Roast chicken, and the things we make over and over again.
Adapted from: countless recipes and variations.
A couple of weeks ago a friend and I were chatting about home cooking, and the dishes we deemed our specialties. To my own surprise, the only recipe that came to mind was roast chicken. How white of me, I thought, cracking the door open for my shame. I would have liked to claim dandan noodles or hong shao rou (red braised pork belly), both recipes I harbour intense nostalgia for, but I’ve never made either more than once. My brand of novelty-seeking forbids me from reprising the same recipe unless it is stupendously good or unignorably convenient. Roast chicken, as it were, checks both boxes.
It’s funny, the narratives you construct for yourself in the absence of experience. I don’t think I had a real roast chicken before I turned 25—my parents certainly never cooked it—but it’s been the height of luxury in my brain for as long as I can remember; the perfect meal. My mental image of a perfectly-cooked chicken nestled in a bed of vegetables looks like an offering of gold. I continued to believe this even after trying day’s end rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, its skin leathery and blistered like that of a retiree too fond of the sun; I didn’t lose faith after finally experiencing the disappointment that is Swiss Chalet. I thought of it as a test, the ultimate proof of a home cook’s competency: how to turn something that could easily be average, dry, unflavourful… into something great.
After roasting a chicken countless times now, I haven’t lost my reverence for it. Here’s why it is the perfect meal: It’s minimum exertion for maximum reward. It requires little in terms of seasoning or sauce, and any additional effort you make in this regard will take the recipe from weeknight meal to holiday special. It makes for great leftovers (as is, or integrated into a soup, salad or sandwich). And if you save the carcass and make a broth, it gives you a reason to pat yourself on the back for an efficient use of resources.
So, when did humans get into roasting chickens? The Smithsonian cites a discovery in Israel pinning the first instances of chicken consumption to circa 400 B.C.E. (Fun fact from that article: chickens were first domesticated not for eating, but for cockfighting.) More widespread evidence of roasting poultry over a fire popped up in the Middle Ages, throughout Europe. I’d always intimately associated it with French cuisine (blame Julia Child), but can’t seem to find a definitive source on its origins.
There are many regional varieties of roast chicken, with two prominent ones being Hendl (German; often served during Oktoberfest), and polla a la brasa (Peruvian; translates to blackened chicken). The best part about a roast chicken is its blandness: it’s a blank canvas on which you can slather any flavour from any culture and be delighted with the results. (There’s a metaphor in here somewhere.) Gochujang is great. Chipotle, too. But if you’ve got a quality chicken, salt and pepper are all you need.
Rotated by hand by a spit boy (far right), from the Romance of Alexander, Bruges, 1338-44.
Because it’s so easy to get right and to adapt, roast chicken is the rare dish I’m motivated to make over and over again, and one I am determined to perfect. From rubbing salt under the skin to bathing it in buttermilk, every cook has their own take on the best way to do it. There are endless variations in terms of herbs to use, temperature to roast at, sauces to marinade with. The matrix is infinite, which is just the kind of loophole my desire for novelty needs.
Three ways to roast a chicken.
Shaheen Peerbhai & Jennie Levitt's Cold-Oven Roast Chicken (Food 52) - Instead of preheating the oven, you put the chicken in right away and bring it up slowly as the oven heats to 450°. With this technique, the flesh stays moist, but the skin is crispy. Simple. The aromatics are equally simple: garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage, lemon. I’ve sent this recipe, unsolicited, to so many people.
Colu Henry’s Roast Chicken With Maple Butter and Rosemary (NYT Cooking) - I don’t really celebrate the holidays, but if I did, this is what I would serve. Three ingredients morph a simple roast chicken into an indulgent feast. It feels and tastes impressive without being very hard, which is really the best kind of recipe.
Yewande Komolafe’s Nigerian Clay Pot Chicken (Food & Wine) - I got tired of reading about roast chicken from a Euro-centric lens. Here is a version from Ikeja, Nigeria, featuring ingredients the writer’s family would source from their own backyard. I haven’t made this, but am compelled to by the lemongrass alone.
Got another roast chicken recipe to share? Please email me!
Until next week,