Sunday dinner: Arguably a dying tradition, this classic midday meal evokes smells of juicy roasting meat and potatoes crisping alongside it. Or maybe the picture of mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy comes to mind. Then, perhaps a cobbler made with fresh berries or peaches to round things off. Lots of iced tea to wash it all down.
Nowadays, we're more likely to have friends in for a late brunch, flipping pancakes and French toast while listening to NPR's Splendid Table and passing press-pot coffee with the Sunday papers. But with Mother's Day just around the corner on May 11 comes the chance to revive and reinvent this relaxing Southern foodway.
Easy and fragrant, the following roast chicken is not your average meat main dish. Most carnivores are familiar with the grocery store rotisserie variety, picked up hot on the way home from work and served with a salad for a fast weekday dinner. But we're talking here about a bird of a different feather.
The recipe is a basic technique—one with a thousand variations according to herbs in season, and gravy enhancers that might be in the fridge such as mushrooms, wine or shallots. The fun is in personalizing it.
If you buy a free-range chicken (meaning one that has had plenty of room to wander in a farmyard, and eaten decent feed) from a local poultry grower/ vendor at the farmers' market, chances are you're investing in a heritage breed with richer flavors, more tender texture, and "more chicken-y chicken"—to borrow from The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan and his friends' descriptions of such an experience. Happy chickens make happy dinners, no two ways about it. Served with our area's asparagus (just arriving in the markets, but often selling out early) steamed and drizzled in butter, baked sweet potatoes (a year-round crop in the Piedmont), a friendly chardonnay and seasonal strawberries for dessert (see our April 16 Locavore Cooking for a strawberry dessert recipe), you have an oven-easy meal that's fit to fête mom with. No waiting for a table. No reservations or crowds to navigate.
The secret to memorable, succulent roast chicken is buying the best-quality, most locally and humanely bred bird you can find and roasting it in the middle of a hot oven until juices run clear, leg-thigh joint moves easily, and it's crisp golden all over. But not too long; it'll dry out. French country cooks (long considered world experts on poulet roti) like to let a bird cool for 15 to 30 minutes before carving it, to further seal in the juices. I like to roast it in a cast iron skillet so that I can make gravy or season the drippings in the pan after the chicken has been removed and set aside to rest.
1 whole chicken (3-4 pounds) to serve four generously, with leftovers
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
One medium onion, peeled
4-6 whole cloves garlic, peeled
Bundle or large handful of fresh herbs (rosemary, tarragon, thyme, lemon thyme or a combination)
Olive oil for basting
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove giblets and neck from inside the bird, and freeze for later use in stock, if desired. Rinse chicken, pat dry, rub all over (including cavity) with salt, pepper and olive oil. Stuff onion, garlic and herbs (and anything else that strikes your fancy, like a halved lemon, a whole apple) into cavity. At this point, you can tie up, or truss, the chicken's legs with kitchen string to secure the stuffing, but most home cooks I know don't bother. Position the chicken in your pan of choice, breast side up. If you don't have a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, a deep casserole works well, but you can also get by with a 9x13 pan if you watch for splatters and protect the oven with foil. Turn heat down to 375 degrees and throw in your scrubbed-and-pricked-with-fork sweet potatoes to bake simultaneously. Set the timer for 1 hour (less if chicken is smaller). Baste with pan juices if you like, but this isn't necessary.
When juices run clear, it's done. Remove the golden bird with two meat forks to a platter to rest. Skim some of the fat off the pan drippings and transfer to a gravy boat. If you want to thicken juices into gravy, a half-pint of whipping cream added and brought to a simmer will do the trick without much fuss—but then maybe you have a gravy recipe from your mom that you want to use in honor of the occasion.
The going rate for a 4-inch pot of fresh herbs at the farmers' markets in our area is about $4. Even if you were to buy a pot just for your roast chicken you'd be getting a bargain, and most of them would have more than enough for this recipe. One vendor told me about a woman who buys various herb pots once a month, and never plants them, just uses them as is. Considering a small packet of harvested herbs can cost about the same at the store, why not just get the ones still thriving in their dirt? The flavor will be more, and the fragrant pleasure in snipping them is, well, pretty pleasurable. Even folks without a green thumb can grow windowsill herbs, and having seedling containers of them around the kitchen can pave the way for bigger pots and more varieties, many of which are heat-, drought- and neglect-tolerant.