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Hey, chick: Take it all off! 

The roast chicken is a common culinary conundrum -- it's the "see ya, wouldn't want to be ya" item in a beginner cook's repertoire. Although you might love tearing into a properly seasoned, tender-fleshed bird, you may also stop short when it's your turn to pull out the roasting pan. The dual challenge of seasoning the bird adequately and arriving at a balance between cooked and overcooked meat is enough to make the most confident cooks run to the nearest Peruvian chicken take-out joint.

The thing is, when you've done it, when you've managed to make chicken both delicious and tender at the bone, you feel like you've done the high jump. It's exhilarating (not to mention that your friends think you're a genius). More importantly, it's really not hard -- not the way I'm about to show you.

First thing's first: Take off the bird's clothes. Yes, we're doing a skinless, whole bird, and no, it's not going to dry out. You'll discover, after pulling off the skin (start at the breast, by the way, and don't worry about the wings, which are tricky), that there's plenty of fat cushion to go around and keep things flavorful.

Without skin, the bird is heart healthier, and it marinates more efficiently. There's no longer a barrier between meat, bone and marinade, and you only need 30 minutes for a spice rub to do its magic. Plus, without the skin layer, the bird cooks faster, by about 30 minutes.

I learned this method from From Curries to Kebabs by Indian culinary diva Madhur Jaffrey, but she calls it Curried Whole Chicken, Durban-Style (Durban is a South African city with a significant Indian population). Several chickens later, I have adapted Jaffrey's recipe and have coined it Naked Chicken. After all, isn't everything better naked?

1 3-4 pound chicken, skinned whole
Juice of one lemon
Approximately 1 teaspoon salt
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 fresh chilies of your choice, chopped (I like the medium heat of serranos)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (for color; optional)
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

With a knife, make diagonal slits in each breast, going all the way to the bone, plus in the thighs and drumsticks, on both sides of the bird.

Apply lemon juice and salt all over the bird, inside and out.

Using a blender, food processor or mortar and pestle, combined ginger, garlic, chilies, oil, cumin and coriander, until it resembles something like a paste. Taste and see if you like it: Now's the time to adjust seasonings. It should have a hefty kick.

Rub the paste all over the bird, inside and out, including those slits. Let marinate for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line a baking sheet or roasting pan with foil or parchment paper (unless you feel like cleaning a goopy pan later). Place chicken on liner, breast side up, and finish off with a healthy dose of ground black pepper (cayenne is also fun). Place pan in oven -- legs in first so they can benefit from heat at back of oven -- and roast for approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes. You may check on its progress every half hour. Don't worry, it's not drying out. After the first hour, you'll see browning, and it's fine if you want to flip the bird over for even color.

When the internal temperature of the thigh reaches 160-165 degrees, remove chicken from oven and let rest for about 15 minutes. At that point, the aromas will be so overpowering you may find it difficult to act refined when carving up the bird.

Serves a maximum of three healthy chicken-lovers.

Kim O'Donnel, the host of What's Cooking on washingtonpost.com, tests all the recipes so you don't have to. Send questions and comments to kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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