At least in my neighborhood, it has become increasingly difficult to find a whole chicken at the grocery store. Nowadays, there are shelves and shelves of chicken parts – breasts, wings, thighs, and drumsticks – with increasingly processed sub-types – chicken tenders, boneless breasts, “drumettes”, skinless thighs, and ground chicken. You get the idea. When Ralph’s announced a sale of whole chickens, my menu-driven mind went into overdrive. Usually I boil a whole chicken for the resultant stock along with enough meat picked from the bones for gumbo or green chile chicken or something similar. This time I wanted to do something else that was also not too hard or tome-consuming. I flashed on roasted chicken, inspired by Jacques Pépin who wrote in his classic La Technique, “There is nothing as simple and as delicious as a well-cooked roast chicken.” He went on to say, “Unfortunately, to get it properly done in a restaurant is as rare as it is simple.” That sounds like an intimidating challenge from one of the most important cooking experts of our time.
Sarah knows about intimidation by Jacques Pépin and André Soltner, both very warm and generous individuals. They were deans at the French Culinary Institute in New York City when she was a student. Chefs Pépin and Soltner provided instruction in their lectures and demonstrations along with kindness and encouragement in their personal interactions, but they were also involved in examinations. Roasting a chicken was one of the tasks in the final exam. Sarah was anxious, but she passed – with great relief and celebration.
This recipe is drawn freely from Pépin’s La Technique. If you can find a copy, you should by all means buy it. Published in 1976, it is out of print, but you can find it on-line. The book is a heavily-illustrated step-by-step narrative of French cooking techniques, and the photos are all of Pépin himself performing the actions required in each technique. On top of that, La Technique is an excellent cookbook in its own right. It goes without saying that my roast chicken is not in the league of Jacques Pépin’s, but hopefully it would pass the test.
- 1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds
- salt and pepper
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup water
- Remove liver and other giblets that may be packaged with the chicken. Pat dry and sprinkle generously inside and out with salt and pepper.
- In a large cast-iron or other heavy, oven-proof pan, melt the butter. Place the chicken in the melted butter, and using a basting brush, paint the entire chicken with the butter.
- Place the chicken on its side in the pan and bake in the middle of a pre-heated 400° oven for 15 minutes. Turn on the other side and roast for another 15 minutes.
- Turn the chicken on its back and baste with dripping using a large metal cooking spoon. Continue to roast for an additional 30 minutes, basting every 5 minutes with scraped-up drippings and frond.
- Add water to the pan and roast for 5 more minutes.
- Remove from the oven. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, cover with foil, and rest for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile stir the pan gravy. Correct seasoning if needed. Transfer to a serving bowl.
- Carve the chicken and serve immediately.