I know, I know, this is everyone’s favorite chicken. It’s like I’ve been standing in line this whole time, and somehow I still missed the boat. I own the Zuni Café cookbook. I ate there when I was in San Francisco, and now that I think about it, though we didn’t dine on what must be the most famous chicken in America, I think the ladies at the table next to us did. I honestly can’t even remember who or what finally nudged me towards this chicken, but whomever or whatever you are – thank you. This is mighty fine stuff.
The secret to the chicken, according to Judy Rogers, is to buy a small bird, roast it at a very high temperature, and season it at least 24 hours in advance. Small bird: check, high temperature (despite 90 degree Boston heat, yes I’m totally crazy): check, 24 hour advance seasoning: um, yeah, about that. I seasoned this baby a good 8 hours (morning of) in advance, and seeing as it was definitely one of the moistest and most flavorful chickens to ever emerge from my oven, I can only say a few extra hours couldn’t hurt.
Though it would seem the chicken here is the shining star, the bread salad I think deserves some serious credit too. Part panzanella, part thanksgiving stuffing, this is like no bread salad I’ve ever eaten before. It’s textural magic – broiled and crispy, then steamed with vinaigrette and chicken juices to yield a mixture of crispy bits and softly soaked morsels. Add in some summer greens, and this is chicken dinner you can eat in July. Maybe because the original incarnation yields from sunny San Francisco, but I can’t picture eating this in January – something about a rustic platter of bread chunks, leafy greens, and perfect chicken screams for the outdoors and a cold bottle of Sancerre. Though, I would understand if something about the hour in the oven at 475 degrees had you thinking otherwise, but then of course, you’d have to wait for cooler weather to make this chicken, and that would be such a shame. Serves 4.
For the Chicken
1 small chicken, 2 ¾ – 3 ½ pounds
A few sprigs of thyme, marjoram, or sage
Salt and pepper
For the Salad
1 medium loaf of rustic peasant style bread (I used Iggy’s Fracese), not sourdough
6 to 8 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsp white wine or champagne vinegar
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp sultanas
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp warm water
2 tbsp pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
4 scallions, finely chopped, some green included
2-4 tbsp chicken stock
A few handfuls greens of your choice, washed and dried
The original Zuni recipe is kind of insanely long, especially for what is in its essence, a completely unpretentious rustic dish. I did my best to keep it simple and lesson the load a bit. Here goes:
Prepare the Chicken (1-2 days in advance, or er, 8 hours in advance)
Cut away the piece of fat inside the chicken. Wash and very thoroughly dry the chicken. (A wet chicken will steam instead of roast.) Lift the skin away from the breasts and insert the herbs under the skin. Generously season the chicken with salt – both sides and in the cavity. Sprinkle with cracked pepper, and set aside in the refrigerator.
Prepare the Bread Salad
Preheat the broiler.
Cut most of the crust off of the top, bottom, and sides of your loaf of bread. (Save these for bread crumbs or croutons.) Cut the loaf into pieces narrow enough to fit under the broiler – 4 to 6 total. Brush both sides of the bread with a little olive oil and broil until crispy, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and cool. Once cool, break the bread into bit sized chunks, discarding any charred bits. Put the chunks in an oven safe baking pan or casserole dish with a lid.
Whisk together ¼ cup of olive oil with the white wine or champagne vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss most of the vinaigrette with the bread, reserving a little to drizzle on at the very end.
Place the sultanas in a small bowl and top with the red wine vinegar and the warm water to soak. Set aside.
Roast the Chicken and Assemble the Salad
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Place a 10 inch oven safe pan or skillet in the oven to preheat. Once hot, put the prepared chicken on the pan and roast for 20 minutes. Check to see that the chicken is blistered and sizzling, but not charred. Adjust the heat up or down (25 degrees max) as needed and roast and additional 10 minutes. (I, being masochistic in the July heat, increased the temperature to 500 degrees.)
At this point, flip the chicken over and roast an additional 10-20 minutes upside down. Then, flip the chicken once more to crisp the breast, roasting for 5-10 minutes more. Total roasting time will be 45 minutes to 1 hour. When done, a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh should read 165-170 degrees (the chicken will continue cooking as it rests.) I recommend temping the chicken after the first 30 minutes to get a sense of how much additional roasting time it will need – smaller birds will take less time than larger birds.
While the chicken is roasting, set the pine nuts in a small oven safe dish and warm for 5 minutes. Remove and stir into the bread mixture.
Place a small skillet over medium heat and add 1 tbsp olive oil. Sauté the garlic and scallions until tender, but not colored. Stir into the bread mixture along with the drained sultanas. Dribble the chicken stock into the bread mixture and toss to coat. Taste the bread for seasoning and adjust as needed, keeping in mind that some pieces are more saturated than others; you want a nice balance.
Cover the bread salad with either a lid (if you are using a casserole dish) or tent with tin foil. Place the bread salad in the oven with the chicken after the final flip (for the last 5-10 minutes of roasting.)
Finish and Serve
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn the oven off, leaving the bread salad to continue warming. Carefully lift the chicken from the roasting pan and tilt it to let the juices run into the pan. Set the chicken aside on a plate to rest.
Meanwhile, set the roasting pan over medium heat and stir to scrape up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat off and set aside.
Lay the greens out on a large platter and top with the bread salad. Drizzle with some of the pan juices and the reserved vinaigrette.
Carve the chicken into pieces and lay the pieces on top of the bread. Drizzle with the remaining pan juices and serve at once.