ROAST CHICKEN for dinner.
Now there's an announcement to bring on a chorus of "ohs" and "ahs."
One can only pity the "ohs." Although brought up with almost all the advantages life in a modern democracy can offer, to them roast chicken means soggy skin and dry, powdery breat meat. The "ahs" know how incomplete such a life must be. The realize that roast chicken -- properly roasted chicken -- is the essential sociologists are after when they seek to define "quality of life."
A plump, well seasoned roast chicken, still warm and moist with juices that have been carefully retained within a golden, suntanned skin is one of the most satisfying culinary accomplishments; the more so because it is as easily achieved by the home cook as the professional.
Simplicity in cooking is much touted these days and nothing could be more simple than this ideal: a sizable portion of roast chicken, and some equally bronzed roasted or perfectly fried potatoes, crisp-cooked green beans and a glass of lively red wine.I must admit the vividness of the image dims if the ingredients don't include a generous amount of butter and a liberal sprinkling of salt, two condiments frowned upon these days, and freshly ground pepper. Also, the glass of wine should lead to another and perhaps on to some cheese and fruit.
The centerpiece, though, is the chicken. It does make a difference what type and size of chicken you purchase. Large chickens, the "roasters" of yore, are not as juicy as younger, small birds, but they possess firmer flesh and more flavor. Try to buy a bird with a dressed weight of 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds. Be sure to remove the packet of innards from the cavity, if there is one, and the pads of fat. Wash it or rub it inside and out with a lemon. Be sure to dry it thoroughly. Season the cavity with salt and pepper. Cut off the tips of each wing and, if you intend to carve the bird at table, cut out the wishbone as well.
There may be a thousand ways to skin a cat, but there is only one way to roast a chicken properly. Truss (tie) the bird with string to bring the legs and wings close to the body and to plump up the breast. This gives you a compact package that will cook more evenly and will retain more juice in the breast. Rub the outside liberally with Dijon-style mustard (or Dijon-style mustard flavored with tarragon, lemon or shallots). Lift the bird and arrange it on one side in a rack (a V-shaped rack) in a roasting pan. Place the pan in the middle of a preheated hot oven (450 degrees). Turn the temperature down to 400.Cook for 20 minutes. Remove the pan, quickly turn the chicken so the down side is up and return it to the oven. Cook another 20 minutes. Remove pan and turn the chicken breast up in the rack. Cook another 30 minutes. If you desire, baste the bird every 10 minutes or so after the first half hour, brushing it with a mixture of melted butter and oil.
The chicken may now be done. It may not. There are a number of traditional methods by which cooks check. In his valuable book "The Complete Chicken" Carl Jerome labels them "piercers" (those who stick a pronged fork into the thigh, hoping the juices that escape will be clear), "pushers" (those who press the bird with a finger and judge how cooked it is by the firmness of the flesh) and "jigglers" (those who tug a leg, believing the chicken is cooked when the leg moves easily). You can't jiggle a trussed chicken leg, you may as well cross your fingers as perform the finger test, and if the juices the fork releases run clear, the chicken probably is overcooked already.
Jerome recommends using an instant-read thermometer (inserted in the thigh without touching the bone) and calls the chicken done when it reads 165 degrees. If you are nervous, or can't stand a slightly pink color around the joint, cook the bird another five to 10 minutes. Do not cook it to 180 or 190, as indicated in some guides.
Remove the chicken from the pan. Pour juices from the cavity into the pan drippings or into the stock or sauce you may have prepared. Let the bird rest for at least 10 minutes before carving it.
Spoon most of the fat from the pan. Add a cup of broth, wine, water or some combination of them. Bring to a boil, scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon and watch a light brown sauce form. Season with salt and pepper, pour it into a sauceboat and spoon it over the chicken at the tables. If the drippings have scorched and burned in the pan, don't try to make a sauce. For a thickened sauce, add 2 tablespoons of flour to the drippings, cook and stir for at least a minute, then add the liquid. Continue stirring until the sauce is of even consistency.
That'all there is to it. Remember to turn the oven off and don't worry if all the chicken isn't eaten. It tastes very good cold, too, and makes a wonderful sandwich on firm white bread with homemade mayonnaise, salt and a generous sprinkling of either freshly ground black or cayenne pepper.
Now to deal with a few of the complications that can make something so easy seem very difficult.
First, time: There are no shortcuts, other than the high heat method. Conventional (food industry) wisdom has you cook at low heat to reduce shrinkage. Even if you promised your great-aunt Edna you never would turn the oven higher than 400 degrees, do so when roasting a chicken. At the least, make a compromise. Begin cooking the bird at 425 so the skin will be seared and help keep the juices in. Then, if you must, turn down the temperature to 375 or 350.
Second, flavoring ingredients: You may fill the cavity with almost any vegetable or fruit, or combination thereof, that appeals to you. You don't have to, though.
A chicken intended for roasting also may be stuffed. I have no objection to that practice, I just don't indulge in it often. Almost any stuffing that will do for turkey or duck can be used with chicken, though I find sausage and other meat stuffings tend to take over and place the chicken meat in a supporting role. Allow about 1 cup of stuffing per pound for a three-to-four-pound chicken and pack it loosely.
Third, a rack. It lifts the bird above the pan and allows it to cook more evenly. Use one.
Fourth, basting: Some methods for roasting chicken have the cook opening the oven door so oten to baste the bird that you wonder how it cooks at all. Other cooks cover the breast with butter-saturated cheesecloth or strips of bacon. Let them. If you are into basting (a tiny minority contends basting produces a drier, not a moister, chicken), you can rub butter inside the bird, over or under the skin and combine it and some oil in the roasting pan.Use a brush and work quickly. Do not try to increase the amount of basting liquid by placing broth or water in the pan. It will produce steam, which leads to the soggy skin kids love to hate. It is better to have some melted butter and oil available atop the stove for basting.
Fifth, sauces: It is a good idea to use the innards (except the liver), plus wing tips, some carrot and onion and 1 1/2 or two cups of water to make a broth. Just allow it to simmer atop the stove while the chicken cooks. Add it to the pan juices. Cream can be used as well, and more complex sauces can be created from such a base with the use of mushrooms, cream, and brandy. An herb butter can be spread on the chicken once it has been carved.
Carving, also, can be as intricate as you care to make it. A fairly simple method is to cut in toward the breast bone an inch or so above each wing, then cut down the bone until the knife frees the wing with a piece of breast meat attached. (This is, for the congnoscenti, the choicest morsel of all.) Cut through the skin around the leg, push it back to reveal the socket, sever the leg and cut through the joint to separate the thigh and drumstick. Slice strips of meat from the breast, or use shears and cut the breast into two or four pieces. This provides eight or 10 pieces. The carver probably will find a way to reserve the oysters, the twin circles of meat tucked under the backbone, for him-or herself.