Photo: Mark Iantosca
Some people say that to see the true measure of a cook, have him make you a roast chicken. I find this statement to be slightly ridiculous because, truly, a roast chicken is one of the simplest, easiest, most pleasurable things you can make. Cinnamon buns—now THAT seems like a true test (but then again, I have a long-standing fear of working with yeast). Or a precisely seasoned, tender boeuf bourgignon, or even a perfect, delicate poached egg—those are the real trials of culinary skill.
But roast chicken? It practically makes itself. Seriously. There’s not much you can do to mess this one up. The best roast chickens I’ve ever eaten have been in Paris. There’s a restaurant in the Quartier Latin tucked away on a little street called Rue Thenard named Le Pre Verre that served me the most unforgettable roast chicken a few years ago during a cold spring trip in mid-March. I’ll never forget the crisp, crackling outer skin that broke open under my fork, revealing a juicy inner bird that practically melted in my mouth.
There have been others here in the States that I’ve eaten with almost-equal relish. The brick chicken at Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example is divine, as is the wonderfully garlicky chicken for two that is served at Locanda Verde in TriBeCa. But the roasts in Paris will always have a slight edge, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer lies in butter. Those Frenchies have never been afraid of a good hunk of fat, and it shows in the rich, bordering-on-extravagant taste of their chickens.
Don’t get me wrong—a good coating of olive oil will turn out a fantastic bird, but there’s nothing like slathering your chicken with an excellent brand of softened butter before sliding into the oven to guarantee the tastiest meal imaginable. I usually go with a recipe that I’ve adapted from one of my favorite food books, “Roast Chicken and Other Stories,” by Simon Hopkinson. And unsurprisingly, his recipe is based on a roast chicken he enjoyed in the City of Lights, as well. Hopkinson—he’s a man after my own heart.
Try it. You won’t be sorry.
P.S. Another key to a perfect roast chicken is in the shopping. If you choose your ingredients carefully, the rest falls into place. Buy the best organic chicken you can afford. Get fresh herbs and bright, ripe lemons. It’s worth it for this dish.
(Tastiest) Roast Chicken
1/2 cup good butter, at room temperature
3-4 lb organic free-range chicken
salt and pepper
several sprigs of thyme or tarragon, or a mixture of the two
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
Rinse the chicken with cold water, remove the giblets, and pat dry with paper towels. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Smear the butter with your hands all over the bird. Put the chicken in a roasting pan that will accommodate it with room to spare. Season liberally with salt and pepper and squeeze the juice of one lemon all over it. Put the herbs and the garlic into the cavity, together with the squeezed-out lemon halves.
Roast the chicken in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Baste, then turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and roast for another 30-45 minutes with occasional basting. The bird will be golden brown all over with a crisp skin and have buttery, lemony juices in the bottom of the pan.
Carve the bird as you like. With this roasting method, there's no need to worry about making a separate gravy--the juices in the pan is a perfect amalgamation of butter, lemon juice, and chicken juices and that's all you need. Give it a little whisk and you have the most wonderful gravy imaginable.