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I was born near Lyon in the town of Bourg-en-Bresse, famous for its “chickens of Bresse,” which have white plumage, red combs, and blue feet, the colors of the French flag. In my apprenticeship, I can’t recall any customers coming into the restaurant who didn’t order chicken in one form or another. We always had roast chicken, some roasted especially to serve cold with a light aspic and a salad. Chicken with white wine cream sauce and mushrooms, chicken with tarragon, and chicken with red wine sauce were all part of the daily offerings. We didn’t serve fried chicken, one of my favorites; I would learn later how to make it as part of my American experience.
When I go to Boston University to teach a group of culinary arts students, I often demonstrate what I call “a perfect meal,” and the students are eager to duplicate it afterward. The meal is roast chicken served with a salad and boiled potato. It is straightforward, simple, and good when done properly, especially if you use an organic farm-raised chicken, or at least the best quality chicken available.
A few years ago, Jean-Claude and I raised chickens near his house in upstate New York. The smell of those chickens cooking in the oven took me back to my apprenticeship and earlier, when I was a small child and my mother or aunts roasted chicken. If organic chickens are unavailable or too pricey, most supermarkets nowadays offer—at relatively modest prices—chickens that have been raised strictly on a diet of vegetables with no hormone additives. They may not be totally organic, but they are of good quality, as are chickens from kosher butchers.
I roast chicken in a sturdy, thick skillet of cast iron, heavy aluminum, or copper lined with stainless steel. I want the juice of the chicken to come out during cooking and crystallize in the bottom of the skillet. These glazed or solidified juices are deglazed by adding liquid to them at the end of cooking time to produce a wonderful, natural juice. In restaurants, the pots and pans are used many times each day, and food does not stick to them. However, at home, where pots and pans are used only occasionally, food tends to stick. If you are concerned that the chicken may stick, start by placing a small piece of parchment paper (about the size of a dollar bill) rubbed with butter in the pan, and place your chicken on its side on it. Avoid nonstick saucepans or skillets for roasting chicken, because the solidified juices tend to stick to the chicken rather than the pan, and there is nothing left in the bottom of the pan to create a juice.
As an apprentice, I learned to recognize when a chicken was cooked just by hearing it in the oven. We would say, “le poulet chante,” or “the chicken is singing.” At the end of cooking, any juices that have seeped out of the bird have evaporated, and what is left is the fat of the chicken, frying in the bottom of the pan and sizzling happily–the bird is cooked!
I love a Boston lettuce salad with my roasted chicken. The fresh, nutty taste of this delicate green makes it a perfect accompaniment. I also like small boiled potatoes with my chicken, and if I can’t find the Red Bliss or the mini Yukon Gold varieties, I use larger Yukon Golds. Waxy and firm, they hold their shape when cooked and have a wonderfully creamy texture and buttery taste.
My “perfect meal” is a good lesson for students of cooking to understand simplicity and quality, and for home cooks to understand how appealing and delicious plain fare can be when properly prepared.
For the roast chicken:
- One 3½ pound chicken, reserve the liver
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons dry, fruity white wine
- ¾ cup good chicken stock
For the Boston lettuce salad:
- 1 head Boston lettuce
- Olive oil
- A little peanut or walnut oil
- A dash of red wine vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper and good salt
- 1 or 2 tablespoons clear chicken fat
- 2 tablespoons natural juice from the chicken
For the boiled potatoes:
- 12 to 16 small potatoes
- 1 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat a convection oven to 400°F or a regular oven to 425°F. Reserve the chicken liver, and sprinkle the chicken all over with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and place it on its side in the roasting pan. (I start it on its side, because the legs take the longest to cook.) Cook for 20 minutes on one side, and then turn it and cook it for 20 minutes on the other side. Finally, finish it up on its back, basting occasionally until done. It takes about 1 hour in a convection oven to produce a chicken with a beautiful, crusty, brown exterior and juicy meat.
Near the end of the cooking time, sprinkle the liver with a dash of salt and pepper, and add it to the pan next to the chicken to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Cut it in half, place each half on a toast–half for me and half for my wife–and enjoy with a glass of wine as a special bonus for the cook.
Place the cooked chicken breast side down on a platter, so the juice goes into the breasts and keeps them moist, and then keep warm in a 170°F oven until ready to serve. Do not cover with a piece of foil, or the chicken will steam lightly and the meat will have a reheated taste. (For some reason, this doesn’t happen with roasted duck, but it does with chicken, pheasant, and turkey.) Pour the pan drippings, which should be clear and transparent, into a bowl. This nutty fat is perfect for sautéing potatoes, carrots, onions, and mushrooms. It gives the vegetables a rich taste, and it can withstand the high temperatures necessary for frying potatoes.
I like to add some of that clear chicken fat as well as some of the juice in my salad. To make the natural jus or juice, remove most of the fat from the pan, and add the white wine and chicken stock to the glaze. Bring to a boil, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to melt the solidified juices, then strain. This is the best natural juice. At the Plaza Athénée in Paris, we used to add a couple of tablespoons of freshly made brown butter to that defatted juice to add complexity and richness. With the same intention, I like to stir 1 to 2 tablespoons of the clear fat back into the juice to add some richness and satiny texture.
I sometimes cut up the chicken with shears, bones and all, for the family, but for guests I usually carve the two breasts and legs to serve at the table, reserving the carcass for me to eat the following day. This is my perfect lunch for the day after. I pick at the carcass with a paring knife and eat it with my fingers along with a salad containing a lot of garlic, olive oil, and mustard. The chicken should be at room temperature.
As a variation or for a change, I sometimes sauté some finely chopped shallots, a bit of chopped garlic, and a little chopped parsley in a couple tablespoons of chicken fat for a minute or so, and then drizzle the mixture over the chicken pieces at serving time.
Boston Lettuce Salad:
Look for 1 rounded and heavy head of lettuce, preferably from your garden or a friend’s garden in the summer. Clean the lettuce properly: if the rib in the outside leaves is thick and a bit fibrous, cut on either side of it and use only the tender parts of the leaves. As one gets to the second and third layers of leaves, the ribs are more tender, and the leaves can be halved only. The smaller white leaves from the center of the head are used whole.
Wash the lettuce properly: submerge it in a lot of cool water, then lift it up from the water gently, taking care not to bruise the leaves by squeezing them in your hands. Dry in a salad spinner to remove all the water, so the dressing isn’t diluted by it. It is not easy to serve a perfect salad: the greens should not be bruised, the dressing should have the right proportion of vinegar to oil, the salad should be cool but not icecold, and it should be dressed at the last moment so it doesn’t wilt. Finally, it should have just enough dressing to lightly coat the leaves but not so much that it soaks into them.
For the dressing, I use the best olive oil with, sometimes, a little peanut or walnut oil, and a dash of red wine vinegar (I make my own), using a ratio of 4 parts oil to 1 part vinegar; I like my dressing mild. Add freshly ground pepper and good salt, like kosher or fleur de sel, and mix in a large salad bowl. Then stir in the chicken fat to “marry” the chicken and the salad. Add the greens, and toss at the last moment. As soon as it is tossed, sprinkle the natural juice from the chicken on the salad. It makes a wonderful, savory liaison.
Use 3 to 4 small potatoes per person or cut larger ones into equal-size pieces and round off the cut edges with a knife, so they look like small potatoes of about equal size. This is important, since they should cook in the same amount of time. Cover the potatoes with cold water, add a dash of salt, bring the water to a boil, and boil the potatoes gently for about 25 minutes, or until they are tender throughout but not mushy. They are best cooked as close to the moment of serving as possible. As soon as they are cooked, drain off the water by holding the potatoes back with the lid of the pan, and put the pan back over medium heat for a minute or so to draw out any additional water in the potatoes. They should be soft and creamy. Finally, add the butter, toss, and serve with the roast chicken, its juices, and the salad.
© 2007 Jacques Pepin
Note from Cookstr's Editors
Nutritional information is based on 6 serving, includes 1/8 teaspoon of added salt per serving, 12 small potatoes, 3 teaspoons of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of peanut oil, and 1 tablespoon of clear chicken fat.