Great restaurants are beguiling, addictive places that create dishes so captivating that guests are rendered awestruck and wanting more. Great chefs—people like Keller, Achatz, Goin, Adria, Batali, Waters–can turn ordinary diners into devotees with just one astonishing, well-made morsel. Transformed diners are rendered helpless and willing to do anything to recreate those first orgiastic moments of consumption. Sometimes, these dish-craving regulars beg the chef for the recipe. Or, if the guest happens to frequent an especially popular restaurant, they buy the cookbook and pray that their skills are up to the task of recreating the dish of their obsession.
Then there are other times, when diners come to know a great chef via their cookbook first. In lean times such as these, cookbooks are a food lover’s best tool to getting to know the style and flavors of our world’s best chefs from the comfort of their own home.
Zuni Café Cookbook
Though I have never been to Zuni Café in San Francisco, I consider myself a fan. Not only are Chef Judy Rodger’s recipes easy to follow and well constructed, her cookbook is written to teach the reader how to think like a chef. Her words are clear, direct and always informative. Reading a Judy Rodger’s recipe is like going to cooking school, one recipe at a time.
Last week I shared with you the Zuni Café restaurant’s recipe for Chocolate pots de Crème, this week I’d like to offer some insights into one of Rodger’s most celebrated dishes: Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad.
First off, if you don’t own a copy of Zuni Café Cookbook go out and buy one now (here’s a link to Powell’s so you can get your copy in the mail ASAP). Beyond amazing recipes, there are entire chapters dedicated to educating home cooks. Chapters like “What to Think About Before You Start, and While You Are Cooking” give home chefs important insights and insider tips that can make the difference between a good dish and a great dish.
Though this recipe has a lot of steps, they are all worth it in the end. Be sure to plan in advance for this recipe, as it does require one or more days to pre-season the chicken. I only buy birds from farmers I trust or purchase whole free-range birds at Whole Foods. The fresher the bird, the better.
Zuni Roast Chicken
2-4 Servings (depending on the size of the bird you purchase)For the Chicken:
One small bird (2-3/4 to 3-1/2 pounds)
Fresh herbs thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 4 sprigs
About ¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
A little water
For the Salad:
1 loaf or large baguette of slightly stale, open-crumbed, chewy peasant-style bread (you will need about 4 cups or more of bread)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1.5 tablespoons Champagne vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried currants (or raisins)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or as needed
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons almonds (or pine nuts)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
¼ cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions) including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted Chicken Stock or lightly salted water
1-2 cups mixed greens (Arugula, frisee or red mustard greens), carefully washed and rinsed
Seasoning the Chicken:
**You will need 1 to 3 days to pre-season the bird before cooking; for birds bigger than 3 pounds, give at least 2 days to season.
Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry inside and out. Be very thorough on this, a we chicken will ruin the cooking process.
Separate the skin from the meat, using your fingers. Be careful not to rip the skin as you slip your fingers between the skin and the breast meat. Slip sprigs of herbs into the two pockets you have created over the breast meat. Then, loosen the skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the pockets.
Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper. A little less than a teaspoon of salt per pound is recommended. Season the thick sections a more heavily than the ankles or wings. Sprinkle a little salt into the cavity but don’t go overboard with the salting inside. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Bread Salad (can be made several hours in advance):
Preheat the broiler. Cut the bread into large chunks. Carve off the bottom and most of the top crust of the bread (reserve these scraps for breadcrumbs for another recipe). Brush the bread or lightly toss with olive oil. Place on a sheet tray and broil briefly to crisp and brown the surface. Remove from broiler and flip the bread in order to evenly cook all sides. When the bread has browned, remove from oven. Trim off any charred bits. Tear the chunks into irregular sized pieces. This should make about 4 cups. If you have more, so be it. The bread salad tends to go fast!
Combine about ¼ cup of the olive oil with the Champagne vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss ¼ of this vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl. Taste one of the more saturated pieces of bread for seasoning. If bland, add more seasoning and toss again.
Place the currants or raisins in a small bowl with some warm water and red wine vinegar to moisten. Set aside.
Roasting the Chicken and Assembling the Salad:
Preheat the oven to 475˚. Choose a roasting pan or a cast iron skillet large enough to hold your bird. Preheat the pan on medium high heat. Wipe the chicken dry and add to the pan. It should sizzle. Remove from heat and place the skillet in the oven. Listen for sizzling. It should brown within 20 minutes. If the chicken doesn’t brown, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister—but if it starts to char tent the skin with tinfoil and reduce the temperature by 25 degrees.
After about 30 minutes, take the bird out of the oven and turn the bird over (this part is hard, so be prepared with the right utensils and an oven proof mitt). Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the bird. Total cooking time should be about 45 minutes to an hour. *Take a temperature from the thickest part of the chicken: the internal temperature should read 165˚ when it’s ready.
Meanwhile, as the chicken roasts, place the nuts in a small baking dish and set in the hot oven for a minute or two to warm. Add the nuts to the bread salad bowl.
Place a spoonful of olive oil in a small skillet and then add the garlic and scallions and cook over medium-low heat. Stir constantly and just until softened. Don’t over cook so that the scallions lose their color. Scrape these into the bread bowl and fold to combine. Drain the currants and add to bread salad. Add the chicken stock and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread (the saturated pieces) and add salt pepper or a few drops of vinegar if needed.
Pile bread salad into a baking dish and tent with foil. Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken a final time.
Finishing and serving the chicken and bread salad:
Remove the chicken from the oven. Turn off the oven and put the bread salad inside to keep warm. Lift the chicken from the skillet and set on a plate. Pour the clear fat from the pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan to loosen the juices.
Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken to release juices. Tilt the bird and plate over the skillet to collect the drippings.
Set the chicken on top of the stove to stay warm while you finish preparing the bread salad. Place your serving platter in the oven to warm it up.
Place the skillet over medium-low heat and add any juice that’s collected under the chicken. Bring to a simmer. Using a wooden spoon scrape up the hard, golden drippings. Taste.
Remove the bread salad from oven and return it to the salad bowl. Drizzle the warm bread salad with a generous spoonful of the pan juices and then add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette and mix well. Taste for seasoning.
Cut the chicken into pieces. Put the seasoned bread salad onto the warm serving platter and top with the chicken.
Enjoy! This is a perfect Sunday Supper that will, if you’re lucky, leave you enough for left-overs the next day!