When the time comes to roast a chicken, I tend to go one of two ways — Zuni or Thomas Keller — depending on how early I can get my act together. (My act getting-togetherness being what it is, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I default to Keller.) They’re both foolproof recipes that yield a moist, juicy bird with a minimum of effort, which I think we all can appreciate. But another reason I roast this way is because neither involves breaking down the bird beforehand. Butchering anything in my kitchen is often met with much sighing and gnashing of teeth, for it rarely turns out well. Not that it stops me. For a while, I thought poultry shears would be my salvation, but my chicken managed to look even more like a crime scene than usual. I tried the cleaver route as well, but things still went awry.
Then, earlier this year, I was invited to take a cooking course at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in exchange for a blog post on their site. How could I refuse, especially when they’re located in my (former) office building? I perused the courses, searching for the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of interesting, useful and schedule-appropriate. I found it in a course on Sustainable Meats, taught with a wicked sense of humor and smart-assedness by Chef Erica Wides. There were maybe 10 people in the class, all there for different reasons — their own health, a cleaner environment, and animal welfare concerns, just to name a few. We prepared an entire meaty dinner from scratch, but the most useful thing I learned that night was how to spatchcock a chicken without leaving it in shreds. I’ve used this method over and over and I’m still not quite sure why it’s so much easier for me, but it is. The proof is in the (chickeny) pudding, I guess.
What you do is sit the chicken on its butt and cut down one side of the backbone, flip it over, and cut down the other. Then you place the chicken breast-down and use your knife to cut a vertical slit through the top-center of the breastbone. Flip it over and press down on the breastbone with the heel of your hand to crack the ribcage. Flip it over again, run your fingers along the sides of the breastbone to release it from the cartilage, and pull it out. Now, it takes a little muscle, I won’t lie, but the results are stellar.
In addition to a newfound facility with spatchcocking, we got a heads-up about Chef Erica’s podcast “Let’s Get Real” on Heritage Radio Network. This is frank, hilarious talk about the sad topic of “foodiness“ and how to get back to eating real food rather than a pitiful approximation of it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was already on board so it’s a reinforcement of my values, but it’s nice to hear I’m not the only borderline-orthorexic around.
But back to the chicken at hand. This roast spatchcocked lemon chicken came from the January 2013 issue of Martha Stewart Living. It’s a bit more work than salting a chicken and throwing it in a hot oven, but worth the time if you have it to spare. The shallots and lemon slices caramelize on the pan in the chicken juices and are almost better than the chicken itself, if such a thing is possible. I served it with a colcannon-ish mashup — celery root mashed with sautéed kale, garlic and red pepper flakes with a bit of grass-fed butter added at the end, just cuz.
And if you’re STILL looking for a Christmas present for that special food-lover in your life (hey, I just finished my shopping yesterday, so no judgement here), a recreational course at ICE could be just the thing. I know I’d be thrilled to receive such a gift.