Now that the spring has given way to summer, grass is getting long everywhere - much to the chagrin of teenagers whose parents want to know if they have mowed the lawn yet. What this means for the eaters here in NYC is that chickens born in early spring are just getting up to their market weight (3 ½ - 4 ½ pounds) while feasting on flavor-enhancing grass. People can talk at length about the organic this or the free range that, but pasture raised chickens, roaming around eating grass, is truly the ranching method that produces the most flavorful chickens. Just ask chefs around town. Hell, some like Dan Barber of Blue Hill even raise their own chickens in this manner to ensure steady supply. You can pick these types of chickens up from the Union Square Greenmarket – we prefer Violet Hill Farms on Saturdays. If that is not convenient, you can start your search for mail order options here.
When the chicken is this good, simple is the way to go. All you need is a roasting pan with a rack, sea salt/pepper/butter, and an instant read thermometer.
Whether cut up or whole, the high heat blast (450-500 degrees) followed by a slower/lower finish (325-375 degrees) has always worked out well – leaving a crispy skin and a juicy interior. Recently while reading The Best Recipe from the geniuses behind Cook’s Illustrated this method was judged to be inferior to their winner, the exact opposite method of slower/lower to start with a high heat blast to finish.
In either case, you will want to cook the bird until the thigh registers 165-170 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Prep by bringing the washed bird to room temperature, pre-heating the oven, liberally salting & peppering the bird inside and out, and rubbing a tablespoon of butter all over the breast.
Should you wish for some more flavorings from your bird, we suggest the following options:
- Separate the skin from the flesh and tuck a few sprigs of thyme, very thinly sliced garlic or a long thin strip of lemon zest in between.
- Place fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, marjoram, parsley) and half a lemon inside the cavity of the roasting bird.
- Mix 2 parts Dijon mustard with 1 part honey and chopped tarragon. Glaze chicken during last 30 minutes of cooking.
If you are a planner and have some time on your hands, try this recipe from the Zuni Café cookbook for their signature roast chicken. They salt days ahead for flavor and it is a good place to start understanding how different techniques can impact your final product.