There’s a yin-yang shininess to what is termed “comfort food” — the yin of simplicity and familiarity, balanced with the yang of the excitement of refined techniques.
Roasted chicken, with giblet gravy.
Yeah, Grandma cooked this dish every week of her 103-year life, but there’s also a reason she cooked it the way she did…the distillation over generations down to the essence of what it takes to cook a chicken well, married with the extravagance of what else gets thrown in…what she knew would tickle the palate of the fickle tastes of her particular family. Show me a family’s favorite roasted chicken, and I am sure I could cook virtually anything else, and that family would like it.
I may sound like I’m waxing far too poetic for such a simple dish, but for American/European cooking, the roasted chicken may be the perfect example of a meal itself. It’s easy to over-think this dish. Teriaki or buffalo style, drowning in butter or too crunchy with rosemary. It needs enough attention not to overcook to dryness, or to undercook just enough to make the FDA start tapping the table nervously.
Here I shift to Thomas Keller, perhaps the best American chef of French style in the States today. His yang-cookbook “The French Laundry” is a seriously interesting look into veering culinary techniques. His yin-cookbook “Bouchon”, is based on his more bistro/mom-and-pop comfort-food techniques of what chefs might eat (as he implies) when they get off work.
The very first recipe in Keller’s “Bouchon” is a roasted chicken. It’s in the introduction, not even in the actual list of recipes, which actually has another recipe of roasted chicken using different techniques.
In keeping with my yin-yang view of comfort food, I absolutely love his astonishingly simple technique for roasting a chicken. However, his butter-mustard serving partnership is too mild for me. I prefer a robust chicken giblet gravy. His shallot-haricot vert make a great side for this dish, but again, I love his minimalist technique, but jack it up his green beans with feta and sautéed almonds. Maybe it was the way I was raised. But here we go anyway:
Keller’s concept is that a chicken must roast dry. Take out the fat around the cavity, pat dry inside with paper towels. The bird, inside and out, must not be damp. Dampness causes steam, and a chicken must roast in its own juices, which means no butter, no basting. It’s kind of contrary to the hands-on cook, but there’s also a zen-like pleasure in resisting the urge to mess with it, and just let it cook itself.
Salt inside and then truss. I must confess, I’ve cooked dozens of chickens, and each one is trussed differently. The idea is to close off the cavity, and keep the wings and legs compacted in close. If the chicken looks sort of like a football (an American football), then there’s less of a chance that parts will overcook before the rest of the bird is done. I try to truss up the bird in 6-foot of twine or less.
I like chickens that are as close as possible to 3.5 pounds (around a kilo and a half). Also, I usually cut off the wing-tips as they really don’t do much except smoke up your oven.
Dust generously with kosher salt. Keller uses about a tablespoon, I’ll use a bit less, but as Keller says, it’s greatwhen the bird has been cooked, and you can still see the salt crystals sitting on the skin. That means your bird should have patted dry well. Into a 450 degree oven for 50-60 minutes. No basting. Just peek every now and then and make sure it’s spitting nicely.
Meanwhile, I set up a pot with the giblets. I tear off skin and fat from the neck or any other organ as I’m trying to make a quick stock — fat and skin will cloud it up. I toss the giblets in the pot with a chopped shallot, some peppercorns, water to cover, and some white-wine for depth. This will simmer for about as long as the chicken is roasting.
Meanwhile, I’ll work on the side. I got some fresh green beans, so I snap off the ends, then toss in some heavily salted, boiling water.
In about 4-5 minutes, the green beans will be almost cooked. I look for a snappy crunchness, almost what I want on the plate, but a little more raw (they’ll be heated up again later and will finish cooking). Only one way to tell if they hit that stage:
Then, shock immediately in ice-water to stop the cooking. These can be kept in the fridge for a while on paper towels, so you could actually do this part first if you want.
The chicken is ready when a thermometer inserted into the thigh just hits 165-170 (it will finish cooking as it rests.) Meanwhile, that skin is wonderfully crisp, and you can still see the salt crystals.
I cut the chicken in half, and that’s the way I’ll serve it. But, it can rest this way and reabsorb some juiciness.
I put the roasting pan on a burner and heat up to medium. I add some flour to the chicken juices and will basically make a roux. Add a bit of thyme (personally — I hate rosemary. I think it tastes like sappy pine trees. But thyme is a wonderful herb that works equally or better. It should be fresh thyme, but I was out, alas, and I was forced to use dried.) Then, after the roux/thyme was stirred a bit, I added half the giblet stock.
The gravy was stirred and left to simmer a bit. The green beans get finished quickly. Some butter is heated, then a shallot is quickly sautéed to tenderness. The shallot is removed, then sliced almonds are toasted in the same butter until just barely golden, then also removed.
A beurre noisette is a broken-butter sauce in which the milk solids are lightly toasted. After the shallots and almonds, the butter is almost there, and I just toast it a little more to brown it. Then, after taking it off the heat, I add the juice of a lemon (which can instantly burn the butter if it’s still too hot).
The green beans go in the noisette, followed by the cooked shallots and toasted almonds, a little white wine, and some of the giblet stock.
This is heated and incorporated together, and some feta is added when everything is nice and warm.
Plating: Half a chicken, green beans in front (most of the liquid can be strained out), gravy poured over the chicken and in front of the beans.
Ah, what simple decadence.
However, you probably need to clean your oven now.