My Aunt Margaret has been a vegetarian for decades, but during a discussion some years ago about cooking a whole chicken, she directed me to a technique detailed in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. I had seen this very poulet rôti recipe before as I browsed Volume I, but it seemed so simple–only salt, pepper, and butter; regular basting, and turning the chicken to ensure even cooking. “Better than rotisserie,” Margaret told me. “I used to prepare it often.”
I was staying with her and my Aunt Tina for the weekend in Connecticut. Tina was game if I wanted to give it a try, so I did. It came out magnificently, and I have prepared roast chicken roughly twice a month since, using a technique slightly adapted from what I learned that evening.
Not that I would say I improved on what Julia Child did, but I found myself impatient with the frequency of turning the chicken on its side and onto its breast. I was also concerned about tearing the skin, which is such an important part of the presentation. For this reason, I have simplified the process somewhat and added some elements that have made this semi-monthly ritual truly my own.
First, I have altered the function of the roasting pan. The chicken does not rest directly in it. Instead, I fill it with mirepoix (diced celery, onions, and carrots) and a little white wine. This becomes important because the vegetables lend flavor to the pan, whose fluids are used for basting. The celery also lends browning agents to the fluid, and the skin takes on a richer color.
Also, I usually put the giblets into the pan as well. If I make gravy, I can strain off the juices. This is not for everyone, of course.
For my technique, I have reduced the number of turns of the chicken to one. I place a rack on top of the roasting pan with a folded layer of greased foil to prevent the skin from sticking to the rack. I roast the bird for an hour, breast side down, then I turn it over, and I use the foil to keep the breast covered for another fifteen minutes or so, making sure the legs are exposed. I want the dark meat to cook faster than the breast and end up 20 to 30 degrees warmer.
I also use a larger bird for this recipe, a roaster, which can be up to twice the weight of regular chickens. The favor is a little deeper because the bird is more mature, and the overall size enables the skin to cook longer. Again, a deep brown color to the skin adds much to the presentation and the flavor.
And one more discovery has helped with the browning. One time, some guests called to inform me of a two-hour delay in their arrival. Just as the thermometer in the breast reached about 155 degrees, I turned the oven off but left the bird in. The temperature reached 165, then fell over the next hour and a half to about 120. This fortuitously enabled me brown the skin even further for about a half an hour until the thermometer read 160 again.
If I am by myself, a seven-pound roaster goes a long way. After I eat that first evening, I can save a significant portion of the breast meat to make chicken salad the next day. Of course, I save the dark meat and the carcass to make soup, which can last several days.
If I am cooking for guests, however, one roaster can serve about six people. I usually make string beans almondine and buttered carrots for sides. Sometimes, I make mashed potatoes, using the pan juices, of course, to prepare gravy.
Tonight, however, it’s going to be simple: chicken, carrots, and string beans.
I have included below a chicken liver hors d’oeuvre that I always make when I roast a chicken. Enjoy.
one seven-pound roaster
one stick of butter, softened
one onion, two stalks of celery, and two carrots, diced to make mirepoix
salt and pepper (chopped fresh herbs are welcome but not necessary–sage, rosemary, and thyme)
one-quarter cup of white wine
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the mirepoix and wine in the roasting pan.
Unwrap the chicken, pat dry completely, and rub inside and out with butter and seasonings. Add any leftover butter to the roasting pan.
Put a rack across the top of the roasting pan, and place the chicken breast-side-down on top of a greased sheet of foil folded in half. Roast the bird for about an hour, so the skin on its back becomes golden and crispy.
Take the pan out of the oven, turn the bird on its back, and use the foil to cover tightly all of the breast meat. Take care that the legs are exposed. Place a thermometer into one of the thighs. Roast for about 15 to 20 minutes until the thermometer reads about 150 or 160 degrees.
Take the bird out, remove the foil, and baste with a brush dipped into the pan juices. Place a thermometer into the breast. Roast until the breast thermometer reads 160, basting every ten minutes. Depending on the bird, you may be able to ride the thigh thermometer up to about 190 degrees.
NOTE: Because I take no chances with foodborne pathogens, I remove the bird from the oven when the thermometers indicate the desired temperatures, and I place a third thermometer into the cavity. I wrap the entire bird tightly in foil and let it rest for about 20 minutes. By that time, I usually unwrap the bird to discover that the cavity thermometer reads over 160, and the breast has not exceeded 170. I then let the bird rest a few more minutes before carving.
Hors d’Oeuvre: Chicken Livers Wrapped in Bacon
Use as many chicken livers as you need to accommodate your guests, cutting the livers in half if necessary so no pieces exceed an inch and a half.
Wrap each piece in a half strip of bacon. Place a toothpick through each to hold everything together.
Bake at 375 degrees on a greased baking sheet for 20 to 30 minutes until the bacon is crispy and the liver is firm. I typically do this while the chicken is in the oven, just after I turn it onto its back.
This hors d’oeuvre goes well with cocktails.