Judy Rodgers had the courage of her convictions and the guts to keep things simple. David Tanis
This post is in remembrance of Judy Rodgers, who passed away earlier this month. Judy is a huge influence on my cooking; The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of my go-to reference books, and the meals I ate at the Zuni Cafe still linger in my memory. My first meal at Zuni – roast chicken with bread salad – is still my favorite restaurant meal ever. Perfect roast chicken is simple, but not easy, and that was perfect roast chicken.
Judy introduced me to early salting. I call it dry brining, even if it isn’t a brine, and I use it everywhere. There’s nothing better than a simple roast chicken, salted the night before cooking, roasted hot and fast.
Now, I’m not following Judy’s exact recipe here; I don’t have Zuni’s super-hot brick oven. Instead of roasting the whole chicken, I’m butterflying it, browning it in a heavy, cast iron pan to crisp up the skin, then sliding that pan into the oven to finish roasting. Simple, delicious. Maybe not the perfection of a Zuni roast chicken, but the perfect meal for a cold night, and a fond farewell.
Butterfly and dry brine the chicken: Butterfly the chicken: cut out the backbone, then flatten the breastbone by pressing down hard with the back of your hand. Fold the wing tips back under the wing. Mix the salt, paprika, and pepper, then sprinkle evenly over the chicken, concentrating a little extra on the breasts and thighs. Put the chicken on a rack over a baking sheet, and refrigerate for 4 to 24 hours - overnight is best.
Sear the chicken: Heat the oven to 400°F. Heat the cast iron pan over medium heat until hot, about five minutes, then add the vegetable oil and swirl to coat the pan. Lay the chicken in the pan skin side down and let it sear for four minutes, or until the skin is crisp and brown. Gently flip the chicken skin side up - the skin should release from the pan if it is browned properly; if it sticks in spots, use a metal spatula to gently scrape it loose from the pan.
Roast the chicken: Slide the pan into the oven. (If you have one, insert a probe thermometer into the deepest part of the breast.) Roast the chicken until it reaches 160°F to 165°F in the breast, and 170°F or higher in the joint between the thigh and the drumstick, about 40 minutes.
Rest, carve and serve: Remove the pan from the oven, and lift the chicken onto a carving board. (Again, slide a metal spatula under the chicken to scrape loose any places it sticks to the pan.) Pour the juices from the pan into a gravy separator. Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes, then carve and transfer the chicken to a serving platter. Add the juices from the carving board to the gravy separator, then pass the defatted juices at the table.
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