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The bird is out of the oven now, resting on its white earthenware dish, a plump parcel of crisp skin, soft flesh and golden juices. The hiss and crackle that accompanied its progress in the oven has calmed to the faintest whisper. The oven’s heat is cranked up a notch to crisp the potatoes that have been roasting alongside. Whatever else I may have learned since roasting my first chicken, it is that roast potatoes are its only truly essential accompaniment. That, and a puddle of the amber liquor from the tin.
I roast a chicken for the succulence of its brown thigh meat; for the long, thin slices of ivory-hued breast with their rim of golden skin; and for the juices that collect in the tin that I have come to think of as the essence of the bird. But this is a dinner made just as much for the tune it sings in the oven, the gentle sizzle as it cooks, the wing tips whose edges stick toffee-like to the corners of the tin, and for the oysters, those two plump cushions of meat that hide under the carcass.
The sound of a chicken roasting is a message that says all is well. A Pied Piper beckoning us to the table. It is the sound and scent of bonhomie and a cook’s love for the happiness of others. After all, you rarely roast a chicken for yourself. You roast a chicken for others to enjoy, to share, to carve, to tug and tear at and to pass around the table to your friends and loved ones. That said, I have and regularly do roast a chicken just for myself. It is the best form of self-gifting I know.
There are those who find a Sunday lunch plate piled high with meat and vegetables appealing but I have to say that way of eating is not for me. I find an overcrowded plate off-putting. More pleasurable I think is to eat the chicken and potatoes first, then mop up the delicious juices afterwards with green vegetables or, perhaps most often, a huddle of butter-soft salad leaves. The only way such a plate could be bettered is, for me at least, when there is a spoonful of creamy, nutmeg-scented bread sauce to merge with the deeply chickeny roasting juices.
There were years when my roast chicken came with short, skinny sausages and tight curls of bacon. Others when the plate was regularly flooded with flour-thickened gravy. There were the stock-cube gravy years of the 1970s and the decades during which I made a shallow cake tin of thyme and onion stuffing to eat with it. I have cooked the bird on a spit and have laid rashers of bacon lovingly across its breasts, and briefly, when I lived in the North, served my Sunday lunch with a puffy crown of Yorkshire pudding.
Over the years I have stripped the recipe back to basics and it is better for it. A good bird, the thoughtfully seasoned pan juices and a roast potato or three is more than enough.
Roasting and resting
Mum’s roasting tin was black and buckled from years of service. A thing of beauty, each splatter of burned-on fat was a snapshot of Sunday lunches past. My own roasting tin is heavier and large enough to take a plump, free-range chicken and the accompanying potatoes.
After a half-century of Sunday lunches I believe wholeheartedly that any meat is improved immeasurably by allowing it to rest before carving. Leaving the bird in the switched-off oven for 10 to 15 minutes with the door ajar is all the attention it needs, but if the roasties need a few minutes longer then I usually bring the meat out and let it snooze on a warm dish, hidden under a crinkly tent of foil. Resting, I cannot emphasise enough, is a crucial part of roasting.
Basting, especially to a lean meat like chicken, is the key to succulent flesh. Time taken to rub the bird with fat before it goes in the oven and to regularly spoon the melted fat and meat juices over the skin during cooking is worth every minute of your time. A chicken left in the oven unattended will be fine. Roasting is, after all, the ultimate hands-off recipe. But a bird whose skin has the occasional spoonful of its roasting juices spooned over it as it cooks is likely to be a slightly more luscious affair.
You can, of course, roast a chicken with nothing but its own fat. The flesh will be tender and the flavour pure. But it will lack the crisp, burnished finish and juicy flesh of a bird cooked with fat. Butter, olive oil, dripping and pork fat (Iberico, from a jar) all do the job, though I regard goose fat (as in The Kitchen Diaries III) as the most successful for achieving bronzed skin. Best of all, it is the fat that produces the roast potatoes of my dreams.
Goose fat is expensive and I reserve it for special occasions. A jar will keep for weeks in the fridge. My fortnightly chicken gets a mixture of butter and olive oil. One fat flavours and burnishes, the other moistens. The olive oil prevents the butter burning.
While the chicken roasts, baste it two or three times. Briefly open the oven door, tip the tin to one side and delve into the pan juices with a large metal spoon. Pour these over the breasts and legs, then close the door. The job should be over in less than a minute; you don’t want the oven to lose its heat.
Salt and pepper are seasoning enough. We can, however, introduce a few aromatics without gilding the lily. Thyme is the herb I use most often here. The plant’s woody stems and tough leaves survive the heat of the oven. I stuff wisps of it deep into the chest cavity and squeeze a couple of sprigs into the pinch-point between leg and breast. Some cooks suggest pushing a herb or spice butter under the skin so the flesh is moistened continuously, and it is something well worth doing, but I am clumsy enough to tear the skin occasionally, which then shrinks and the naked flesh dries out as it cooks.
Tarragon has a legendary affinity with chicken, but I was wrong to suggest it as an addition to the roasting bird in Real Food. The result isn’t worth the price of the herbs. Instead, I would chop its aniseed-scented leaves into the pan juices once the bird is cooked. This gentler warmth will release the herb’s fragrance. A squeeze of citrus juice will accentuate the aniseed notes.
A lemon is another possibility. For years I popped half a lemon inside the bird as it roasted and still do so from time to time. Mostly on a summer’s day, for the citrus spirit it imbues to the meat juices.
The roasting juices
Once the bird and its potatoes are out of the tin, we are left with a gift. A deeply savoury, shallow pool of chicken juices and a sticky, almost caramel-like goo of toasted sugars and aromatics. This is a concentrated essence that we can trickle over the meat as it is, or dilute with stock, wine or water to pour over the carved meat on the plate.
Over the years I have learned not to sully this treasure with flour to make a thickened gravy like my mum did but only to keep it as it is. Sometimes I stir in a glass of white vermouth or a dry and nutty sherry. Often as not, I don’t even bother to do that, instead dipping pieces of bread into the pan and letting them soak up the intensely chickeny liquor. Let me tell you, I’ve cleaned many a roasting tin that way.
About 20 years ago I started adding a whole head of garlic, sometimes two, to the roasting tin. Once the cloves had softened and browned, I squeezed them from their skins and mashed the soft, caramelised flesh into the pan with the back of spoon. The recipe in The Kitchen Diaries is the one I use to this day, with its whiff of thyme and mild, sweet garlic.
Tarragon is the only soft-leaved herb I use in the gravy. About 20 large leaves is enough. This is also the only time I would add cream to the pan. Roasting juices, tarragon and cream being very much the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to a chicken.
A small glass of dry Marsala, stirred in with a wooden spoon as the juices simmer on the hob, always reminds me of Christmas. White vermouth is less sweet, summery even. Once you have let everything bubble, correct the resulting liquid with salt, fine pepper and perhaps the merest squeeze of lemon.
New thinking should probably be discouraged here, but I have recently been pleased with the inclusion of a splash of walnut-hued sherry vinegar to the juices.
Of course, I like them to be crisp but also, somewhat contrarily, when they are chewy and crisp on one side and slightly soggy with roasting juices on the other. I have cooked the chicken and potatoes separately, but the latter lacks the sticky sides and toasted edges of those you have had to scrape, reverently, from the chicken’s roasting tin.
Over the last decade or so I have boiled my potatoes for around 10 minutes prior to roasting them. You get a softer, fluffier interior that way. And yes, they really should be cooked around the bird, so they swell with its juices. I cannot emphasise the importance of this enough.
A softly textured sauce which, when made with care and robustly seasoned, is a perfect contrast for the crisp-skinned chicken. Made with a parsimonious hand the result is pure pap and probably to be avoided. I stand by the rather luxurious recipe in Eat that uses both milk and double cream, lemon thyme and sage. It sounds more trouble than it is.
Hummus, the creamy chickpea puree, makes a gorgeous alternative to both potatoes and bread sauce. Especially when you make a shallow hollow in the mound with the back of a spoon, then trickle the hot roasting juices into it, along with a squeeze of lemon.
Roast chicken with roast potatoes and roasting juices
1.5kg-2kg free-range chicken
2 Tbsp olive oil
50g butter or goose fat
8 small sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
6 plump cloves garlic
4 Tbsp dry Marsala or white vermouth
half a lemon
Set the oven at 200degC. Choose your heaviest roasting tin. A solid vessel is less likely to buckle when you transfer it to the hob to make the gravy. Retrieve the bag of innards from inside the bird. (I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten to do that.) You can add them to the stock if the mood takes you. Place the chicken in the roasting tin and season it inside and out with sea salt and pepper. (I prefer a coarse grind.) Rub the olive oil into the breast and legs, then massage the breasts, legs and wings with the butter or goose fat.
Put half the thyme and the bay leaves inside the chicken and tuck the rest round the bird. If you are adding stuffing or lemon, do so now. Add the garlic to the pan. You will barely detect it as such, but the toasted cloves will lend a deeply pleasing, mellow sweetness to the juices.
When the oven is hot enough, put the chicken in the oven. A 1.5kg chicken will take about an hour; a 2kg chicken 90 minutes. During cooking, baste the bird two or three times with the contents of the pan.
While the bird is cooking, peel the potatoes and cut them into large pieces (about 45-50g each for me, but only you know what size you like your roast potatoes to be), then bring to the boil in deep, salted water. Once the water is boiling, let them cook for 10 minutes or until they will easily take the point of a knife. Drain them in a colander, then return them to the pan and give them a quick shake from side to side to rough the edges up. They will crisp lacily if their edges are frayed and bruised.
Once the chicken has been roasting for 25 minutes, add the potatoes to the roasting tin, turn them over in the fat and continue cooking.
The bird is done when its skin is puffed and golden, the flesh firm and its juices run clear when the thigh is pierced with a skewer at its thickest part. When it is ready, remove it from the oven, cover loosely with foil and keep in a warm place.
If you have potatoes to brown, return them to the oven, putting the temperature up to 220degC and keeping a close eye on their progress. Watch that the pan juices do not evaporate or burn. The potatoes will take up to 10 minutes. They should, rather neatly, be ready by the time the chicken has gathered its thoughts.
A few notes
To make the gravy: once the bird is resting under its foil, and the potatoes are out, place the roasting tin over a moderate heat and bring the juices to a bubble. Squeeze the creamy interior of the garlic into the tin and discard the papery skins, then mash them into the fat and aromatics with a spoon. Stir in 4 tablespoons of dry (secco) Marsala or white vermouth such as Noilly Prat and the stock.
Now, this is the crucial bit: as the liquid starts to bubble, scrape at the tin with a wooden spatula or spoon, loosening all the jammy, crusty bits of Marmite-like goo from the tin. These are the concentrated meat juices and caramelised sugars that will enrich your gravy. They are the very essence of the roast bird. Stir as the liquid bubbles, dissolving any deliciousness from the roasting tin as you go.
Season generously and, if you wish, pour through a sieve into a warm jug.
Marsala almond chocolate slice
What I often miss in a slice of chocolate cake is contrast, which is probably why I would prefer a simple chocolate cornflake cake to a slice of gooey gateau. We need a little respite from all the richness. It is why the thin line of apricot jam in a Sachertorte is so essential. (And why it has to be a sharp, acidic fruit jam rather than raspberry or black cherry.)
All I ask is the crunch of a toasted almond, a crisp chocolate chip or a nugget of sweet-sour fruit such as chopped dried apricot or a dark and brandy-laden raisin amongst the soft, cocoa-rich interior. Deep in the dark days of last winter, I set out to remedy this by introducing tiny nibs of toasted almonds to a densely textured chocolate cake. But here’s the thing: the nuts must, absolutely must, be toasted. The difference is subtle but, I think, worth every second of our time.
Roasted nuts, dark chocolate. A marriage made in heaven. The cake will appear, as you take it from the oven, to be not quite ready. The middle will be slightly sunken and feel less springy than the sides. That is as it should be. As it cools, the texture settles and the result is deeply fudgy and really rather pleasing. It is, incidentally, flourless and will keep, covered with kitchen foil, for several days.
120g skinned almonds
125g dark chocolate
120g caster sugar
a few drops vanilla extract
30g cocoa powder
You will also need a rectangular loaf tin measuring approximately 20cm x 10cm x 7cm (measured, as always, across the base).
Set the oven at 160degC. Line the base and sides of the loaf tin with baking parchment.
In a dry, shallow pan, toast the almonds over a moderate heat till golden. Shake them regularly to encourage as uniform a colour as possible. Tip them into a food processor and reduce to coarse crumbs. Ideally, some of them almost as fine as ground almonds, others a little larger, like fine gravel.
Break the chocolate into small pieces, roughly dice the butter and put them in a mixing bowl. Place the bowl over a small pan of simmering water (the base of the bowl should be just shy of the water level) then leave to melt. Give it no more than the occasional stir.
Separate the eggs and put the yolks into the bowl of a food mixer, add the sugar and whisk till thick and creamy. (You can use a hand-held whisk if you don’t have a food mixer.) Stir in the melted chocolate, the vanilla extract, the Marsala, cocoa powder and then the toasted, ground nuts.
Beat the egg whites till almost stiff. I do this by hand. (Stop whisking when they are thick enough to sit in soft mounds rather than whisking to stiff peaks.) Using a large metal spoon, fold the whites into the chocolate mixture, stopping as soon as the whites are no longer visible. (It is essential not to overmix.)
Transfer to the cake tin using a rubber spatula and bake for 35-40 minutes until the edges are lightly firm to the touch, the middle still a little soft. Listen to it. The cake should be making a very faint crackling sound. (If its silent, you’ve overcooked it.) Remove from the oven and leave to settle and cool.
To serve at its best, cut it after about an hour, and serve in thick wedges, with creme fraiche or thick double cream.
Broccoli, pumpkin seeds and breadcrumbs
50g white breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 litre vegetable stock (or water)
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a shallow pan, add the breadcrumbs and cook, turning them regularly in the pan, till they are crisp and golden. Roughly chop the parsley and stir into the crumbs with a little salt, black pepper and the pumpkin seeds. (I like to chop them roughly, but it is up to you.) Set aside.
Bring the vegetable stock (or water) to the boil in a saucepan. Cut the broccoli into florets and slice the stalks into thin coins. Cook the broccoli florets and stalks for a few minutes till tender, then remove half of it.
Puree half of the broccoli in a blender or food processor with a ladle of the cooking stock, a little salt and pepper and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Divide between two warm plates. Drain the remaining broccoli and add to the puree, then scatter with the crisp breadcrumbs and seeds. Trickle over a little olive oil and serve.