A Roast Chicken Fairy Tale
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
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.