Autumn Eating Part 4: Sunday-night dinner
The idea of Sunday being a day of rest never really actualized itself while growing up, or to be honest, even now – in fact, the day always ends up being somewhat of a scramble to finish the work that I ignored Friday and Saturday. (Anybody else like me?) But the idea of Sunday-night dinner, although quaint, always appealed to me. When the weather turns cooler, there’re few things more satisfying than turning up your oven and taking the time to make a meal that you normally wouldn’t have the time or patience for on a weeknight. And preferably, you eat it with family, or friends, or anyone who qualifies as good, relaxing company.
My ideal Sunday-night dinner during this season is roast chicken with whole, baked sweet potatoes. They both take a good amount of time in the oven, but require little fuss to prepare.
In Cooking for Mr. Latte, Amanda Hesser writes, “If you can roast a chicken, bake a cake and make a simple salad, you will be a prized guest in any home.” I’m pretty confident with the latter two, but having grown up in an Indian-vegetarian household, my roast chicken expertise is definitely not fully-formed. Roast chicken is also somewhat of a doctrine-like area: people can be pretty passionate when discussing what method works best.
As someone who did not come to this naturally, I read as much as possible about the many different methods. Having now done this more than few times, I’ve come to develop my own hard-set rules. Here’s what works best for me:
1. Start with a chicken that’s as dry as possible; cook in a very hot oven. I’m in the Thomas Keller and Zuni Cafe camp that insists on having a chicken that follows these two things. After rinsing the chicken, I make sure I pat it dry to an extreme, and I always roast in a very, very hot oven (475-500 degrees F. After about 20 minutes at this temperature, I lower it to 400 degrees) The idea here is that you want to avoid the bird steaming while in the oven – you want the skin to get really crisp.
2. Salt, salt, salt, salt. You really can’t use too much. Some people insist that you salt a whole day before, which is a good idea, but if you forget to do it, that’s ok too. I like to rinse, pat dry, and then use my hands to rub sea salt all over the chicken, including the cavity. I then re-salt later when rubbing the herbs and oil into the flesh and skin.
3. Butter over olive oil; focus on the flesh. My favorite method is to mix olive oil with sea salt and whatever dried herbs I want to use in a little bowl, then use a pastry brush and my hands to rub it all over the bird. It’s very important that this doesn’t just go on the skin; make sure to peel the skin up so the olive oil mixture gets straight onto the flesh.
4. Fill the cavity. I like to put a lemon and some garlic cloves in the cavity; fresh herbs are great too if you have it. I also like to put a few garlic cloves or herb sprigs under some skin pockets.
Whole Roast Chicken
Here is my basic procedure:
Take chicken from fridge and let it get to room temperature on your counter. Pre-heat oven to 475 degrees F. Unwrap from plastic and remove giblet from its cavity. Rinse chicken and pat as dry as possible. Take copious amounts of sea salt and rub all over the bird, including the cavity. Pour about 4 tablespoons of olive oil into a little bowl, and add in sea salt and dried herbs (about 1 tablespoon each.) I use an all-purpose dried herb mix, but thyme, rosemary, etc. works well. Stir with a pastry brush, and use brush to cover bird all over with mixture, making sure that you lift pockets of the skin to get the flesh itself coated with the oil. Make more oil mixture as necessary. Cut 1 lemon in half, and squeeze on front and back of chicken. Put squeezed lemon half into the chicken cavity, along with a few peeled garlic cloves.
Place bird in oven and let roast at high temperature for about 20 minutes, before lowering the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Baste the chicken with its own juices at the 40 minute and hour mark. Let roast for a little over an hour, or until your meat thermometer reads 160 degrees F. Let rest for about 15 minutes before carving.
Here are some links to other well-explained methods. Too much to choose from? Thomas Keller is pretty much fail-proof.
Baked Sweet Potatoes
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees farenheight (or add when you lower the oven temperature for your roast chicken.) You will need 1 sweet potato (or 1/2 a sweet potato) per person. Prick each potato all over with forks. Place in a foil lined baking tray and bake for about 45 minutes, or until tender. Split in the middle and sprinkle salt and pepper in the middle – add butter too, if you’d like.