This post is also published at Waco Weekly.
When I lived in Boston, I spent a month working in a Northern Italian-style restaurant. Grad school hadn’t left me much time for the culinary adventures I imagined. Before I made the long drive back to Texas, though, I wanted to experience cooking in Boston. Of course I ended up at my favorite Italian spot. More of a destination for suburban parents, I was in it for the freshly made pastas and interesting proteins, like skate fish and boar.
As a temporary staff member, I got sent to the basement to chop vegetables and plate desserts pretty often, but a few weeks in, the head chef approached me with a dilemma. “We have three catering orders on Saturday and only two chefs available. Can you do it?” Out loud, I said, “Yes, of course!” In my head I said, “As long as it’s not chicken, you’ll be fine.”
I’m sure you can guess what was on the menu.
I pulled up to the gated house in my Ford Ranger, a cooler in the passenger seat and glasses and dry goods rattling dangerously in the truck bed. It was a party for a high school student graduating and celebrating with her family and music teachers. A charming evening ahead, except for one problem. In addition to all the passed apps and bowls of ricotta, the steaming polenta and melting semifreddos, I was making broiled chicken for thirteen in a single oven, and I had a paralyzing fear of poultry.
More than red meat or fish, you really aren’t supposed to eat underdone chicken. The stakes are higher. How many horror stories have we read about chicken contamination? How often have you heard someone say they wanted their chicken pink in the center? Maybe they eat medium-rare chicken in high-end European restaurants, but not in New England townships. To top it off, overcooked chicken is tough and it makes your teeth squeak and your knife slide and jerk across the plate. There’s not a lot of margin for error.
Let’s just say the sweat wasn’t dripping off my face because of the oven temperature. And the fact that the hosts kept telling their guests I was their “personal chef” didn’t make matters easier. Well, it wasn’t a smooth ride. The oven smoked like the dickens and I had to cook the chicken in batches since the oven was so small. But no one was ill, and to my surprise, people liked it. “My daughter never eats chicken! But she loves this!” I heard from a middle-aged man. “How do you keep the skin so crisp and the meat so juicy and tender?” asked the host. I think my response was just shock.
After that catering job, I decided I had to conquer my fear of chicken. Eight months later, I’ve finally found what has become my foolproof roast chicken. I tried so many methods, but I discovered this trick in a Mediterranean cookbook: rub the chicken with salt 24 hours before cooking, and make sure to flip the chicken as it cooks. Sit back and enjoy the praise your friends and family will heap upon you for making the least pretentious and yet most satisfying roast chicken they’ve ever had. And don’t panic about it. I already did that for you.
Perfect Roast Chicken
Adapted from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
3 ½ – 4 ½ lb. chicken (free-range, natural, all that)
3 Tablespoons coarse salt
3 medium carrots
1 white onion
6 garlic cloves
1-2 sprigs dill
3 Tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
Cracked black pepper
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. egg noodles (optional)
1. Rinse and thoroughly dry chicken, inside and out, removing any innards. Coat with full 3 Tablespoons of salt and wrap in plastic. Return to refrigerator for 24 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 450 F. Chop carrots and onions in large chunks, about one inch. Peel half of the garlic cloves. Pour them into a layer in a roasting pan or casserole dish.
3. Dry chicken with paper towels (don’t worry about taking off the salt–it will have soaked in). Cut one lemon into wedges. Fill cavity with lemon wedges, dill, and remaining garlic cloves, slightly squeezing lemon to release juices. Slide parsley under the skin of the chicken breasts and thighs, or add to cavity.
4. Truss chicken with twine for even cooking. Your goal is to hold the legs together (and the cavity shut) and hold the wings down. Tie three feet of twine around the legs and along the back of the chicken, so that it knots across the neck. Rest chicken on top of the vegetables in the roasting pan. Cover the top of the chicken with cracked black pepper and half the olive oil.
5. Roast for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 F. Roast another 10 minutes, then remove pan from the oven and flip the chicken upside down. Cover the back of the chicken with more black pepper and the rest of the olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes, then flip the chicken a final time. Squeeze lemon juice over the top with the second lemon. Finish cooking chicken for a final 20 minutes.
6. To check for doneness, pierce the leg and check that the juices run clear, or insert an instant-read thermometer along the inner thigh and check that it reads 180 F. If all else fails, lift up the chicken and see if the juices run clear. But like I said, don’t obsess. I already did. Rest chicken for 10-15 minutes before carving.
Optional: Meanwhile, cook egg noodles according to package directions. Strain pan juices into a skillet and reduce into a sauce, adding a dash of white wine. Serve chicken and vegetables over a bed of egg noodles and drizzle with the sauce.