One of the easiest ways to produce a winter meal is to simply have the oven do all of the work. With just twenty minutes of prep time and then relaxing with a glass of wine as you catch up on Facebook commentary and emails, or watch an episode of your favorite show that you recorded, dinner is ready to be served an hour or two later. The star of such a meal is the humble chicken, succulently juicy with a golden-brown skin that rivals that of summer sun-worshippers on the beach. Roasted chicken is old-fashioned comfort food, reminiscent for some of Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house in days of yore, conjuring up Norman Rockwell’s family dinner images.
Admittedly, basic roast chicken can get boring very quickly. When some people hear roast chicken, they envision a bland-looking bird seasoned with salt and pepper and perhaps basted with stock and melted butter. This equates to a blank canvas highlighted with a couple of dabs of white paint as it sits on an artist’s easel. That canvas is screaming for more; more colors, more strokes, more depth, more creativity. Similarly, tasters of the aforementioned bird are clamoring for more flavors, textures and even colors.
The interior cavity of the chicken is a perfect little steam pot when the fowl is roasting away in a 450-degree oven. When preparing the bird for its date with the oven, stuff it with flavor-boosting ingredients such as a quartered lemon or orange, a handful of peeled whole garlic cloves and bundles of fresh herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary or a combination. As the juices of the chicken begin to release during the cooking process, these ingredients will steam and self-baste the interior of the bird with their flavors. Once stuffed, tie the ends of the drumsticks tightly together to narrow the opening, thus holding that steam action inside the bird.
At the top of the breasts, one can carefully slip a finger or two under the skin of each breast, loosening it to create a pocket in between the skin and the meat. Once the two pockets have been formed over the entire top of the chicken, you can now stuff more flavor enhancers underneath the skin. Fresh sage leaves, basil leaves or rosemary sprigs are commonly used. Another nice trick is to enlist the help of a pastry bag and pipe pesto into those pockets, gently pressing down on the bulge to evenly distribute the pesto throughout the pockets.
The surface needs some flavor now as well. Rub the entire surface with a little extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle the bird generously with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Sprigs of rosemary or thyme can be tucked under each wing, finely chopped herbs and/or finely grated lemon zest or orange zest may be sprinkled over the chicken. Lastly, a splash of white wine and some chicken stock poured into the pan will be helpful for basting the chicken occasionally during the roasting process.
One must-have in the kitchen when creating a roast chicken dinner is an extra large roasting pan. The pan doesn’t need a rack or any other fancy accessories; just a basic stainless steel roasting pan from a reputable brand to ensure durability will do. The extra-large size of the pan is to accommodate the rest of the meal; I did say let the oven do most of the work, didn’t I?
Once the chicken has been set in the center of the pan and sufficiently stuffed, rubbed and sprinkled, fill in the pan around the chicken with some vegetables. Root vegetables are ideal because they can take the heat to roast in roughly the same amount of time as the chicken. Carrots, parsnips, beets, fennel, turnips and rutabagas all work. Butternut squash can also work when cut into larger chunks, or if added to the pan halfway through the chicken’s roasting time. Add potatoes to the pan in addition to the vegetables, and then drizzle it all with extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. The entire pan is then covered with foil and relegated into a 450-degree oven. Halfway through cooking time, remove the foil, stir the vegetables and continue to roast uncovered.
A three to four pound chicken will be cooked in roughly an hour to 90 minutes. Larger specimens will take longer. The other must-have for roasting any large bird or meat is a meat thermometer. There are several styles available, and after going through three or four digital ones, my favorite is now a basic variation with a non-electronic dial. When the thermometer probe is pierced into the thickest, meatiest part of the thigh, the temperature should read 180 for chicken when it is ready to eat.
All you will need to accompany this meal is perhaps a basic salad and some crusty bread. I will often prepare a dinner like this in the morning, so that when the afternoon rolls around I need only to preheat the oven and slip the foil-covered pan from the refrigerator into the oven; dinner never feels so effortless on other nights. Seasoning combinations and vegetable and starch selections are boundless. Use up any odds and ends you find in your pantry and refrigerator. One of my favorite recipes comes from an old Williams-Sonoma cookbook, for rosemary seasoned chicken that roasts with cubes potatoes. Another hit is a recipe from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa), in which the chicken roasts with large homemade fresh bread croutons. The bread toasts and also soaks up the flavorful juices. I’ve come up with a perfect recipe for a one-pan roast chicken dinner to share with you below.
Herb Roasted Chicken
1 7-pound chicken
1 lemon, quartered lengthwise
2 sprigs plus 8 leaves fresh sage
2 sprigs fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh cracked black pepper
2 fennel bulbs, each cut into eighths
1 bag baby-cut carrots
1 container baby Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes, quartered
2 large onions, peeled, cut into eighths lengthwise
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup white wine
Preheat oven to 450-degrees. Remove the bag of giblets and neck from the inside of the chicken and either discard or set aside for use in making stock. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and set in a large roasting pan. Place the lemon quarters, garlic cloves and sage sprigs inside the chicken cavity. Loosen the skin on top of the chicken and slip 4 sage leaves under the skin on each breast. Rub the chicken with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt, pepper and rosemary. Mix and arrange the fennel, carrots, potatoes and onions around the chicken, filling the roasting pan. Add the wine and stock, pouring evenly around the pan. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Cover with foil and roast for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, gently stir the vegetables and return to the oven for another 45 minutes. Begin checking the bird’s temperature every few minutes until the thigh reads 180-degrees; then remove from the oven and allow the chicken to sit for fifteen minutes before carving.
The best part about a whole roasted chicken can be the magic that you create with leftover meat. Cut up any remaining chicken after dinner and use it in Chicken Corn Chowder, chicken pot pie, chicken tacos, chicken salad sandwiches and more.