Last weekend, after reading Anne’s blog post, I picked up a chicken from the Berkeley farmer’s market. For some time, I’ve been pretty particular about my chickens. I almost always buy Hoffmans, though I’ve been stalking the Marin Sun Farms booth (yes, I’ve had their eggs) over at the Ferry Plaza farmer’s market (they always sell out before 11). So when I heard about this unique bird, I decided I had to try it.
Like Anne, I was well, alarmed, when I opened up the cooler to pick out my bird. The first detail I noticed was the strong odor. Not rotten or bad, but just barnyardy, for lack of a better word. Some of the birds had been cut in half, and the giblets were loosely stuffed in what remained of the cavity, along with the feet. There was nearly no breasts, but the thighs and legs were ginormous! Plus there were still a few loose feathers here and there. When I got home, I kept muttering, “freak bird! freak bird! we got ourselves a freak bird!” until Zack had to get up and check it out himself. “Wow! That’s a really big chicken,” he said. “Is it a rooster or something?” Actually, it wasn’t that big. It was just under three pounds, which is tiny for a fryer/roaster. That’s how big the thighs were.
I was unsure of how to prepare it. The odd proportions of dark meat to white meet threw me off, plus it was a very lean bird. I briefly considered brining it, then decided to fall back on my standard roast chicken preparation, which is cribbed directly from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. It’s very simple – You dry off the bird, stuff a few sprigs of herbs under the skin and season generously with kosher salt and cracked pepper and let it sit in the refrigerator for 1-3 days. To roast, you bring it out of refrigeration and let it stand at room temperature for an hour (or less), then throw it on a hot cast iron pan then stick it in the oven (475 degrees) for at least 45 minutes, turning it three time. It doesn’t get easier than that – no trussing, no additional fat, no basting. This method has always yielded a tender, juicy bird with perfectly brown, crisp skin. But there are four things to keep in mind:
1. Get a small bird, preferably under 3.5 pounds. Smaller birds tolerate high heat pretty well.
2. Salt generously and salt early
3. Keep the bird as dry as possible, and limit the seasonings to the salt, pepper and the herbs stuffed under the skin. Anything else will make the bird “steam”, resulting in soggy skin.
4. Be hyper vigilant about temperature and time. The guidelines I gave above were just that: guidelines. Temperature and cooking time will always vary, so pay attention, not just by opening the oven door and peeking (doing that too much is not such a good idea, since it changes the oven temp). Listen and smell as well.
As an accompaniment, I made panzanella (Tuscan bread salad), also from the Zuni cookbook. It’s pretty easy as well. Take a day old loaf of country bread (hit Acme early, and pick up the day olds for half off) and carve off the crusts. Break up the crumb/white part/mie into a few pieces, brush with olive oil and stick it in the broiler to (carefully) brown all sides. Trim off any burnt or blacked bits, and break up these pieces into manageable pieces for consumption. Season with salt and pepper, and toss with about a quarter cup of a tart olive oil and champagne vinegar vinaigrette. Throw in some warmed pine nuts and dried currants (reconstituted with warm water and red wine vinegar) . Soften 3-4 scallions and 2-3 chopped cloves of garlic in a frying pan with olive oil and fold into the salad. If the salad is still dry, dribble a little warm chicken broth or water on top. As the chicken finishes cooking, cover the salad with foil and place it in the oven for the last few minutes, and leave it in when you’ve removed the bird and turned off the oven. When it’s ready to serve, toss in a few handfuls of arugula, frisee or watercress, and sprinkle some of the chicken drippings into it. To serve, nestly the chicken pieces in the salad and pour some of the drippings reduced with wine and mounted with butter on top.
So how did my bird turn out? I daresay it turned out pretty well. The skin was paper thin, brown and crackly, and the legs were plump, juicy and intensely flavored (the breast meat was nonexistent). However, I might turn down the temperature a notch and move the bird to a lower rack next time. The legs were so long, they nearly brushed up against the top of my oven. Their musculature was really different; even the shape of the bones were different. You know how eating rabbit is just… different than chicken, though the meat is comparable? It was that kind of different. Not a bad thing at all – in fact, I felt like I was eating chicken in the way it was meant to be eaten. Now, I have to find one of those Marin Sun Farms chickens!