The perfect roast chicken is hard to come by. I’ve tried many over the years, in restaurants and at home, and while some of them were pretty good, there was never a roast chicken that I considered to die for. All of that changed, of course, the first time I had the Zuni Roast Chicken.
Whenever I meet up with my very dear friend Lee, who just so happens to live steps away from Zuni Cafe, there is always the temptation to sneak downstairs for a bite to eat. Because the most perfect roast chicken on the planet lives there. The Zuni roast chicken with bread salad is somewhat of an icon. It is a permanent fixture on a menu that changes daily. It’s the dish you recommend to friends who are visiting from out of town or going to Zuni for the first time. It tops the list of 100 Things to Try Before You Die compiled by San Francisco’s 7×7 magazine. People who have had it are a little crazy about it and love to talk about it. All of this is completely warranted.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, what is so special about this chicken? Let me indulge you. It’s a whole bird, perfectly browned and crisp, carved and served on a bed of this insanely delicious bread salad with red mustard greens. Every piece of chicken is incredibly moist and flavorful. And the bread salad alone is simply divine; it’s the perfect combination of crispy and chewy, scattered with pine nuts and currants, and lightly dressed with a simple vinaigrette and drippings from the chicken. It is the perfect meal. If you go to Zuni with the intention of having the chicken, it’s recommended that you let your waiter know as soon as you sit down since it takes about an hour for the bird to roast (while you’re waiting, have a martini, the Caesar salad and some oysters on the half shell).
I’d been wanting to try my hand at making the chicken at home ever since I found out that the recipe is in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. At first sight, it’s intimidating, and long and appears to be a bit laborious. In actuality, laborious is not the word. The chicken itself is surprisingly quite easy to make. BUT, it requires preparing and salting the bird for at least a day or two prior to roasting, which might deter someone who isn’t used to planning meals that far in advance.
After having drinks at Lee’s last week and passing up the opportunity to have the chicken downstairs, I decided it was finally my time to give it a go. I found my tiny 2.97 pound chicken from Soul Food Farm and started salting. And waiting. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive. How could I possibly replicate that perfect chicken from the restaurant? But when this gorgeous bird came out of my oven, all of my doubts melted away. As it turns out, when you follow the recipe, step by step, word for word, anything is possible. The success I had really is a testament to how well this cookbook is written. As my sister and I cleaned our plates of chicken and bread salad on Easter morning, I felt extremely satisfied and victorious.
zuni roast chicken with bread salad
from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
serves 2 to 4
for the chicken:
one small chicken, 2-3/4 to 3-1/2 lbs. Don’t substitute a jumbo roaster – it will be too lean and wont tolerate the high heat
4 tenders sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long
about 1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
A little water
Seasoning the chicken (1-3 days before serving; at least 2 days for 3-1/4 to 3-1/2 pound chicken) :
Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough or the chicken will not brown properly.
Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Use the tip of your finger to loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper (use 3/4 teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken). Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t worry otherwise about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Roasting the chicken:
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof pan or dish barely larger than the chicken. Preheat the pan over medium heat. Pat the chicken dry and place breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
Place in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until is does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for another 10-20 minutes depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5-10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.
Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of chicken, the tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop), and leave to rest. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.
for the bread salad:
8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1-1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons pine nut, toasted
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
a few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried
Preparing the bread salad (up to several hours in advance):
Preheat the broiler. Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks. Carve off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust. Brush the bread all over with olive oil. Broil very briefly to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Trim off any badly charred tips, then tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits, and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.
Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.
Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set aside.
Place a spoonful of olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plump currants and fold in. Add the toasted pine nuts. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread – a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar and toss well.
Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil; set the salad bowl aside. Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, about 10 minutes.
With the drippings from the chicken:
Place the roasting pan over medium-low heat, add any juices that have collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings.
Transfer the bread salad back into the salad bowl. (It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones.) Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again.
Set a platter in the hot oven for a minute or two.
Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warm platter, and nestle the chicken in the salad.