As an enthusiastic (and I absolutely mean ‘enthusiastic’ in the school-report-euphemism sense) cook, I love geeking out over process. Reductions and purees and veloutes and tempering. I like to make things as complicated as possible. But this is, of course, futile. The more I have to do, the more chance there is of me making a complete Horlicks of something and ruining some expensive ingredients.
And also, in these strange times, I’m coming to the realisation that it is the simpler things that I crave, roast chicken being a case in point. There’s something… elemental about a roast chicken. It somehow seems to encapsulate something essential, immediate about the pleasure of food. It’s something that is simple, achievable, and when done right absolutely sublime.
Simon Hopkinson’s famous book Roast Chicken and Other Stories was once voted the ‘most useful’ cookery book of all time. And the recipes are absolutely ace. But I find endlessly more fascinating the decision to ascribe in the title a connection between cooking and storytelling. I find it stupendously poetic – if stories are the way we make sense of the world around us, then surely cooking is how we make use of the world around us.
I’m trying to eat less meat – not entirely successfully, but I’m trying. Because, you know, the world. And when I do eat meat, to try and assuage the impending guilt, I try to make sure
- That it had a reasonable quality of life before ending up in my fridge, and
- That I treat it respectfully by using all of it.
Roast chicken is perfect in this respect because by spending a little extra on a quality bird, with a bit of skill and forethought you can stretch it further and really honour the thing that died to feed you. Leftovers can end up in all manner of incredible salads and soups and pies and sandwiches, and the bones can end up in a stock that will form the basis of so many other great dishes. Not an ounce of waste.
When I roast a chicken, I go to town. I try to concentrate all of those desires to do something technical and elaborate into ensuring the most perfectly simple (or simplistically perfect) chicken; salty, crispy skin, moist white meat, unctuous dark meat that yields from the bone with only the slightest prod, all perfumed with lemon and rosemary and bay and thyme.
I brine the best chicken I can afford in a 30% salt solution overnight, bringing the salt and water to a boil before adding my aromats of choice (garlic, bay, thyme, lemon zest, mustard seeds – get creative) as the brine cools. Boiling the aromats will just render them flavourless. Once the brine is cool, I pour over the chicken and refrigerate for a maximum of 12 hours – any longer and the salt will start to break down the proteins in the chicken.
The next morning, I remove the chicken from the brine and dry with paper towels. I do this as early as possible, because I want the chicken to air-dry as much as possible (at least 2 hours, preferable 6-8) before going in the oven – I want crisp skin, and moisture is the enemy of crispiness. This has the added benefit of bringing the bird to room temperature – if it goes into the oven fridge-cold, it will cook unevenly, rendering all your previous work moot.
I pre-heat the oven to 140 degrees, and season the chicken generously, all over, inside-and-out*. I use table salt – something fine-grained. Sea salt or rock salt won’t stick to the bird, and end up seasoning your roasting pan, not your chicken. Then I stick some more woody herbs (bay, rosemary, thyme, sage) into the cavity along with a sliced lemon, smear some soft butter over the breast and legs, and place in the oven for 3 hours.
For the last 15 minutes of cooking, I ramp the oven up to it’s highest temperature to crisp the skin, and rest (uncovered – otherwise it’ll sweat and you won’t get crispy skin) for 20-30 minutes before carving.
I’ve been thinking about Frank O’Hara a lot recently, and not just because I spotted Connell reading him in Normal People. My favourite poem of his is called Why I Am Not A Painter:
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
I’ve been thinking about this poem because, like the perfect roast chicken, it’s seeming simplicity belies an aesthetic and structural complexity – all of the hard work is hidden and what is left seems effortless and ephemeral and easy. But also because it gets to the heart of why I cook – why I am urged to create. It doesn’t matter if it’s a poem or a painting or a ham sandwich, whether I am a poet or a painter or a cook. I’m just making things to try and make sense – to make use – of the world around me.
*What a hideous phrase.