Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Perfect Roast Chicken

When planning a menu I try to think about many things, and there are certain rules I (*usually try to*) follow whether it's for a fancier party-type sit down dinner or just something for a weeknight meal.

For instance, I like to have one item as the "main attraction"... but it's not necessarily the main (meat) dish that plays this role. If I choose a side such as a fancy pasta with lots of vegetables, I might have a more plain and simple pan roasted chicken breast. It can be eaten with the pasta and not vie for attention... instead the flavor melds well with the pasta.

There's a possibility of one dish not really fitting with another- one flavor may not go well with the others. For example, I personally don't think I would want a very spicy, garlicky beef to go with a mushroom risotto. The risotto has it's own flavors that should be allowed to shine, but they would be totally overpowered and completely lost- taste buds might be numbed by the peppery and garlicky meat. In this instance I would go for a more subtle risotto, something plain, or maybe potatoes or rice pilaf.

Sometimes it's good to think in a "territorial" way when planning a menu. If you're having something Italian-inspired, something else that's Indian may not fit so well in the meal. "Mediterranean" may work a little better (this might include something a little Greek or French- at least they're more feasible than Indian).

Color is also important. Food is "eaten" with all the senses. It has to LOOK good. Boiled chicken, mashed potatoes, and cauliflower anyone?
Green is good! As many colors as you can get on a plate is good!

Seasonality is something else to think about in many respects. You wouldn't want to serve fresh peaches in the middle of winter, right? Other than the fact that it just seems wrong, they wouldn't taste very good since they're not in season (and if you do find them, since they're probably imported from somewhere in the southern hemisphere, they've been picked before they're ripe and have no flavor).
Meals in the summer can be much nicer if they're lighter, on the contrary it can be great to have a hearty roast or stew in the winter.

Along with flavor variety, textural variety can also be very important! It makes things interesting. Think about salads: it's nice if they have something a little creamy (bleu cheese), crunchy (toasted walnuts), crisp (greens and some fresh pears), and chewy (dried cranberries).

If the main part of the meal is extremely fancy and busy, I usually like to try to start with a more simple salad, such as good greens and a good, fresh homemade vinaigrette.

As for dessert, I think its good to pay attention to what will compliment the dinner well. Rich and heavy dinner? Maybe it's best to not have a dessert that's too heavy such as a flourless chocolate cake or something extremely cream-based. There's a chance that people won't even be able to eat more than a bite with any enjoyment (or maybe they won't really taste it at all).
Something lighter and fruit-based may be more in order in this case.
Balance can be so important!

There are some that may know I do have a certain repertoire, some certain standbys that I really like to do because I've found they just work well over and over again. In my organized state I try to have these things filed in an orderly manner under tabs such as "mains", "salads", "potato, rice, etc.", and "vegetables". Thrilling, yes. Am I always organized? No.

This particular chicken recipe is great for a weeknight meal. There aren't many ingredients and it doesn't take that much attention, but it tastes wonderful. Depending on what else you serve, this chicken could either be the main attraction or take a supporting role. With the chicken I might serve a nice risotto (plain OR mushroom in this case), polenta, or garlicky mashed potatoes, plus some plain steamed broccoli. The salad I would choose might be very colorful: Greek or something with roasted beets, a little chevre (goat cheese) and avocado on mixed greens. Something chocolate might be very nice for dessert...

The juices you will get from the chicken after carving are very nice served with the chicken. Be careful of the lemon inside though! It's hot and there are holes all over it.
This recipe is based on one from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

It will serve 4-6 people (depending on who you have eating), any more than that (or even if you find yourself wondering) you may want to roast a second chicken. Leftovers are great.

Feel free to take a little creative license with what you put inside. While it is completely fantastic as written with only lemon, salt, and pepper, if you would like you could tuck in some whole garlic cloves, sprigs of rosemary or thyme.

Remember to clean up.

Roast Lemon Chicken

one 3-4 lb. chicken
kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
2 small lemons, or one larger lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Remove any organs that may be inside the chicken and rinse the chicken inside and out with cold water. Place the chicken on a slightly tilted pan and let it drain for about 10 minutes. Pat the chicken inside and out with paper towels. Salt and pepper both the inside and outside of the chicken very well and rub it in. Tuck the and fold the tips of the chicken wings so they come to the backbone side of the chicken (To MAZ: sort of a full nelson for a chicken).
Wash the outside of the lemons with soap and water, rinse, and dry well. Roll the lemon on the counter with the heel of your hand to soften. Poke about 20 holes in the lemons with something sharp (ice pick, knife, skewer). Tuck the lemons into the cavity of the chicken. Cross the drumsticks at the ankles and either tie them together to somewhat close the cavity or use skewers to close the cavity as best you can.
Place the chicken (breast side down) in a 9x13 pan with sides, and put the pan into the oven. Roast for 30 minutes. Turn the chicken over (breast side up) and roast for another 30 minutes. Increase the heat to 400 degrees and roast for 20 minutes longer.
Serve the chicken with its juices.


  1. Natalie's lemon specialties - all things lemon - how to use lemons as taste booster ... Great recipes that teach us how to use lemon effectively and keep it in its place. Thank you very much for this, Natalie!

  2. Mary Anne -that does not belong on a cooking blog.

  3. Well... Mary Anne was responding to something I wrote.

  4. Wrestling? Is that what full nelsons are about?

  5. Yes. It's sort of an inside joke. When we were little we watched wrestling on occasion. It was the mid-80's and the WWF heyday- no, we are not devoted followers. I think I can safely say that neither of us knows anything about wrestling (whether it's faux or the real thing). Just a little terminology, that's it.