To Roast A Chicken: Peace Work

The world is in an uproar. My eyes are fixed on Ukraine, as are everybody's right now, and I confess I find it a bit hard to do normal things in the normal way and act like there isn't a horrible thing going on across the world. And yet, we still must eat. We must make for ourselves and those close to us the foods we wish we could make for the poor families standing frozen at the country's borders or the brave fighters under siege in Kiev. In days when we are reminded once again that we live in a broken world much in need of redemption, food helps.

Familiar, almost ritualistic foods are the best sort for comfort in times like these. When I think of comfort food, I think of a roasted chicken. There's just something about the slow, methodical process that calms the nerves. I recently wrote a piece on this subject and submitted it to an online magazine, but it was declined. Honestly, that's okay. Because the piece feels right for today, and I'm content to share it here and hope that you will roast a chicken for yourself, or a neighbor, or a friend who is worried about family back in Europe. The point of this piece is less a recipe and more a pep-talk to assure you that you can (and shall!) roast an entire chicken without any fear or apprehension about the process. I hope that you will enjoy it, and that you will be well.

We can't do a lot, but what little we can, I hope we will do bravely.

Begin with a simple thing, and continue creating pools of light and peace where you stand. It all matters more than you realize.

a beautiful example of Petrykivka folk art, from Ukraine

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There is nothing to make one feel more like a domestic goddess than making a whole roasted chicken. This is a simple, bucolic pleasure, I’ll admit. One we wish we could turn up our noses at. One that our grandmothers understood all too well and probably had their fill of.

A roast chicken isn’t necessarily an inspiring meal nor even remotely interesting in the way one usually qualifies “interesting” food. It doesn’t belong in the pages of a food magazine (or does it?) and it certainly isn’t going to go viral on social media in the way an acai bowl might. Roast chicken was once standard dinner fare and even now conjures images of a Norman Rockwell painting: a father at the head of the table, carving away at a burnished drumstick; an exhausted mother keeping the handful of hungry children in check.

And yet. To circumnavigate the convenience of a store-bought rotisserie chicken, to heat my oven and lather a chicken with oil and stuff its insides with lemon and thyme and onions and whatever the hell I shove a ritual I can’t seem to do without. I’m not sure the earliest humans weren’t domesticated when roasting some reptilian bird over a campfire. Having plucked away feathers and scales and what-not, they found the gleaming chestnut skin of a perfectly-roasted hen underneath and their lives were transformed. This theory checks out. A roast chicken is nostalgic. It’s also affordable, delicious, and can live on for several meals as chicken fried rice, chicken salad, bone broth, and a hundred other iterations of leftovers.

I don’t care who you claim to be, caveman or career woman. You can’t help feeling immense satisfaction when the oven opens on a whole cooked chicken. The house fills with aromatic whispers of the meal to come, and from every corner of the house (or even the neighbors’, if you live in an apartment), people start queuing up, asking what smells so good.
Plant-based foods are popular right now, and to some extent I understand the reasons. I certainly don’t advocate for purchasing large amounts of meat if you can’t get it from genuine, respectable sources. Yet in all my experience with the meatiest vegetables of the vegetable kingdom, I’ve yet to come across anything that has that roast-chickenness like, well....a roasted chicken.

Not long ago, my husband witnessed the total unraveling of composure when I spied Cornish hens for sale in the grocery store. Despite being massively overdone in the 1980s, Cornish hens amuse and delight me. They are itty bitty birds, almost comical looking, and perfectly serve one person. I have always loved miniature things, so the idea of a miniature roast chicken for one never fails to please. How could it?
In my town, the appearance of cornish hens in grocery stores is wildly unpredictable, hovering vaguely around the post-holiday season for reasons I can only guess at. Epiphany? New Year portion-control? Whatever the cause, there they were in the deep freezers: cornish hens packaged two in a parcel.

“Look!” I cooed, bending over the freezer. “Cornish hens! They never have cornish hens.”

Andrew, my husband, did not understand why I’d rather tiny birds of uncertain provenance than the big, organic chicken already in our shopping cart.

“Oh, I don’t want to buy them,” I explained. “I just like knowing they’re here.” I patted their little frozen butts and smiled.

He, accustomed to me by now, continued pushing the cart through the store as I trailed behind. I’m the same way when I see a whole duck for sale. I don’t know what we two would do with a whole roast duck, but there is an almost uncontrollable impulse to buy it and roast it and this I blame on the pure serotonin that flows through one’s body with the accomplishment of roasting a whole bird. The bigger the better. Except Thanksgiving turkeys which are, in my opinion, overrated.

Many home cooks are understandably intimidated by the concept of Roasting a Chicken. There’s the Norman Rockwell precedent we’ve already discussed. Then the worry that you’ll do something wrong. The anxiety over whether the meat is cooked through (a cheap thermometer resolves this). The fear that you will be stuck eating roast chicken forever if you choose one that is too large. The aversion to handling six pounds of damp, pink, somewhat goosebump-y flesh that always manages to look very naked.
I hear the worries and I raise you a challenge: set the anxious thoughts aside for one Saturday evening and roast a chicken, then come back and tell me you don’t feel the magic too.

Begin with a bird. It is nice to pick one from a trusted source at a farmers’ market but I don’t pretend to think everyone has year-round access to such things. Pick the best chicken you can afford. A good start is to find one weighing around four to six pounds, free-range if you can manage it. They are raised better and will therefore taste better.
Take your chicken home and unwrap it from its paper. Drain the “juices” down your sink and pat the bird dry with paper towels, remembering to wash your hands well. It’s worth it to say that most store-bought chickens have a lot of water added to them, and have often been frozen at some point. The queasy-minded may be at ease: what you are tipping out of the chicken into the sink is not a half-cup of straight blood, but melted ice and runoff.

So we have a chicken with relatively dry skin. Good. Drizzle it liberally with olive oil and give a couple good pats to make sure the oil has distributed evenly across the whole chicken, including the portion which will rest in the pan. Generously sprinkle kosher salt across the skin of your chicken. It is recommended to use a couple teaspoons at least for a bird of this size.

At this point, you can play pretty wild and free with the way you want to season your chicken. I like to use herbes de provence on mine, or simply make pretty free with some dried thyme and oregano and a little paprika and garlic powder too, if I’m feeling it. Honestly a chicken can stand up to a lot. There are a million ways to season one because, surprise, a great many cultures have chickens and enjoy them roasted. It is a universal pleasure.
The gaping cavern at the back of the chicken is available to be filled. Be sure to peek inside and make sure the guts have been removed. Don’t worry - most of the time these are only the livers and heart, nicely packaged in plastic for those who enjoy such tidbits. I am not among them.

Once you’ve been cleared for stuffing, add an onion chopped in quarters or a handful of shallots and push them inside the cavity. I like to also use whole, peeled garlic cloves, a halved lemon, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary if I have it - I usually don’t.

Rest your stuffed, oiled, seasoned chicken into a cast iron pan or other baking dishes. If you’ve well and truly stuffed it full of things, it can be helpful to cross the chicken’s ankles (ankles?) and lash them together with a piece of string. I should mention that as long as your vessel has a raised edge to catch the chicken’s juices, you may use anything from sheet pans to a dutch oven with success. Breast up? Breast down? It really doesn’t matter, I promise. Pick your chicken’s position and stick with it. She’ll be dandy.

Now, heat the oven and when it is heated, slide the chicken inside. You are allowed to roast a whole chicken at any temperature between 325 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on your allotted time. Obviously the higher the temperature, the quicker the meat will cook. I like to adjust my plans based on whatever else I’m cooking. Not long ago I needed to bake something that required a 350 degree temp at the same time as my chicken. I began the chicken with that item at 350 for an hour, then eventually turned the oven up to 425 for an additional thirty minutes when the other dish was finished. I think that temperatures and cooking times are where recipes get fussy and the average cook gets discouraged. Your best clues for when your chicken is finished will be contextual. Does it smell delicious? Is the skin golden-brown?

When you feel that your chicken might be finished (usually around 70-90 minutes for a 4-6 pound bird), begin to check for these clues. The best way to check a chicken’s doneness is with a meat thermometer. A quick stab in the thick part of the thigh should read at least 165 degrees F.

165-170 is the safe range for eating a chicken without overdoing it. With a working thermometer, temperatures don’t lie. Please don’t overcook your chicken because you don’t believe 165 means 165. I assure you, it does. Reading accurate temperatures is a thermometer’s literal only job. If you aren’t so lucky as to have a thermometer, another context clue is to pierce the thigh meat with a knife. If the juices run clear and aren’t looking pink and blushy, you should be good to go.

At this point, I daresay you’re feeling the god/goddess vibes. You’ve handled the chicken with care and a fair measure of professionalism. It’s baked in the oven for an hour and a half, giving you time to watch two episodes of your favorite show. The unctuous smells of a roasted chicken are oodling all through your house, and your belly is probably beginning to respond with hopeful sounds.
Temperature checked, skin crispy, you may now pull the chicken from the oven and gaze upon it with admiration. Pat yourself on the back. Throw a kitchen towel over your shoulder and peacock around for a minute. Facetime your mom - she’s happy you’re eating. Take a picture for Instagram. Get down on eye-level and admire your handiwork: that golden skin, that plump flesh. A roast chicken!

Congratulations. You did the dang thing.

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