“The more you know, the more you can create. There’s no end to imagination in the kitchen.” –Julia Child
Some dishes are daunting. Anyone who has cooked a Thanksgiving turkey for the first time has felt holiday dinner expectation anxiety. This invariably manifests itself with the cook pacing the kitchen floor and pleading with the stove – a dripping baster in one hand and wielding a meat thermometer like a sword in the other.
“Will it be done on time? Why isn’t it done yet? How many hours has it been anyway? Can we fit a pizza in there?”
Okay, maybe that was just me. My first turkey was a stressful endeavor but it turned out great in the end – just two hours later than anticipated.
In hindsight, I should have worked my way up to cooking a 15 pound turkey by practicing ahead of time on a 5 pound chicken. In the kitchen, learning as you go can be a tricky business. Especially if you happen to be entertaining and your guests begin perishing on your living room floor because dinner is delayed.
When I was fresh out of college I lived in an apartment with a kitchen about the size of a foyer. I spent a lot of time experimenting with recipes and techniques that I didn’t learn from my Mom or Grandmother. I had the cookbook standbys to refer to for the basics: The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker, and Fannie Farmer. But I wanted to go a step further and learn to cook the things I really loved to eat. And I really love French food.
I bought Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the famous Larousse Gastronomique, and raided the library for French cookbooks that were brimming with recipes for roasts and sauces, souffles, delicate soups and crusty loaves of bread. One of my favorite cookbooks is Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home, by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. This is the companion volume to their PBS series of the same name. Though not exclusively French, they go through a delightful repertoire of recipes in a side-by-side format with individual takes on the same recipe. Some of the recipes are basic and others more complex. Their banter adds a liveliness to the text and also a great depth of knowledge from two of the world’s master chefs.
My favorite recipe from the book is a basic one, herb roasted chicken. Simple to prepare with only a minimal amount of ingredients, it makes a beautiful main course. This a great recipe for a beginner to use to become acquainted with roasting a bird.
I’ve taken Julia and Jacques’ roast chicken recipes, experimented with both, and made one of my own. I tailored it to my family’s likes and tried to make it as simple as possible with maximum results.
If you’re on for Thanksgiving dinner this year and you’ve never roasted a turkey, do a test-run with a chicken!
Lemon Herb Roasted Chicken
1 3-4 pound roasting chicken (free-range or organic is tastiest)
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 Tsp chopped fresh parsley
1-2 Tsp fresh thyme
1 shallot or small onion cut into wedges
2 garlic cloves roughly chopped
2 Tbsp room temperature butter
Freshly ground pepper
1 large lemon, cut into ¼ inch slices
(A note on the herbs: when I make this recipe the herb measurements are approximate. Thyme can be very strong, depending on the particular variety, so you may need more or less. Always taste as you go!)
Roasting pan 2 inches deep
V-Shaped roasting rack. If you don’t have a roasting rack, put the chicken on a cookie cooling rack inside the roasting pan. This will keep it off the bottom and allow the juices to flow out.
Prep the chicken
Preheat the oven to 425° with the oven rack on the lower middle level.
Remove any giblets that came with the chicken and discard. Rinse the chicken thoroughly, inside and out, with hot water. Remove any lumps of fat from the inside of the cavity. Drain all the water out and then dry the outside of the bird as much as you can. Trim the bony nubbins off the wing tips.
Make the butter/herb mixture
Combine butter, 1/8 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp pepper, chopped parsley, and thyme in a small bowl. Mix well until completely combined.
Dress it up
Stand the chicken on its tail end in a bowl and then hook the wings over the rim to keep the bird upright. Gently pull the neck flap away from the breast and carefully push half of the butter/herb mixture down between the skin and the flesh and rub in. Be careful not to split the skin during this step.
Rub the remaining butter/herb mixture all over the outside of the chicken.
Lightly salt and pepper the inside of the cavity. Put onion, thyme sprigs, garlic, and 3-4 slices of lemon in the cavity as well.
Tie the drumsticks together with twine, tuck the wings down and place with the breast facing up in the V-shaped roasting rack. Tuck in the flap of neck skin.
If you are using a flat rack in the roasting pan, take another piece of twine and tie it over the middle of the bird to keep the wings tight against the skin. The only drawback to this method is that there will be a string line across the breast.
If you want an aesthetically perfect looking chicken, check out this YouTube video for instructions on how to properly “truss” a bird: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs1zHP7oabM
Squeeze the remaining lemon all over the chicken.
Set the roasting pan in the oven. Roast chicken at 425° for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350°. When the chicken begins to brown, baste periodically with the pan juices. Roast for about an hour and 15 minutes and then begin checking doneness. I find the easiest way is to check the internal temperature. 165° measured in the thigh or breast follows the USDA guidelines for “safe to eat”. Also, if you pierce the skin with the tines of a fork the juices should run clear. Any traces of pink and the chicken is not fully cooked.
Once fully cooked, cover with foil and allow to rest outside the oven for 15 minutes.
After that you can carve, eat and enjoy!