A good roast chicken will never let you down. It’s elegant enough for a party, homey enough for family dinner. Especially in this “shoulder season” of weather, roast chicken, sparked with lemon, garlic and fresh herbs, is nourishing yet light.
The key to this dish? The right chicken. You want a free-range roaster chicken that’s been left to run and scratch around the barnyard, not one of those birds packed into a crate on a factory farm. You can buy free-range chickens directly from a farmer at our farmers markets or by joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription service (providing a chicken a month) through Main Street Project Farm mainstreetproject.org/csa. You can also seek out free-range chickens in our food co-ops, independent butchers and in the meat department of grocery stores. Roasters are the biggest chickens and weigh in at about 5 to 6 pounds.
The free range and heritage chickens cook a bit differently from commercially raised birds. Because they get more exercise and grow slowly, their breasts are smaller and the thighs tend to be larger. Their flavor is richer; some say “more chickeney.”
I like to spatchcock the chicken for better roasting. The backbone and sternum are removed and the chicken is spread out in the pan. Once opened up like a book, the flattened bird cooks evenly and in less time because more of the surface is exposed to the heat. To do this, you only need poultry shears and a steady hand.
We start the roasting in a hot oven for a short time to crisp the skin and seal in the juices, then reduce the temperature to cook the bird for a long time so that the meat is so tender it falls from the bone. Rubbing a bit of softened butter and chopped herbs under and over the skin keeps the meat moist and adds flavor. A little white wine mingles with the pan juices for occasional basting.
With very little attention, the chicken practically cooks itself. Then, when everyone wanders into the kitchen, wondering what smells so good, it’s time to eat.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.