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A Roast Chicken Fairy Tale

Roast Chicken with Green Olives, Fennel Seeds and Thyme * Photo by Ellen Silverman

Roast Chicken with Green Olives, Fennel Seeds and Thyme * Photo by Ellen Silverman

The tale of my new cookbook, The Perfectly Roasted Chicken (Originally titled, A Bird in the Oven and Then Some), begins in 2002 on a sultry summer night in the deep south, where–around a hand dug pit of slow-roasting pigs–I fell for the affable gent who would soon be my husband. Steve was many things: a funny, talented, full-bearded and very sweet Southern guy who happened to be allergic to chicken (Huh!?!, yes, but hardly a deal-breaker). As part of his woo-ing, he took me on a tour of West Alabama’s Hale County. Our jaunt began with a drive through gently rolling countryside, then led to a cooling plunge into a local swimming hole. Post-dip, we swung ’round several of The Rural Studio’s stunning works of architecture–made largely from found and repurposed materials by the up-and-coming talent of Auburn University architecture students (Steve, by the way, is an architect who studied and later taught with the one and only, much-lauded and -loved, architect, artist, humanitarian and co-creator of The Rural Studio, the late Samuel Mockbee). We ended with a plate of ‘meat and 3’ and a pile of crispy fried okra at Mustang Oil, a local filling station diner and one of the coolest eating estabs I’ve ever had the luck of frequenting. Many gals can understand how a rendezvous like this could very quickly lead to an arrangement of nuptials. The seasons barely made it though one rotation before Steve and I were officially hitched.

Let’s fast forward to 2010. Happily married, Steve and I are living in NYC’s Washington Heights. I’m standing in my kitchen with a stack of whole raw chickens on one side of my cutting board, and a blank notebook and pen on the other, embarking on a lifelong dream: the writing of my first solo cookbook. It’s an entire book about roast chicken. Yes, of course; I know what you’re thinking: who is going to eat all this roast chicken, not to mention critique the works in progress, if the only other occupant of our dwelling–and my number one taster–can’t participate? I’ll get to that in a moment. Right now I’m thinking–how should this very first roast bird be flavored?

I knew I wanted to do something with olives. Not just any old olive, though. I’d purchased one of my favorite types: Cerignola from Apulia, Italy–a big, meaty sort with a lovely fruit flavor and only a bare hint of salt. Fresh thyme seemed and natural fit. I needed a third element, though, and wanted it to be a simple pantry ingredient. Something that many cooks would have at their fingertips. I took a bite of one of the olives, closing my eyes to consciously consider the basic make-up of the fruit, then took a deep whiff of the earthy bouquet of a twine-tied bunch of fresh thyme. Exploring a line-up of dried herbs and spices, my attention was drawn to a jar of fennel seeds. One bite of a little seed and I knew it–this was the key to a trifecta of goodness that I hoped would make my maiden chicken a huge success.

About 20 minutes after my roast chicken with green olives, fennel seeds and thyme came out of the oven — just when the bird had rested and was ready to be carved into and evaluated — Steve came home from work. I cut into the bird and juicy bits of olive, fennel seed, fresh thyme and tangy lemon zest fell onto the cutting board. Unable to resist, Steve covered a shred of the meat with a spoonful of warm jus and popped it into his mouth. Standing at the counter, he continued to consume until nearly half the bird was gone, without a hint of adverse reaction. Stunned, yet optimistic, we considered the best: the allergy had run its course. A few birds later, our hunch was confirmed. Steve had a new favorite dish and I had my best critic back on my team. I couldn’t have written the book without him.

Roast Chicken with Green Olives, Fennel Seeds and Thyme

1 (4-pound) whole chicken

1 cup green olives, preferably Lucques or Cerignola (about 10), pitted and finely chopped (3/4 cup chopped)

2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced

2 lemons

1 3/4 teaspoons fennel seeds

1/2 tablespoon flakey coarse sea salt, plus extra for serving


Heat the oven to 425ºF with the rack in the middle.

Pull off the excess fat around the cavities of chicken and discard. Rinse the chicken and pat dry very well, inside and out. From the edge of the cavity, slip a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, then use your fingers to gently but thoroughly loosen the skin from the meat of the breasts and thighs.

Mound the olives, thyme and garlic on your cutting board and finely chop them up together, then zest the lemons right over the top of the olive mixture, holding the zester close to the mixture so that you capture the flavorful oil that sprays from the lemons as you zest. Chop the mixture together a little more, then mix in the fennel seeds.

Working with about 1 tablespoon of the olive mixture at a time, gently push the olive mixture into the pockets you created between the chicken skin and meat, being careful not to tear the skin. Once you have put the mixture into the pockets, you can gently rub your hand over the outside of the skin to smooth out the mixture and push it further down between the skin and meat where you may not be able to reach with your hand.

Put chicken into a baking dish or skillet a bit larger than the chicken and season well with salt. Roast, turning the pan once, halfway through, until juices run clear when thigh is pierced with a fork, or an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165ºF, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove the pan from oven and let the chicken rest in the pan for 15 minutes, then baste with the juices.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board; carve and serve with the pan juices and extra salt for sprinkling.

FOOD & WINE magazine features BIRD!

Food & Wine magazine’s January issue included an exciting feature article chock-full of must-try trends for the year and beyond. Alongside José Andrés’ delectable duck confit tacos, Gabrielle Hamilton’s intense foodie memoir, and buttery, warm gougères made with Vermont’s Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound Cheddar…there it was: a gorgeous full-page photo of my recipe for Winter Chicken Salad with Citrus and Celery, and a great mention of A Bird in the Oven! Bird and I couldn’t be prouder. Two more Bird-inspired recipes, both developed exclusively for Food & Wine, were included in the issue. Find them here: Gumbo Z’herbes with Roasted Chicken and Andouille and Aleppo-Pepper-and-Mint Roasted Chicken

Q & A WITH Does Mommy Love It

The popular blog,  “Does Mommy Love It?” reviews stylish and healthy toys, books, clothes and much more for cool kids of all ages and moms. Here’s an excerpt from a fun interview I recently did with them:

DMLI: Does roast chicken work well as a dish for busy people and parents?

MF: Absolutely. Roast chicken is a fantastically delicious and also very basic dish. It requires just a few minutes of prep then goes right into the oven; there’s very little you need to do. I often knock out a few loads of laundry and catch up on a couple of phone calls while the bird cooks. Or, you can tidy up the kitchen and set the table. You’re not stirring, chopping, adding, etc., as the dish cooks, like you do with most other recipes.
Roast chicken is also great for busy people and parents because most kids love it. You can roast 2 birds at once and use leftovers to add healthy protein to simple sandwiches and pastas, soups, stews, chilies and more. Roast chicken freezes beautifully, so you can roast two bird and shred and freeze one of them for later; shred the meat from the bones (don’t toss the bones, which also freeze well and are great for making stock) and freeze it in a resealable plastic bag. The frozen chicken can be defrosted in the fridge overnight or heated, covered, in a low oven, for about 20 minutes. The leftovers come in handy when you need to throw together a quick dinner or make salads or sandwiches for lunch.

DMLI: How versatile is roast chicken?

MF: Endlessly versatile! This is the real fun of “A Bird in the Oven”. In the book there are
20 different ways to roast a chicken plus 20 healthy and delicious side dishes and then about 65 recipes for making quick dishes using roast chicken: things like Mexican Chicken Soup with Rice; Warm Chicken and Barley Salad with Skillet Mushrooms, Garlic and herbs; Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Roast Chicken, Smoked Mozzarella, and Rosemary; and Tomato-Chickpea Masala with Roast Chicken, Yogurt and Cilantro. I even found roast chicken to be great in breakfast dishes, like a Roasted Cherry Tomato, Chicken, Chèvre and Ciabatta Breakfast Sandwich! You can always pick-up a cooked rotisserie bird at the grocery store to make the roast chicken dishes, when that’s more convenient than using leftovers. Side dishes in the book include a lot of healthy grains and vegetables, but also some fun indulgences, like shoestring fries with 3 types of mayos for dipping.

DMLI: Can you make a great roast chicken using basic pantry ingredients?

MF: Yes! I make a Peruvian roast chicken using paprika, cumin, black pepper and dried oregano. There’s also a recipe for roast jerk chicken, that uses allspice, cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, onion, ginger, garlic and chilies; a lot of pantry and fridge basics can be put together to make a great bird.

DMLI: What are your top 3 secrets for the perfect roast chicken?

MF: Start with a good bird. This could be a properly raised (organic or not) from supermarket. Look for respected regional brands that raise birds without the use of hormones or antibiotics, or buy a local bird from your farmers market. Avoid ‘enhanced’ chickens; enhanced refers to a solution of water, salt and sodium phosphate that is injected into the bird to flavor and tenderize it, neither of which should be necessary, and it adds loads more sodium to the chicken than anyone should be eating. Get a good bird and use a good salt to flavor it, instead.

Number two, before seasoning the bird, give it a rinse and then use paper towel to pat it dry very well. Wad up some paper towel to dry the cavity, as well. You really want a nice dry bird to begin with. This is how you get good crispy skin.

Lastly, two things I’m never without when I go to the stove to make a roast chicken are: a cast iron skillet, or other heavy skillet or small roasting pan (I like the enameled cast iron type), and a good-quality coarse flaky sea salt, like Malden. I go into more detail in the “A Bird in the Oven” about tools and basic ingredients. You don’t need many and nothing fancy is required, but it is helpful to know which to use. That’s the beauty of roast chicken—it is exceptionally simple and delicious! read the complete story