Frontier Psychiatrist

The Ultimate Roasted Chicken

Posted on: January 25, 2012

San Francisco has a bit of a hold on me.  There’s something romantic about the steep sloping hills, the colorful rows of houses, and the mist rising off the bay.  Who minds a bit of grey skies and rainy days when you have Napa and Sonoma waiting for you across the bridge?  And the food!  There are endless tacos and burritos in the Mission, Tartine is the bakery to end all bakeries, and Zuni Café tirelessly rolls out their ever-famous roasted chickens.

I regretfully did not have the pleasure of going to Zuni Café on my last visit to the Bay Area.  And so I must thank the kind Judy Rodgers, who, via the Zuni Café  Cookbook, has gifted us a glimpse into how it’s done.  This roasted chicken recipe is so straightforward and accessible that even a home cook such as myself, who still giggles and squeals pulling the liver and neck out of a whole chicken, can deliver an incredible, Zuni-licious chicken.  Now, I didn’t say it’s a short recipe, but truly, if you follow the steps, I think it would be hard to mess up.

But let’s not stop at chicken.  (Moist, tender, crispy-skinned chicken…)  The full Zuni chicken experience requires that it sit atop a bed of crunchy, zingy, garlicky bread salad.  The word salad is used here for lack of a more accurate descriptor.  It’s sort of a stuffing-like mish-mosh of all things delicious and flavorful.  The basic idea is that you broil chunks of day-old bread with some olive oil, add plumped currants, toasted pine nuts, and sautéed garlic and scallions, and then toss everything with a tart vinaigrette and some bitter greens.  It’s warm, soft, crisp, sweet, and tangy, all at once, like a sophisticated, elegant comfort food.

So, admittedly, it’s not the kind of meal you pull together at a moment’s notice.  You must dry-brine your chicken a few days in advance and leave time to let fresh bread go stale.  There are many steps, as you patiently flip your chicken and reheat your bread salad.  But this is one of those rare dishes that is 100% worth the forethought and the effort.  I mean, hey, it’s cold out – what’s better than staying inside, huddled around the stove?  I encourage you to persist!  Victory will be yours!  At the very least, I insist that you roast a chicken.  You will be grateful.

As I mentioned, this recipe is remarkably long.  For the chicken and salad combined, it’s nearly 4 pages in the original cookbook.  I borrowed this shortened version from Smitten Kitchen, and shortened it even a bit further for simplicity’s sake.  Unless you have an oven situation that allows you to broil and bake at the same time, you’re going to have to roast the chicken first, then get started on the bread salad.  It’s no problem – all can be reheated.  Also, to help guide you at a high level, here are the basic steps:

1-3 days in advance:

– Clean and prep the chicken

– Buy bread; let it get stale in a paper bag

Day of:

– Roast chicken

– Cut and broil the bread chunks

– Toss bread with vinaigrette

– Prep salad ingredients (plump the currants, toast the pine nuts, sauté the garlic and scallions)

– Reheat bread salad (and chicken as needed) in the oven

– Toss everything together

Zuni Café Roasted Chicken

Adapted from, which adapted it from the Zuni Café, San Francisco

Serves 2 to 4

One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2-pounds

4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about 1/2 inch long

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

A little water

Season the chicken: [1 to 3 days before serving; give a 3 1/4 to 3 1/2-pound chicken at least 2 days]

1. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.

2. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently 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.

3. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. 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 otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Prepare your oven and pan: [Day of, total time is 45 minutes to 1 hour]

Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (just the right size for a 3 pound chicken). Preheat the pan over medium heat. (Pre-heating keeps the chicken skin from sticking.) Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

Roast the chicken: Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Rest the chicken: Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the 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.

Get out all those extra juices: Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. You can let it rest while you finish your side dishes (or Bread Salad, below). The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Serve the chicken and heat the drippings: Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste — the juices will be extremely flavorful.

Cut the chicken into pieces, spread on the warm platter (on top of the Bread Salad, if using).

Capitalize on leftovers: Strain and save the drippings you don’t use, they are delicious tossed with spätzle or egg noodles, or stirred into beans or risotto. You can also use them, plus leftover scraps of roast chicken, for a chicken salad.


Zuni Café Bread Salad
Adapted from, which adapted it from the Zuni Café, San Francisco

Generous 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 (or Sherry vinegar)

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon dried currants plumped in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon warm water for ten minutes or so

2 tablespoons pine nuts

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

1. Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the bottom and most of the top and side crusts from your bread (you can reserve these to use as croutons for soup or another salad). Tear bread into irregular 2- to 3-inch chunks, wads, bite-sized bits and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.

2. Toss them with just a tablespoon or two of olive oil, lightly coating them, and broil them very briefly, just to lightly color the edges. If you’d like to toast the pine nuts (recommended) you can put them on your broiler tray as well, but watch them very carefully — they cook quickly!

3. 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 tart 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.

4. At this time, you should heat the oven back to 475°F (for warming up the bread salad in step 6). Heat a spoonful of the 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.

5. Drain the plumped currants and fold them in, along with the pine nuts, if they were not already mixed with the bread scraps from the broiling step. 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, then toss well.

6. If you’re going to serve the salad under the roast chicken (recipe above), you can pile the bread salad on the serving dish you want to use (or any oven-safe dish) and tent it with foil. Hang onto the bowl you mixed it in — you’ll use it again.  Place the bread salad in the oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated through.

7. Tip 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 the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again.

Freya Bellin writes alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Coffee Roasting 101A Dinner Party for New Year’s EveTop 10 Kitchen Gifts for a Foodie


4 Responses to "The Ultimate Roasted Chicken"

that looks SO lovely, fresh and tasty. I’m a little jealous. I have to make do with my lovely chicken stock 😀

[…] Bellin writes alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include The Ultimate Roasted Chicken, Coffee Roasting 101, and A Dinner Party for New Year’s Eve.  Share […]

[…] Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Rooted in Winter, The Ultimate Roasted Chicken, and Coffee Roasting 101. Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike […]

[…] Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Game Changer: Cake, Rooted in Winter, and The Ultimate Roasted Chicken. Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

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