Roast Chicken

Yield: 4 servings
Prep and cooking time: 60 minutes
Difficulty: Beginner

Julia Child once remarked that the toughest test for a skilled cook is roasting a chicken.  She was right: the white meat is usually done long before the dark.  Unless you’re careful, you’ll end with one of two unhappy results: a dry breast and succulent leg meat, or a luscious breast and underdone, rubbery leg meat.

The solution is to begin by roasting the bird breast-side down for about twenty minutes; this gives the legs a head start with plenty of heat while the breast is protected.  The chicken is then turned breast-side up, buttered, salted and peppered, and after another thirty to forty minutes’ cooking, it’s ready with a balance of doneness between dark and white meat.

Don’t stuff or truss the chicken: leaving the legs splayed out, however inelegant it might appear, enables them to cook more thoroughly than the breast, which is essential.

Organization is what makes this menu so easy.  While the chicken is in the oven, you’ll bake the potatoes, make a roux for the gravy, set the table, and do some miscellaneous prep at a relaxed pace.  Everything is planned so that when the chicken comes out of the oven to rest, you’ll have time to finish the gravy, mash the potatoes, and cook the peas.

Chicken ingredients
1 large roasting chicken (4-5 lbs)
1 tbsp whole unsalted butter
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

Mash ingredients
2 lbs baking potatoes (Russet Burbank recommended)
2-3 tbsp whole unsalted butter, softened but not melted
6 oz cream
4 oz whole milk
2 scallions (spring onions)
2 oz freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

Gravy ingredients
2 tbsp whole unsalted butter
3 tbsp all-purpose white flour
2 cups boiling water
2 tsp chicken fat
2 tbsp regular soy sauce (shoyu)
2 tbsp cream
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
Optional: a few dried morel mushrooms

Peas ingredients
2 shallots
2 tbsp whole unsalted butter
2 cups frozen peas
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat your oven to 400 F

2. Pull the excess fat out of the chicken’s cavity and discard. Place it breast-side down on a rack over a sheet pan, season it with salt and black pepper, and roast.

3. As soon as the chicken is in the oven, prick each potato all over with a fork so that steam will escape during cooking, and put them into the oven directly on a rack so that air can circulate around them. The potatoes will cook with the chicken. They both need approximately one hour, which makes them a perfect pair.

4. After 20 minutes’ roasting, remove the chicken from the oven and turn it breast side up. Dress this side of the skin liberally with softened butter, and season it well with salt and pepper.

5. Return the chicken to the oven and roast it for an additional 30-40 minutes. You can now relax, have a drink, set the table, and do your prep for the rest of the meal at a relaxed pace.

Here’s part 2 of the companion video (recipe continues below).

Miscellaneous prep
1. Place 2 tbsp butter in a saucepan over moderate heat and cook it until it stops foaming, but without browning. Add the flour and cook for three minutes, stirring with a spatula, to make a light roux. Take the roux off the heat and leave it in the saucepan until the chicken is done. It’s fine if it gets cold.

2. Chop two shallots into medium dice and set them aside.

3. Mince two scallions very finely using only the white and light-green parts and set them aside.

The final stretch
When the chicken is done, you’ll have to work quickly and efficiently, but you are now well prepared. This will be far easier than you think, so just relax and focus: gravy first, potatoes second, peas last.

1. Remove the chicken to a platter and cover it loosely with foil.

2. Remove excess grease from the sheet pan and reserve it.

3. Boil 2 cups of water and use it to deglaze the pan, taking care to scrape up all the brown bits.

4. Whisk this liquid into the cold roux. Add 1-2 tsp of the reserved chicken fat, the soy sauce and the cream, and the dried morels if you’re using them, and bring the mixture to a boil while stirring. Turn down the heat and add any juices from the resting chicken. The gravy can be kept on the stove over low heat until needed; it will form a skin, but you can strain it into a bowl just before serving.

5. Now it’s time to finish the potatoes. First, put the cream, milk, and butter into a small bowl and heat this mixture to simmering in the microwave.

6. Remove the potatoes and turn the oven off, leaving the door slightly ajar. Split the potatoes and scoop the flesh into a bowl suitable for serving. Work the butter in with a fork. When all of the butter has been incorporated, add the hot mixture of cream, milk and scallions a few ounces at a time. If the potatoes are fully cooked, they’ll break up easily.

7. Grate on the Parmesan cheese, season liberally with salt and black pepper, and fold everything together with a fork. Wipe down the bowl, and place it in the oven with the door slightly ajar and the heat turned off to keep it warm until service.

You’re in the zone: the chicken is resting; the gravy is finished and hot on a back burner; the potatoes are ready and warm in the oven. Everything is under control.

8. It’s time for the peas, which must be served within minutes of cooking and are therefore done last. First, melt the butter in a medium saucepan and add the shallots along with a pinch of salt. Sweat the shallots briefly without browning.

9. Add the frozen peas and cover the pan. Let them steam, covered, over medium heat for three to five minutes, stirring occasionally. Moisture from the peas will mix with the butter and create a light sauce.

10. Taste the gravy, the potatoes, and the peas carefully for seasoning and correct as needed. Put the peas into a serving bowl, strain the gravy into a warm bowl, and take the mashed potatoes out of the oven.

Dinner is served.

Regarding potatoes

To this day, I’ve yet to read a recipe or watch a TV demonstration showing mashed potatoes done correctly.  Inevitably, the spuds are boiled before mashing.  This couldn’t be more wrong: boiling dilutes flavor and reduces the amount of milk and cream the potatoes will take.  Other errors include whipping them, which causes the protein to amalgamate and produces a gluey, pasty mass, and using the wrong type of potato for mashing.

Potatoes can be classified informally as waxy, starchy, and floury.  So-called waxy potatoes contain the least solids the most water, and are good for boiling, roasting, gratinées, hash browns, potato pancakes, and potato salads; they keep their shape and integrity when cooked.  But this property, however desirable in its place, is the last thing we want for our mash.  Examples of waxy potatoes include the Cara, Charlotte, Maris Bard, Jersey Royal, Pink Fir Apple, so-called “new” potatoes and “salad” potatoes, the Yukon gold, Red Rose, White Rose, and the standard American red potato.  Waxy potatoes should never be used for deep frying because, as the excess water inside them evaporates, oil replaces it.

Floury potatoes are those with the most starch; they’re often recommended for mashing, but they’re so terribly starchy that the texture will feel dry in the mouth no matter how much cream and butter you add.  These contain the least water and the most solids, and will therefore not pick up much oil when deep fried, which makes them ideal for this purpose.  Varieties include the Golden Wonder, British Queen, Edzell Blue, and Shetland Black.  Floury potatoes are the ones to use for French fries, potato chips, pommes soufflés, and in mixtures for dumplings and gnocchi.

Fortunately, there’s a happy medium.  The best mashing spud is a medium-starch, or classic baking potato.  These are starchy enough to hold a good amount of cream and milk, yet strong enough to escape total disintegration.  Always bake them whole in their skins in a hot oven.  This offers several advantages: first, they don’t become waterlogged; second, the high oven temperature browns the outsides and adds flavor; and third, there’s no pot to wash afterwards.  You can prick them, drop them straight onto an oven rack, bake them, then mash them with a fork in the bowl you’ll serve them in.  Acceptable baking potatoes include the Marfona, Estima, Russet Burbank, King Edward, Maris Piper, Desirée and Wilja, the all-purpose Irish rooster, and the Cyprus.

Among these, I strongly prefer two: the English Maris Piper, which is is superb and second only to the finest baker/masher of them all: the American Russet Burbank (aka “Idaho”) potato.  These have a high sugar content that leads to excellent browning under the skin, which in turn brings wonderful flavor to the mash.  The Russet Burbank is the ideal, but watch out: grocers play fast and loose with names.  Sometimes a potato will be labeled according to its use and be called a “baking potato” or a “boiling potato,” say.  Sometimes, a place name or a variety name will be used, but often in a confusing manner.  For example, the Russet Burbank was once produced chiefly in the state of Idaho and is therefore often called an “Idaho potato.”  Unfortunately, many inferior potato varieties are also produced in Idaho and are, not surprisingly, labeled “Idaho potatoes.”  (And to make matters more confusing, the Russet Burbank is now grown elsewhere.)  So, when you’re shopping for potatoes, it’s important to remember that place names and variety names are often interchanged.  You needn’t become an expert, but you should experiment a bit and educate yourself.  Try to identify two or three varieties each of waxy (boiling), starchy (baking/mashing), and floury (deep frying) potatoes that taste good to you and work well, and shop for them by name whenever you can.


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