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Recipes and Stories

22 October 2012: Roast Chicken

A simple roasted chicken is the very essence of autumn's kitchen
For the last two centuries, fried chicken has taken all the attention as the ultimate symbol of Southern cooking. Nothing else, except possibly barbecue, has hogged the limelight nearly so completely—and not without reason. When properly done, it’s one of the loveliest things in any cuisine’s repertory.

But fried chicken is—or, rather, should be—special occasion fare. For me, the simplest, and most satisfying, way of cooking a chicken is roasting, especially at this time of year: the aroma is the very essence of autumn’s kitchen.

Now, nothing could be more straightforward than true roasting. Witness Mary Randolph’s lucid directions:

“To Roast Large Fowls.

Take the fowls when they are ready dressed, put them down to a good fire, dredge and baste them well with lard; they will be near an hour in roasting; make a gravy of the necks and gizzards, strain it, put in a spoonful of brown flour; when you dish them, pour on the gravy, and serve them up with egg sauce in a boat.

To Make Egg Sauce.

Boil four eggs for ten minutes, chop half the whites, put them with the yelks, and chop them both together, but not very fine, put them into a quarter of a pound of good melted butter, and put it in a boat.”

And understanding that smaller chickens needed a different kind of attention on the spit, she also provided:

“To Roast Young Chickens.

When you kill young chickens, pluck them very carefully, truss and put them down to a good fire, dredge and baste them with lard; they will take a quarter of an hour in roasting; froth them up, lay them on the dish, pour butter and parsley on, and serve them up hot.”

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.

A few years later, Lettice Bryan stuffed her birds, but her directions were much the same:

“To Roast a Pair of Fowls.

Make a stuffing of light bread, butter, sifted sage, salt, pepper, nutmeg, lemon and yolks of eggs. Having your fowls neatly prepared and seasoned, fill them with the mixture, having it well incorporated, and roast them before a good fire, basting them occasionally with lard or butter. Boil the livers and gizzards, strain the liquid in which they were boiled into the drippings, mince the livers and gizzards, and put them in also, with a spoonful of flour, one of butter, four minced eggs, which have been boiled and divested of the shells, and a glass of sweet cream. Have upon the table stewed fruit, boiled rice, and asparagus.”

“To Roast Young Chickens.

If your chickens are very small, take four, cut off the feet and heads, skewer up the legs to the bodies, and the livers and gizzards to the sides, under the wings, having turned up the pinions. Make a force-meat of grated tongue, light bread, butter, pepper, chopped sweet herbs, and yolk of eggs; fill them with the stuffing, roast them before a clear fire, baste with lard, or butter, and dredge and froth them handsomely; a short time will be sufficient to roast them well. Serve them up with drawn butter and chopped parsley, in a boat, and garnish with slices of lemon. This is a delicious way to prepare young chickens.”

— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.

To all this, Annabella Hill (Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867) added detailed directions for tending the fire, adjusting the spit’s proximity to the flame, and tending the roast so that it cooked evenly and browned well without getting smoky. The fire had to be hot—and yet not too hot—to keep the skin from burning before the meat was done. And the bird had to be kept turning. A spitjack could take care of that, but the cook still had to give it steady attention with the basting spoon.

We no longer roast in a modern kitchen. What we do is a sort of imitation that’s really high-temperature baking, so for those who wish to “lay down” a bird to a good fire, some notes on these recipes are in order. Their young birds were young indeed—what used to be called “broilers,” weighing in at less than two pounds—and were “laid down” to a really hot blaze. A quarter of an hour of roasting would have done the trick. Note that her mature fowl (a four or five pounder) took about an hour—no different from today.

Instead of trussing the legs, they were loosely skewered in place: this was necessary when the birds were rotating on a spit. To leave them completely loose would mean that they would hang loose, flop around as the spit turned, and cook unevenly; on the other hand, to bind them tight against the body would have prevented the heat from circulating properly. Earlier books took for granted that the cook knew how to regulate and position the spit, but Mrs. Hill lived in the time when the art of spit-roasting was being lost to the iron range, and she helpfully provided roasting notes, directing that the spit be from twelve to fifteen inches away from the open flames.

A drip pan under the roast not only held the melted fat used for the initial basting, it also caught the drippings that fell from the roast. Later on, a tin roaster, actually a kind of three sided deflector, helped to contain the heat and kept it even without trapping the steam the way our modern ovens do.

Dredging meant to lightly dust the roast with a little flour, and frothing was accomplished by basting the skin well and then letting it roast (sometimes closer to the fire than it had been) until the surface actually bubbled up. Historian Nancy Carter Crump explains that as the skin gets done, it actually sizzles and bubbles.

Notice that giblet and egg gravy, still obligatory for the Thanksgiving turkey in many places to this day, was the standard pan gravy for roast birds. The “melted butter” for Mrs. Randolph’s delicate egg sauce was actually a drawn butter sauce the consistency of a good beurre blanc. My own preference today is pan gravy.

To imitate these wonders in the closed chambers of our ovens requires acceptance that there will be smoke in your kitchen and your oven will never again be pristine and gleaming. A clean oven is the sure sign that one has too much time on one’s hands, anyway.

Roast Young Chicken

Only those with yard birds can get the really young spring birds for which the above recipes were for “young chickens” were intended, and at any rate, our ovens can’t reproduce the hearty blaze that they required, so my imitation roasting follows the method for the smaller of the fully grown but still young birds from autumn that had survived the summer’s frying pan, the sort that today are commonly labeled “roasting chickens.” In Classical Southern Cooking, I did an approximation of spit-roasting by regularly quarter-turning the bird, but now find that searing it breast up, then turning it breast down for most of the roasting does almost the same job, without the dangers of frequently handling the hot bird.

Serves 4

For the Broth:

The neck and giblets from the chicken
1 medium onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and quartered
1 rib celery, thinly sliced, leafy top left whole
1 medium carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
2 - 3 sprigs parsley or parsley stems
6 - 8 whole peppercorns
1 quarter-sized slice fresh ginger

For the Chicken:

1 young chicken weighing no more than 5 pounds
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
5 - 6 dried sage leaves, crumbled (about 1 rounded teaspoon)
1 teaspoon or so crumbled dried thyme
½ small onion, peeled and cut into wedges without cutting off the root end
About 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or lard
1 tablespoon flour
¼ cup medium dry (Sercial) Madeira, optional
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter

1. Let the bird sit at room temperature for an hour so that it loses its tombstone chill from the refrigerator. Meanwhile, make the broth: put the neck and giblets, onion, celery, carrot, parsley, peppercorns, ginger, and a healthy pinch of salt in a medium saucepan. Add 4 cups water, turn on the heat to low, and bring it slowly to a simmer. Skim it carefully and simmer until the liver is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Take out the liver, and simmer for at least 1 hour.

2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 500° F. Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Mix together about a couple of teaspoons of salt, freshly milled pepper, and the dried herbs. Liberally rub this over the chicken inside and out.

3. Tie or skewer the legs together and bend the tips of the wing back behind the shoulders of the back. If there is any loose skin from the neck, tuck it under the wing tips to hold it in place. Lightly grease a heavy, oval roasting pan that is slightly larger than the chicken with lard, butter or chicken fat. Rub the breast lightly with a little butter and place the chicken on the pan breast up. Put it on the center rack of the oven and roast, undisturbed, for 10-15 minutes, or until the breast skin is well-seared.

4. Rub the skin on the breast and legs with a little butter or lard and, using tongs and a carving fork, turn the chicken carefully breast down. Reduce the heat to 450° and roast for another 10 minutes. Baste with pan juices, and reduce the heat to 400°, and roast, basting occasionally, until a thermometer inserted into the meatiest part of the thigh registers 160°. Turn it breast up and if the skin isn’t brown enough, let it roast about 5 minutes longer.

5. Take up the chicken onto a warm serving platter. Pour the pan drippings into a fat separator or glass measuring cup and raw off as much fat as possible. Put the roasting pan over direct medium heat. Add the broth and, stirring and scraping to loosen any of the browned residue, and bring to a boil. Let it boil for about a minute. Take it off the heat and add the contents of the pan to the roasting juices, making sure that none of the browned bits from the pan are lost.

6. Return the pan to the heat and add 2 tablespoons of the fat from the drippings. When it is hot, rub the flour into it with a flat whisk or wooden spoon until it is well blended and beginning to color. Gradually stir or whisk in the liquid and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly thickened and beginning to bubble. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer, taste and season with the salt and pepper, and simmer until it is thick enough to suit you, about 5 minutes. If you like stir in ¼ cup of Madeira and let it simmer 2 minutes longer. Swirl in the tablespoon of cold butter, pour into a heated sauceboat, and serve at once.
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