Recently my eight-year old nephew visited and I had to admire him; apparently since my parents brought home Violet and Harley (two hens despite one being dubiously named); he refuses to eat chicken. Because sometimes, particularly when it’s cold; I want to eat something comfortable, nostalgic even; without the fuss of anything overly challenging or new. And as much as I wish I felt wrong about eating chicken since we got our girls (six years ago now), I can’t think of anything better than a good, old-fashioned roast chook, served alongside a pile of root vegetables and always a jug of hot gravy. It’s a ridiculously easy, almost sacred Sunday meal and the most satisfying one pan dinner I can imagine.
Guilty conscience aside, I will say this – I would never dream of buying anything but an organic, free-range bird – one that had a good life, a chance to forage for grubs, dust bathe, and enjoy the sun’s rays on his or her feathers. And though I know it makes people squirm, I think that being able to buy my chook with her head attached as they do in Vietnam and France would be nice – surely a way of determining its true freshness much like looking at the clarity of a fish’s eyes when purchasing whole. Assuming this isn’t an option, may I suggest that the best tasting, most ethically reared chicken you’ll have access to is likely at your local farmers’ market (not Coles or Safeway) – and what's more there are no doubt some freshly dug, seasonal (maybe even organic) vegetables to be had at a nearby stall.
Bird in hand (pun intended) there are just two simple things to remember – salt as soon as you’re home (the way they do at Zuni Café), and take note of this formula (borrowed from one of my favourite cooks Nigella Lawson): cook for 30 minutes, plus 20 minutes for every 500g.
Perfect Roast Chook
per one small organic, free-range chicken
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 organic, unwaxed lemon, cut in half
extra virgin olive oil or butter
slices of truffle, or a few tender sprigs of tarragon, thyme, rosemary, or sage (optional)
As soon as you bring your bird home: salt it. A tablespoon may seem a lot of salt, but you are looking to brine the chicken and ensure that it is moist, tender and seasoned down to the bone. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry with paper towel, salt it well including under the wings, the cavity, and the inner thighs. If you wish, loosen the skin from the breast meat and tuck a few tender sprigs of one of the aforementioned herbs, or a few slices of truffle under the skin. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours and up to 48.
Preheat oven to 200C and remove the chicken from the fridge about an hour before you plan to cook it. Pat it dry again (you want to avoid the chicken steaming), stick half a lemon in the cavity, and truss by tying the legs together with butcher's twine. Rub a small amount of extra virgin olive oil, or melted butter over the skin, sprinkle with a little more sea salt, and roast, breast side up using the above formula (a 1.4 kilo / size 14 chicken will take 86 minutes, for example).
Once the chicken is cooked, cover loosely with foil and allow to rest for 5 - 10 minutes before carving. By the way, this is conveniently about the time it takes to deglaze the roasting pan and make gravy.
- a smaller chicken will be more succulent so opt for two small chickens rather than one large bird if you have to feed a small crowd
- root vegetables ranging from golden shallots and whole heads of garlic to potatoes, fennel and beetroot are among my favourites alongside a roast chook - if your roasting tray is big enough they can be tucked around the bird as it cooks at varying intervals depending on the vegetable (potatoes and beetroot will need roughly an hour, while baby carrots and shallots need about 40 minutes)
- don't discard the carcass! It can be frozen and used to make stock at some later date