Sundays during the Fall are some of my favorite days for cooking because I can cook things that take a bit longer to prepare. Heating up an oven during the summer isn't high on my list of things to do, so come Autumn I love broiling, roasting and baking things. One of the first oven-roasted items I taught myself to make was a whole roasted chicken. My mom would always buy whole birds because they were less expensive, she was better at cutting them apart than the grocery store butcher, and because it meant she had parts left over for soups. I took it for granted at the time, but somehow my mom was able to feed a family of five a roasted chicken one night, and then a couple of nights later we'd have chicken soup -- from the same chicken.
Keeping in line with this thriftiness I'm going to present a three-part series involving chicken. I'll show you how you can feed two people (or more) a roast chicken dinner, chicken soup, and finally risotto from one whole chicken.
Before we can get to cooking, you have to know what kind of bird to buy. Its not as easy as it sounds. Whole chickens range anywhere from 3 to 10 pounds and some of those just aren't right for roasting. Cornish game hens are the smallest variety of chicken. That's right, it's not some wild bird, it's a hen that is bread to be small-boned and meaty; they have a delicate flavor and are perfect for roasting, but that's another column. The broiler-fryers (which are most plentiful), which weigh 3-5 pounds, are about 45 days old and are very tender, but the meat-to-bone ratio means that roasting will result in tough meat. These birds need to be cooked fast and on high heat, so they're perfect for frying or cutting into pieces and broiling quickly. There are also capons, which usually weigh 8-10 pounds. They sound like a fancy bird, but they are castrated male chickens which are kept confined to a very small cage so they can't develop muscle tone, and are therefore very tender. Sure, they're great for roasting, but they're so big they take a long time to cook and for a household of less than four, it is too much meat. Fowl or stewing hens are older hens that have lain a lot of eggs. They're flavorful and great for making broth, but tough if roasted. Roasters are about 10 weeks old and will probably weigh between 5 and 7 pounds. Perfect for one or two people with lots of food leftover, but big enough for four or five with a couple of side dishes.
If you plan on cooking your chicken more than 48 hours after you've purchased, it should be kept frozen. A whole chicken can last about 6 months in your freezer, while a cut-up chicken starts to get freezer burn after three months. Thawing them out does take a long time, but if you put it in the fridge 24 hours before it's going in the oven you should be fine. If you don't have that much time, keep it in its vacuum-sealed bag and put it in a sink under lightly running cold water for about an hour and a half.
Many people think chicken is hard to cook because of the press given to salmonella. It's nasty, nasty stuff but don't get paranoid. It's easier to avoid than the cooking show lawyers will admit. Here are my tips. If anything touches the raw chicken it has to be washed before it touches anything else. Cutting chicken on a plastic board is safer than wood, don't stick your chicken-gooey fingers in your mouth, and make sure the meat is cooked all the way through before serving. Throw away all the trays, foil, and plastic the chicken has come in contact with. Clean -- don't just wipe -- any area that may have come in contact with raw chicken juice.
2 cloves of garlic
Fresh thyme, sage, or other herb you know you like (a dried mix of these herbs will also work, keep it to about 1 tablespoons of dried and 2-3 of chopped herbs)
1 tangerine or smallish orange (a large lemon would also work)
Large dollop of butter
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Remove the chicken from its bag. I'll assume that you can figure out which pieces the wings, legs, and breasts are. The back of the bird is boney, and the breast of the bird should be meaty. Inside the neck cavity you'll find a paper or plastic bag containing chicken bits and the neck of the chicken, which need to be removed. Cut off the odd flaps of skin that are probably near the neck cavity and the butt cavity. You won't need these for tonight so put it all these extra pieces into a large zipper bag and throw it in the freezer. Rinse off the chicken inside and out. Pat it dry with paper towels, and throw the towels away. with the tip of a pairing knife, poke holes in the skin of the bird, but not so deep that you're piercing the meat.
Peel your garlic and slice it into thin slivers. You don't have to be able to read through them, but they need to be small enough to slip between the skin and the meat of the chicken. Take the fresh herbs off the stems, chop and mix with a tablespoon of salt and as much pepper you'd like for a whole chicken. I'd use about a teaspoon, but I like pepper. Sprinkle one-third of this mix inside the bird's cavity. The rest will get shoved with the garlic evenly between the skin and the meat on the top, sides, and legs. To get to the meat on the legs you'll have to make small incisions with a knife and just shove the seasonings through that. I usually ignore the wings because those just end up in my stock-pot, but if you like to eat them, season those as well. Wash your hands. There isn't much meat on the back so don't worry about putting seasonings there.
The citrus is going to help provide moisture and a bit of flavor to the chicken. You're going to want it juicy and the easiest way to do that is to beat it up a bit. Think about your ex or your boss and bang it on the counter or sink edge until you can feel it soften up. Stab the orange several times with a fork or knife. The more holes it has, the more outlets for steam, and the more citrus steam the more citrus flavor the chicken will have. If you really like orange (or lemon), you could take some of the zest off the fruit and put that in with the spices between the skin and the meat. Place the orange into the cavity -- it will probably fit better in the butt end than the neck end. Wedge it into the middle if you can.
If you have a roasting pan with a rack, that's wonderful. I don't, so I improvise. I have a skillet that is safe to put in the oven, you could also use a casserole dish, or any baking dish with slightly high sides that will fit the bird when it is on its back. Place the bird breast side up in the pan, take a tablespoon or so of butter and rub it all over the top and sides of the chicken. Put it in the oven for about 7 minutes. This will help the skin get a bit crusty without causing the meat to dry out.
Turn the oven down to 375 degrees and remove the pan. Being careful not to burn yourself, turn the bird on its side. If it wants to fall over, make a couple balls of aluminum foil and wedge them under the bird. Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes. Pull the pan back out, flip the bird to the other side and return for 15 minutes more. Pull the pan back out and turn the chicken breast side up and remove the foil. Cook for another half hour or until the chicken is done.
How do you tell the chicken is done? If the skin is golden brown you're at least close. If you tilt the bird and the juice that comes out of the cavity is rosy, it's not done. If you stab a thigh (this is the slowest cooking part of the bird) with a fork or knife and you get pink liquid, it isn't done. If you are able to grab the end of the leg bone and wiggle it and it feels loose, it's probably done. If you're leery, cut into the inside of the thigh with a knife and fork and see if the meat is pink. Don't be nervous if the meat is fine but the bone is dark. If you have a meat thermometer, the meat should read at least 170 degrees Farenheit.
Put your chicken on a platter or cutting board and let it rest for 10-15 minutes. To keep it warm, put it in the microwave or cover it with foil or a pan or large bowl. But don't cut it. This will keep the juices in the chicken, not on your plate.
While you're waiting, you could make gravy to go with those potatoes you baked in a separate pan, or that box of Stove-Top stuffing you made. Trust me, this is easier than it sounds. All you need is the drippings from the chicken, a cup of liquid, a tablespoon or two of flour, and 10 minutes. Either put the skillet you cooked your chicken in on the burner, or transfer your drippings to a skillet. If there are stuck-on bits, add a half cup of liquid to the pan and stir to remove them. You can use any sort of broth, or beer, or wine (my favorite), or fruit juice, or even a soda if you're desperate. You could use water, but the flavor will be lighter. I'd recommend adding about a half-cup of liquid to your pan set on medium-high heat and putting one tablespoon of flour into another half cup of liquid. Once the liquid in the pan boils, slowly pour the flour/liquid mix into the pan while stirring constantly with a fork or a whisk. Once it comes back to a boil it should start to thicken up, turn the heat down to medium and keep stirring. If after three or four minutes of stirring it doesn't seem to be thick enough for you, slowly add another teaspoon of flour, wait a minute or two, and add another teaspoon if necessary. If it seems to be too thick, add a quarter cup of liquid to the pan. Once it seems to be the right thickness, you can now turn the heat down to the lowest setting possible and stir it every minute or two while you cut apart the chicken. You should be able to slice between the leg and the main body to the joint, which should separate, and then you can cut through the rest of the meat and skin to remove the thigh and drumstick together. You can cut off the wings in this same way. Following the line of the rib cage, you should be able to get a few slices of chicken off the breast. Delia Online has some photos of these steps.
You're now ready to put the chicken on a platter, your gravy in a small bowl with a big spoon, your side dish, and a simple salad on the table to impress people. I think a Pinot noir or a Valpolicella would be a good wine choice for this dish.
Since we're making chicken stock next week, make sure to save all the bones, the skin, wings, etc. in the bag with the pieces you removed from inside the chicken. Place the leftover pieces of meat and all the other bits of meat you're able to remove from the carcass into a separate bag and keep them both in the freezer.