Whole roasted chicken might not be my favorite food. But it is hands-down my favorite meal. The ritual includes the act of preparing a whole animal for the oven while appreciating its life, then encountering the aromas mingling with a pan of roasting root vegetables as they escape the oven. After an hour spent building hunger and anticipation comes the revelation of the perfectly roasted chicken skin as it comes out of the oven and the carving, with the potential for enjoyment like any craft that can be done skillfully. Finally we sit down with a group of thankful, hungry, smiling humans around a table set in anticipation and common purpose.
I can recall a number of very memorable roasted, pastured chicken dinners. One took place about seven years ago, on the night we learned of our firstborn's heart condition, three months before he would be born. We sat quietly. We cried. We wondered what would come. But we were also taken out of our heads, in part by the experience of a biological, cultural, and human act: of a meal that nourished our bodies and our souls and the life that we shared such hopes for. (He's doing great now, by the way)
Another came last week when three generations of my family gathered in one place for the first time in four years. 25 of us sat down over four chickens and four trays of diced, roasted turnips rutabagas and sweet potatoes. There was a very long table, and a kids' table. Everyone joyfully participated in a thankful feast that involved reminiscing, catching up, and just being together. Plates filled and emptied while memories were shared and the sweetness was savored.
Whether a memorable meal, or a typical Tuesday, a roast chicken is a wonderful way to slow down and savor life together in your home. We include a whole chicken in almost every single month of our Meat CSA because we have experienced this and believe it at our core. Practically, its also the most affordable way to enjoy nutrient-dense, high-integrity pastured protein (especially when you factor in the leftovers and the stock that follow).
We've tried a lot of recipes. But we remain convinced that this one is the best:
1. Brine chicken overnight if you have the time. Its ok if you don't. You can just open up the defrosted the chicken 2 hours before dinner and it will still be wonderful. I'll elaborate on brining at some other point. But a basic recipe we like is this:
2. Pre-heat oven to 475 F.
3. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Rub skin all over with a generous helping of olive oil or butter. You can also lift the skin where the breast meets the neck, and insert 2-3 cold pats of butter under the skin on each breast.
4. Sprinkle a slightly greater volume of kosher salt on all sides of chicken than you might think appropriate. Include the cavity of the chicken as well. Feel free to add some cracked pepper or smoked paprika to the skin as well.
5. Insert into the fully pre-heated oven, and immediately turn oven down to 400. This high-temp start helps to begin the process of drying, and the crisping of the skin, while leaving the inside juicy.
6. Set timer for 20 minutes per lb of chicken. A four pound chicken will need 80 minutes, or 1 hr 20 minutes.
7. Immediately start chopping any root vegetables you have in your possession: turnips, red or purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, even radishes and onions. toss into a bowl and cover in bacon fat, sausage drippings, or some oil that won't smoke at a high temp, like avocado or grape seed. Lay this flat on a cookie sheet, 1 layer of veg thick, and put in oven on the top shelf.
8. If the skin is golden, the leg is a little loose, and the juices coming from inside of the thigh run clear, then you're ready. Pull It out. Get the veg out and transfer to a bowl whenever it looks like the underside is getting a little brown and crispy but not nearly burnt.
9. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes or so while you prepare a salad and direct the hungry, circling humans to set the table. You may want to reference the parable of the little red hen if you get any push-back.
10. Carve the chicken. if you've never done this before, here are some tips: Lift the hot bird with a sturdy spatula and it on a cutting board. Pull one leg out and down while you insert the knife between the thigh and body. Eventually wiggle the knife into the hip joint and cut in such a way that you get the maximum amount of thigh to leave the carcass. Hold the drum end at a 45 degree angle with the thigh/drum joint resting on the cutting board. Insert the knife down through the joint. If you are straight and firm enough, you'll find that you've quickly and easily separated the two portions of the leg. Repeat on other side.
Next you'll want to perform a similar act on the wings. Leave them in one piece, or separate, as you wish.
Once the appendages are removed I begin to work on the slightly cooled breast. Holding the carcass breast up, I cut down towards each side at 45 degree angles, removing slices of breast. White meat from a pastured chicken is more moist, flavorful, and never chalky, like a commodity chicken. But chicken breast is lean, and can still be a little drier than is ideal -even if only left in the oven five minutes too long. But that pan sitting next to the cutting board should have about a half-inch of juices that you can just dip the chicken breast slices into really quickly on their way to the serving plate. This will cover over all but the worst cooking offenses you can make. Continue to cut breast slices and use your fingers to get the last of the breast meat and tenders, and flip over to extract what I call the "hip nuggets" from the underside.These are the perfect treat to reward yourself for a good job carving, or for any of the family members or dinner guests who have honored the parable of the little red hen by joining in the meal prep.
11. While everyone is gathering at the table, place the remaining carcass in a soup pot, covered in water, with the neck added in as well. After the meal have everyone place their remaining bones into this pot, as well as any pan juices you haven't consumed. Simmer at the lowest possible temp -ideally one where there will be only a couple of small bubbles emanating per second. If you don't want to eat soup in the next few days, put this into the freezer in 1 pt to 1 qt containers, and never buy packages of chicken stock again.
12. Sit, eat, and enjoy the meal and the people you're sharing it with.
Photos in this blog post were all taken by our friends at Firm Anchor Photography. Also in the spirit of full credit, Jamie Oliver's cookbooks have heavily influenced our way of preparing a whole roasted chicken, among many other meals.