Roast chicken like the royals
The news last week of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle was a welcome break in a typically tenuous news cycle. During the interview in which they officially announced their engagement, the couple, clearly smitten with one another, described the culmination of their courtship as a cozy evening at home in their cottage, “just roasting chicken.”
“Trying to roast a chicken,” the prince interjects.
It was a very sweet moment, and in true royal fever fashion, roast chicken has now gone viral. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but this gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling about the future. Roast chicken is a fundamental dish to prepare. It is sustaining, nourishing, delicious and exudes loving care. More people roasting chicken is a good thing.
Roasting a chicken is beautifully simple and adaptable. One four-pound bird will serve two hungry people or four alongside other dishes. I often roast two chickens so there are leftovers to make another meal.
How to roast a perfect chicken
If you can, buy a local, pasture-raised chicken. These birds get to stretch their wings, eat bugs and doze in the sunshine, resulting in a finished product with authentic flavor and texture. Find them at Food Fantasies Naturally (1512 Wabash Ave, Springfield) and Willow City Farmstand (731 S Durkin Dr., Springfield) and directly from farmers through buyers clubs like Triple S Farms (https://www.triplesfarms.com) and Sugar Grove Farms (http://www.sugargrovefamilyfarms.com).
When you are ready to roast, pat the chicken dry and sprinkle a mixture of coarse salt and pepper inside the cavity (about one teaspoon). I like to rub a mixture of butter, Dijon mustard, and fresh thyme or rosemary under the skin of the breast meat, but this is a completely optional step. Cut a lemon in quarters and place two of them in the cavity, along with some thyme or garlic if desired. No lemon? No worries! This too is an optional step that helps to flavor the chicken and keep it moist as it cooks. Wedges of lime, orange, apple and onion work well too.
Sprinkle the outside of the chicken with more coarse salt and pepper from a height of about six to eight inches. Letting the seasoning rain down like this helps it to distribute evenly, resulting in a uniform coating that helps create a delicious, crackly crisp skin.
Next truss the chicken, if you wish. Trussing helps the chicken to cook more evenly and results in a polished-looking dish. If you’re not feeling ambitious, just tie the legs together with kitchen twine and tuck the wing tips under the body of the chicken. Or, the chicken can just go in the oven with no tying at all and it will be fine.
If you’re going for perfect roast chicken though, it must be trussed. To truss, place the chicken breast side up, legs away from you on the cutting board. Use your hands to press and shape it into a nice form, then take a section of string about 30 inches long and slip it underneath the tail of the chicken. Bring the two ends of the twine up and cross them over the drumsticks, then pull each side of twine down and under each drumstick to create a figure eight that can then be pulled tight so that the legs come together. Pull the ends of the twine toward the neck of the chicken, then wrap them around the front of the chicken and over the wings, turning the chicken upside down and tying the twine off securely under the wing. Place the chicken breast side up and it’s ready to roast. Many wonderful videos are available on YouTube showing just how simple it is to truss a chicken.
Finally, place your chicken, trussed or not, in a large oven-proof skillet and into a preheated 400-degree oven. Roast for 60-90 minutes, until the juices run clear when pierced with a knife in the deepest part of the thigh, or when the temperature registers 160 degrees on an oven thermometer. The bird will continue to cook after it is taken out of the oven, and the temperature will rise to 165 degrees (the safe internal temperature for poultry) as it rests.
Vegetables like cut carrots, potatoes and Brussels sprouts can be roasted in the skillet alongside the chicken. Add them after the chicken has roasted about 30 minutes so they finish cooking about the same time as the chicken.
It is critical that the roasted chicken be allowed to rest for 20-30 minutes after coming out of the oven. During cooking, the muscle fibers in the meat firm up and push water out toward the surface, some of which evaporates during cooking. Letting the meat rest allows this moisture to redistribute into the muscle, resulting in a juicy, succulent roast. If meat is cut into immediately upon removal from the oven, the moisture that has been working its way to the surface of the meat will run straight out and the meat will dry out.
Transfer the meat to a cutting board to rest, and reserve the pan drippings left in the skillet. Do not place foil over the roast as it rests, as this will steam the beautifully crisp skin that developed during roasting and turn it soggy.
While the meat rests, you can make a pan sauce. Set the skillet with the pan drippings over medium heat and cook, stirring until the chicken bits left in the pan turn a deep golden brown, then spoon off all but about 4 tablespoons of fat. You can reserve this excess fat and mix with a dash of lemon juice or vinegar and minced shallot, then toss with salad greens to serve alongside the roast. Return the pan with browned drippings and four tablespoons of fat to a burner over medium heat and pour in about one cup of white wine, chicken stock, cider or even water. Boil until reduced by half, scraping up the brown bits in the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Add any juices that have accumulated from the resting chickens, then take the pan off the heat. Add one tablespoon cold butter to the pan and swirl just until butter has melted and caused the sauce to thicken.
If necessary, reheat gently but do not boil or the sauce will “break” and the butter will separate out.
When the time comes to carve the chicken, I prefer to use kitchen scissors. First I cut the wings off, then I cut along the backbone to remove the leg-quarter. Cut through the leg joint to separate the leg from the thigh, and place these on a warmed platter along with the wings. Then use the scissors to cut through the ribs and remove the breast from the backbone. I like to cut the breast through the breastbone into halves, then cut each half into quarters. Drizzle the pan sauce over the cut chicken and serve additional sauce in a dish on the side.
Be sure to save the bones and carcass from the chicken to make stock (aka bone broth). Just throw them in a slow cooker along with some onion, celery, carrot and a bay leaf or two, cover with water and cook on high for one hour. Turn down the heat to low and let cook for 24 hours, then strain and use immediately in soup or freeze for later use.
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