Saturday, June 20, 2015

Zuni Cafe Chicken - an adaptation of the method

I have heard many stories about the Zuni Cafe Chicken: it's the best chicken in the world, it will change your life, you will never think of chicken the same way, etc., etc.  I honestly didn't understand the hype.  I mean, I enjoy chicken, but how amazing can a roast chicken be that it has an almost cult-like following?  Still, since I don't think I'll be traveling to San Francisco anytime soon and the recipe has been shared in the restaurant's cookbook and in the NY Times, I figured I could try it for myself.

Of course, I immediately ran into problems.  The original recipe calls for a small chicken, specifically, one between 2¾ to 3½ pounds.  I looked very hard for one in my grocery store, but the smallest I was able to find was a 4½ pound bird.  That's more than 25% bigger than what the Zuni Cafe recipe calls for.  I did my research, and it seems that the size of the bird is pretty integral to their technique.  A small bird can be roasted at a higher heat because there is a high skin/fat to meat ratio and the meat will also cook through in a shorter period of time.  So you need to do some changes to the recipe if you have a heavy chicken.

As for how things actually turned out?  Well, one of my friends scarfed down his plate in about 5 minutes, if that tells you anything.  In fact, he barely waited for me to finish carving the meat for my plate before he was digging in.  It was understandable though; the delicious smell of the roasting chicken had been permeating through the apartment long before the meal was ready, so we were both salivating.  The skin was blistered and golden; the meat was very moist and succulent; the pan juices were so good, they made me wish I had some bread to mop it all up.  It was a delicious dinner.  I would say this recipe is well worth the trouble.

Some basic tips if you have a large bird:
  1. Season for at least 2 days before serving.  I imagine 3 days would be even better, but I honestly wasn't patient enough to do this; I did 48 hours.
  2. Take a small knife and carefully, from the inside of the bird, slash the chicken breast on each side at its thickest point.
  3. Bring to room temperature before roasting.  This means taking it out of the fridge up to 8 hours in advance.
  4. Preheat your pan in the oven so that it gets really hot.
  5. Open the oven as little as possible.  Your bird needs all the heat it can get.
  6. Roast for about 40-45 minutes before flipping for the first time.  You want to see the top beginning to brown, not just yellow.
  7. Roast for about 20-25 minutes before flipping the second time.  You want to see the top really caramelized.
  8. Decrease your oven temperature down to 400F to finish cooking the bird, for another 10 minutes or more, as needed.  Use a meat thermometer to check for an internal temperature of 165F or stick a paring knife into the thickest part of the breast to see that the juices run clear.
The original recipe also calls for slashing the bird after it is done roasting to allow all the juices to drip out; these are used to make a sauce / gravy that is served alongside the roast chicken.  Now I like gravy as much as the average person, but I am strongly against draining meat of its juices.  So I didn't do this.  You'll have pan juices as it is, I think those are plenty.

One last recommendation?  Roast some vegetables at the same time as you roast your bird.  I particularly like roasted onions and carrots, which I tossed with some garlic and thyme.  The veggies only need to roast for about 35 minutes, given the high temperature.

Zuni Cafe Chicken
adapted from The New York Times

1 chicken, preferably under 4lbs, but if not, refer to my notes about larger birds
4 sprigs fresh thyme (or rosemary or sage if you prefer)
3 cloves of garlic, minced (my addition)
sea salt (about ¾ tsp per pound)

Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry (a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown).
Season the chicken 1 to 3 days before serving.  Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets, then use a fingertip to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Push an herb sprig and some garlic into each of the 4 pockets.  Using about 3/4 teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken, season the chicken liberally all over with salt and the pepper. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity and on the backbone. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
Take the chicken out of the refrigerator at least 2 hours (but no more than 8 hours) before baking so that it comes to room temperature.

When you’re ready to cook the chicken, heat the oven to 475F.
Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle (I used a skillet). Preheat the pan in the oven.
Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan (I actually set mine breast side down, whoops!). The chicken should sizzle.
Place in the center of the oven and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. Depending on your oven and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during roasting to brown the chicken properly. I went up to 500F on my gas oven.  Because my pan is only oven safe up to 500F, I did not continue to raise the temperature, even though I didn't really see browning until about 25 minutes.  According to the Zuni Cafe recipe, the skin should blister (this did not happen for me), but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees.
After about 30 minutes (40 minute if you have a larger bird), turn the bird over; you want to see that the top side has browned and caramelized at least a little.
Roast for another 10 to 25 minutes, depending on size.  (At this point, I began to really see my bird crisping beautifully)
Flip once more to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.  
If your bird is large, decrease the oven temperature to 400F and roast for an additional 10-20 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the bird; it should be around 165F.  Or, use a knife to test the deep part of the breast meat; the juices should run clear.
Allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting into it.  This allow the delicious juices to redistribute.  (It also prevents you from burning your tongue.)
You will still have some pan juices, which I high recommend you serve with the chicken so that you can dip your meat, veggies, bread, etc. into it.  Food this good should not be wasted!

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