burn) for another 15-20 minutes. 
  • Remove from the oven and test for doneness - a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast should read 165 degrees F.
  • Let the bird rest for 10 minutes or so, loosely covered with the foil (you didn't throw it away, did you?).

You should be able to get about 3 meals for 2 out of the chicken, plus whatever you choose to do with the bones.

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