Monday, April 21, 2014
Last week I invited a friend to dinner and served roast chicken— a dish that’s such a coveted essential--or culprit, if you will?—of the comfort-food craze.
With it I was creamed corn (made from scratch, of course), glazed carrots and oven roasted cauliflower with tomatoes—a cornucopia of fall farmer’s-market fare.
My friend started eating the chicken (white meat and dark), put her fork down, looked at me very seriously and said, “This is the best chicken I’ve ever had.”
I was truly taken aback. I didn’t do anything different to it. Why such a fuss?
“What did you do to this bird?” she asked.
Still somewhat stunned I said that all I did was brine it first and roast it in the usual way.
For those not used to this little extra step, brining produces extraordinarily delicious results. The bird emerges extremely moist and tender. And the brine infusion adds tremendous flavor.
Smash the garlic with a chef's knife; most of the skins will fall off--if not leave as is or remove the skins
Of course the quality of the chicken matters too. The one I served wasn’t one of those crazily expensive heritage birds raised to peck at this and that in pristine farmyard surroundings.
Instead, it was the chicken that Bisson’s Meat Market in Topsham carries. They’re a naturally raised bird from Maine Poultry Products in Augusta. They’re $1.59 per pound compared to $4 per pound for organic free-range birds. They’re great chickens.
The chicken is in the brine; this 8-pounder was too big for the plastic brining bag and just fit into a large Dutch oven--the chicken was turned breast side down after 8 hours so that all parts of the chicken were brined
The other vital statistic is that they’re large, usually 6 to 8 pounds. I think larger birds have a more intense flavor.
I don’t mean to disparage the efforts of local farmers who raise special breeds. But many are in the 3 to 4 pound range, making them too lean and dry.
There have been several occasions, however, when I had truly delicious chickens from local providers who pride themselves on raising well cared for chickens. Those from Serendipity, Maine-ly Chickens and Sumner Valley are respectably tasty birds, but still somewhat small, averaging 4 pounds.
One local farmer with large chickens is Goranson Farm. They’re big, meaty, juicy and delicious. They’re expensive, though, and a 6 to 7 pounder will weigh in at around $30.
Otherwise, Pat’s Meat Market sells a very good chicken from Pennsylvania, and they’re at least 5 to 8 pounds; and Curtis Meats in Warren sells the same chickens that Bisson’s carries.
I’m therefore suggesting that the key to great roast chicken is to brine it and choose a large bird for the best flavor. Keep the fryer size (3 1/2 pounds) for the grill.
As for brining, it makes a big difference no matter what bird you’re using. The brine I offer here is very simple: water, salt, honey, black pepper, loads of garlic and plenty of fresh herbs.
To roast it, take the bird out of the brine, rinse it off, pat dry and put it into a large roasting pan; a rack is not necessary. Truss the bird with string. Pour 4 to 5 tablespoons melted butter over the bird and squeeze a lemon or two over that.
In the the roasting pan ready to be cooked, melted butter is poured over the chicken and lemon juice is squeeze over the top
Roast it at high heat, 400 to 425 degrees, for about an hour and 30 minutes (depending on size) or until the meat registers 165 degrees when tested with an instant read thermometer. Baste it three or four times during cooking and add some water, wine or stock if the juices cook out.
Brine for poultry
This is enough for a 6 to 8 pound bird; adjust the water and salt downward for a smaller size. For a 4-pound bird, adjust the salt to 1/4 cup dissolved in 6 cups water and use slightly fewer garlic cloves and about a tablespoon of honey.
8 cups, or more, water
1/2 cup kosher or sea salt
3 tablespoons honey
12 cloves garlic, smashed, unpeeled
2 tablespoons roughly ground black pepper
Several sprigs each of fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano or marjoram, leaves removed from stalks
3 tablespoons canola oil
In a large bowl or glass measure stir the water and salt together until the salt is dissolved. Stir in the honey and add the cloves. Optionally you can remove the garlic skins, but it’s not necessary. Add the ground pepper and the herbs. Stir in the oil.
Put the chicken into a large plastic bag breast side up or into a container or pot large enough to hold the chicken and brine. The chicken should be totally submerged in the brine. If the breast meat is not covered, add more water. If the receptacle can’t hold any more water, just turn the chicken breast side down after about 8 hours. Total brining time is at least overnight or 24 hours. Rinse the bird and roast as directed above. Discard the brine.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.