But I've been holding out on you, and I'm going to make it up to you now. This recipe is my go-to, the chicken recipe that all others must be measured by. It's easy. No trussing, no fussing, no basting, no worrying. And it's delicious. Make it for a date, make it for your roommates, banish all fear of cooking when you see how easy this is to master. Then you can buy the Zuni cookbook, if you like, but you just might stick with this method, courtesy of Boston chef Gordon Hamersley.
Here's the main trick. Rub the chicken all over with a paste made from herbs, mustard, and olive oil. Throw it in a pan on a bed of root vegetables (Hamersley calls for potatoes and onions, but I like to add yams and whole heads of garlic.) You don't need to tie it up, you don't need to say a prayer, just throw it in the oven and come back an hour and a quarter later. The bird takes care of itself, and the potatoes benefit from the lovely juices.
Too simple, you say? Well, ok. Two things to keep in mind. First of all, don't skimp on the chicken. Buy a small fresh one, ideally organic and not pumped up with all kinds of hormones. If you're feeding a crowd, do two small chickens! They'll cook more evenly and not dry out, and they're more likely to be flavorful to begin with. I got this lovely white plume Bobo chicken from Jeffrey the butcher (feet on! ack!), though I've also gotten flavorful antibiotic free chickens from the farmer's market, too.
Second, if you happen to have the chicken a day early and you want to improve the flavor even more, dry the chicken thoroughly with paper towels and toss some kosher salt on the outside. It's really not hard to do, and does make a difference. Apparently the salt draws moisture from the meat which is then reabsorbed, effectively brining the chicken without waterlogging it. If you don't have time, skip it. Hamersley's original recipe doesn't call for it anyway. If you don't do this, add a little salt and pepper to the mustard paste. When you're all done, take the lemons out and cook the carcass for stock!
Walk Away Roast Chicken, salted Zuni Style
Adapted from Gordon Hamersley and Judy Rodgers
serves three, depending on the size of your chicken
3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1 whole roasting chicken (about 3-1/2 lb.)
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. Dijon-style mustard
1 tsp. dried thyme (or 1 Tbs. fresh, chopped)
1 tsp. dried rosemary (or 1 Tbs. fresh, chopped)
1 lemon, halved
1 small onion, cut into thick chunks
2 small new potatoes, halved but not peeled
2 yams, peeled and cut into chunks
2 heads garlic, optional
1/2 cup water, stock or wine if you want to make gravy
A day ahead, remove any fat or innards inside the chicken. Pat chicken dry with paper towels—if it's moist, it will steam. Place on a platter or dish. Sprinkle the kosher salt over the chicken and add ground pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Cover loosely and refrigerate. Check the chicken the day you want to cook it, you may want to dry it with some paper towels.
When you're ready to cook, heat the oven to 375°F. In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbs. of the olive oil, the mustard, thyme, and rosemary. Squeeze the juice from one lemon half into the herb mixture; squeeze the juice from the other half into a small bowl and reserve. Reserve the squeezed lemon halves. Spoon the herb mixture over the chicken, rubbing to coat the bird thoroughly. Put the reserved lemon halves inside the chicken's cavity.
Put the vegetables in a roasting pan. If you're using garlic heads, cut the top quarter-inch off the head, exposing the cloves. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper (and a little additional rosemary, if you like, and toss them with the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil. Scatter the ingredients around the pan to make room in the center for the chicken.
Put the chicken in the pan, breast side up. Cook until the meat is tender and the juices run clear at the thigh, 1–1/4 to 1-1/2 hours. By this time, the potatoes and onions should be tender. Check the temperature of the chicken with a meat thermometer—it should measure 165 degrees at the thigh.
You can serve straight from the pan after five minutes of letting the bird rest, or fancy it up as follows: transfer the vegetables to a serving platter. Pour the juices from inside the chicken's cavity into the roasting pan and transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let it rest. Spoon off and discard as much fat as possible from the juices in the roasting pan or separate with a gravy strainer. Set the pan with the juices over medium-low heat and pour in the reserved lemon juice along with 1/2 cup water, stock, or wine. Bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cut the chicken into pieces. Pour the pan juices over the chicken and serve.