Becca’s parents came for Sunday lunch last week, and we’d originally planned to eat out on the patio area at the end of the garden that we’ve newly liberated from undergrowth and general debris. Maybe a barbeque, maybe a version of that smoked mackerel salad I wrote up a few weeks ago. This plan, of course, was weather dependent, so, of course, after weeks of almost unbroken sunshine, this was the weekend it chose to piss down. I would demand thanks from the farmers of Britain, but I think our Sunday lunch plans, if they played a part at all, would have been a very small part in guaranteeing rain compared to BBC Radio 5Live spending the whole week trailing the “Drought Special” they’d be running that Friday. A special which I gather ended up consisting of reporters standing out in fields in East Anglia like so many drowned rats, shouting to make themselves heard over the deluge, and insisting that, no, really, farming was in crisis on account of he unprecedented and catastrophic absence of the very thing that was presently threatening to wash them into the North Sea. Ah, God, gotta love him. He may display a dismayingly laissez faire attitude when it comes to war, pestilence, famine, and, indeed, drought, but he does do a nice line in irony.
So, abandoning plans for eating al fresco, a roast chicken seemed the obvious choice. And obvious doesn’t necessarily mean bland, or boring, or bad. Innovation and originality are virtues in cooking as in all other areas of life, but the tried and trusted and the familiar have their places too. Culinary tradition is generally regarded as a good thing – something people are having to work hard to revive in Britain – yet how would tradition come about if everyone had always conformed to the pressure to innovate. What if everyone had always said, ‘no, we couldn’t possibly roast a chicken this weekend, we had roast chicken last week, or the people next door did, or we hear some people in the next village did last month.” What then? Well, we’d miss out on a lot of roast chicken, for a start – that’s what then. And that would be terrible. On the other hand, we’d be spared all that guff about ‘authenticity’, so, swings and roundabouts, as, indeed, in all other areas of life…
Becca looked at me askance when I chose the big fat organic chicken at the farmers market that came to £12.50. Yes it was more chicken than we needed for lunch for four, but that was exactly what made it good value. It wouldn’t just do Sunday lunch for four, but there’d be meat enough left over to make Monday night dinner for two, plus several rounds of sandwiches, and then the carcass would be good for enough stock to make a risotto say, and a soup big enough for a dinner in it’s own right. Which makes £12.50 stretch a long way. And yes, you can pay a lot less for a similar sized chicken, but do I really need to rehearse that argument for the benefit of anyone reading this blog? I’m sure I don’t, but to summarise briefly, not only is cheap (i.e factory farmed) chicken ethically just plain wrong, it’s nutritionally poor, tastes of (at best) nothing, and any stock derived from it might as well be water (which is what it will largely consist of in the first place. Water and antibiotics, which is a whole other reason to have nothing to do with it). So just don’t, okay? Becca’s askance look was just a flicker. Gone before I had to even think about justifying myself. Let alone the chicken.
Like the factory chicken argument – just don’t – I hardly feel I need to tell you how to roast a chicken. That’s pretty much grandmother and sucking eggs territory (why that expression, by the way? Whose grandmother ever sucked eggs? Who sucks eggs full stop?). Needless to say, though, when I roast a chicken, I don’t smother it in butter – although, I confess, before Becca, I would have done. Olive oil and lemon juice do the job just as well, and are unarguably healthier – even if you’re not allergic to the butter – but that’s not the reason I’d choose them now even if I was roasting a chicken for a meal Becca wasn’t eating. I’d do that because I’ve come to think it tastes better – lighter and fresher – particularly for a roast chicken in the summer, even if it is peeing it down outside.
I rub the outside of the bird in the zest and juice of a lemon, plenty of olive oil, a scattering of thyme leaves pulled fresh from the pot on the flat roof of the bathroom, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, of course, inside the bird as well as out (I do have a tip here, and that’s to pregrind and mix your pepper and salt – I use my pestle and mortar – so you can scatter it single handed, meaning you have an available hand to manipulate the bird). I stuff the inside with the squeezed halves of the lemon used to dress the outside, a lightly crushed head of garlic and halve another lemon, squeeze it and chuck that in for good measure, along with a handful of hard herbs (thyme, rosemary and sage).
Then I roast it, either directly in a roasting dish, or, because in my oven I can, on the rotisserie. Rotisserie roasting has the advantage to the chicken of magically keeping most of the juices on the inside, producing deliciously moist, tender and richly seasoned flesh. It is, however, to the disadvantage of any veg you’re roasting with your chicken, because, obviously, for the same reason, there are fewer tasty chicken juices dripping all over them (unlike the truly wonderfully chickeny roast potatoes you can get from an Italian Rosticceria, but then they have the advantage of having twenty chickens turning on a rack over them). Once again, swings and roundabouts. On balance though, I’d have to say, rotisserie every time. And if you find yourself in the market for a new oven, try and find one with the option.
Whatever roasting method you use, the basic technique’s the same. Start the oven good and hot – at least 220 – for the first 20 minutes, then turn it down to around 160 for 45 minutes to an hour – more or less, depending on the size of the bird. When it’s done the juices should run clear and the legs pull off with a gentle tug and a twist. Leave it to rest for at least twenty minutes before carving or jointing – I prefer jointing. Just pull off the legs and wings, then run your kinf down either side of the breast bone and slice off each breast as a single piece. Big chunks of meat are, to my mind, always more satisfying than itty bitty slices.
It still (just) being the season, I served this chicken with roasted Jersey Royals and asparagus (plus a few shallots). I brought the potatoes to the boil in a pan for just ten minutes, dropped in the trimmed asparagus spears to blanch right at the end of those ten minutes, and drained almost immediately. Then I tossed the potatoes and asparagus together in more salt, pepper, lemon juice and zest and olive oil – you could also add some rosemary and/or thyme - and put them in to roast in the tray, either around the chicken, or in this case under it, for the last twenty minutes or so (having already put the shallots in at the time of turning the oven temperature down). When you take the chicken out to rest you might want to whack the heat up again for a few minutes, just to get the potatoes nice and golden.
The next day the weather had improved, a bit, and only temporarily, but enough to make a salad in order for dinner. Which was good. Because a chicken, bacon and avocado salad was quick, easy and delicious – almost ridiculously so on every count. And I’m entirely sure I don’t need to tell you how to make one of those…
|Chicken, avocado and bacon salad, with rocket, romaine, red onion, cherry tomatoes, parsley and basil, and sauteed potatoes on the side.|