Chicken with two lemons

by Ben on March 1, 2010 · 19 comments

in Gluten Free, Index, Italian, Poultry

Years ago, in what could fairly be described as a life-altering moment, my wife and I first tasted the Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad, a dish that has rapidly developed a cultish following among foodies worldwide. We instantly concluded that there was no reason to roast chicken any other way. We made it repeatedly, with and without the salad. We used a similar technique on Thanksgiving turkey. Erin even tried to enter it in my annual beercan chicken competition. So I was more than intrigued by the following email from my sister  Daisy (who had clued me in on the Zuni chicken in the first place):

I tried her roast chicken from that book you gave me.
You take a chicken and you stuff two small lemons in it. Salt the bird, sew it up and lightly truss. Roast for 90 minutes, until the skin is golden and puffed up so that the chicken looks like a crunchy balloon. When you slice into it, the meat is so juicy that the balloon explodes, and this intensely, surprisingly flavorful meat falls off the bone, deeply basted in its own fat and the lemons, which had totally deflated and caramelized in there.

It was shocking. Just chicken, lemon, salt.

With a Viognier, it was basically heaven.

“That book” was Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I had already been toying with the idea of this blog, and the thought of posting a picture of this magical, juicy, non-Zuni-yet-somehow-relevant, balloon–chicken was too appealing to pass up. So I was on it.

Like I’ve said before, though I’m very interested in and passionate about food, I’m still a bit of a n00b when it comes to cooking. So while someone with a bit more chops in the kitchen might be able to take a roast chicken recipe and adapt it on the fly to account for nonideal circumstances, I followed the recipe (mostly) by the letter. I was disappointed to find that the chicken was:

  1. Not a balloon! Possibly the most disappointing aspect of the bird. Erin, with her trusty Nikon D80 cocked and ready to shoot, just patted me on shoulder. “We’ll get ‘em next time …”
  2. Not crispy on the outside. I’ve come to expect the wonderfully salty, parchment-like skin that accompanies a Zuni chicken. And this one just didn’t have it.
  3. Not actually cooked enough for my taste (although safe to eat at 165). A little reddish, and a still a little rare in texture.

So what had gone wrong? This was supposed to be a simple recipe. Was it the case, as I had suspected all along, that one needs innate skills to cook anything of consequence? I got on the horn with tech support (Daisy) and made some very minor modifications to the recipe. I tried it again a week later and it knocked my socks off. My daughter inhales it. Yes, there apparently is life beyond Zuni roast chicken. It’s not better than Judy Rodgers’s classic recipe, but different and equally satisfying. I now make some variation of it every week.

I’ve since passed on my modifications to Hazan’s recipe numerous times, and felt that they would be useful to share in this forum. However, I was recently chagrined to find that I was partially “scooped” by Michael Ruhlman, who wrote a witty and insightful post about American food culture, laziness, and roast chicken. It even inspired my brother-in-law (himself terrified of the kitchen), to give it a whirl. Via SMS txt:

A chicken + 1 hr = I cooked something. AWESOME.

The one criticism I would have about Ruhlman’s post is that, in its glibness (which is arguably a huge part of its appeal), it does gloss over the fact that someone who has never roasted a chicken in his life could very easily make the same mistakes I did, and end up with something … uninspiring. To be fair, these people are somewhat unlikely to be reading a professional food writer’s blog. I have instead chosen to go over things in pedantic detail, hoping to show that anyone can make this elegant and practical dish.

Note:  I’ve made this at least a dozen times, and I still have never gotten the skin on the bird to puff up like a balloon. Every time, I think: “This chicken is going to be The One.” I’ve googled around, and found that this has mostly to do with how intact the skin is on the bird upon purchase. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. If anyone can actually get this to work, could you please email me a picture? I just want to see what the SOB looks like!

* * * * *

Chicken with two lemons
adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

A 3 – 4 lb. chicken*
Salt
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
2 rather small lemons

*I have successfully used a larger bird—see below

Selecting the bird I believe that it’s worth paying up for a quality chicken. Particularly in the Bay Area, it’s very easy to find sustainably farmed chickens. They tend to cost about twice as much as the factory ones, but the advantages include (1) the animals are treated humanely; and (2), related to point (1), birds taste significantly better when they’ve been treated well. You don’t have to go crazy. If you live near a Trader Joe’s, they usually offer several varieties. One thing that is sometimes difficult to find, however, is a bird that actually weighs only 3 – 4 lbs. The first time I made this, I couldn’t find one. So I used a 4 – 5 lb chicken. What’s the difference? Cooking time, for one. Huge difference. That’s why you can’t just count on putting the chicken in for an hour (as Ruhlman suggests) unless the bird is actually this size. Also, there is a lot more skin per ounce on a smaller bird, which, in addition to being delicious, does a better job trapping moisture and keeping the meat  tender, particularly for high-heat recipes like Zuni or Ruhlman’s. I’ve done it both ways, but I usually buy a larger bird, because I’m busy and I want to stretch it to more meals. If prepared as I describe below, it still tastes great.

Salting the bird Marcella suggests rinsing the bird, removing all the fat, patting it dry, and letting it sit for 10 minutes for the liquid to drain out. I don’t do it this way.

Rinsing is OK, but I think optional. As Jacques Pepin has said, anything that survives the heat of the oven deserves to live. Also, the FDA recommends against rinsing and potentially contaminating your sink. Doesn’t really matter to me. If it makes you feel better, rinse it.

But for the love of God, DO NOT CUT OFF THE FAT. This recipe was originally published about 35 years ago, and since then, chickens are bred to be quite a bit leaner, especially if they’re big. But don’t worry, much of the fat will come off in the drippings. And you’re not required to eat the delectable skin. You want what fat stays in the bird to give it moisture and flavor.

I also think that you need more than 10 minutes to drain. What I do is salt the bird down at least a day in advance. That’s Judy Rodgers talking. If you’ve made the Zuni roast chicken before, you don’t really question this step. But long story short, the “dry brine” technique gives the meat flavor, moisture and tenderness. Also, letting the bird sit for this long ensures that excess liquid drains out. What you want is for the skin to be blistered and dry, while the meat inside is juicy and tender. The draining step accomplishes this. It also makes it faster for me to prep the chicken on the day of roasting—it’s almost ready to throw in the oven when I get home from work.

To salt down the bird, put a generous amount of kosher salt (about 1 – 2 T, depending on grain size) and mix it in a small pinch bowl with plenty of freshly crushed black pepper (amount is a matter of taste). Set the chicken in a large bowl or baking dish and rub the salt/pepper inside and out, rubbing more salt on the meatier parts (e.g., the breast meat). Cover loosely with saran wrap and put it in the refrigerator for 1 – 3 days. In a pinch, overnight is better than nothing. On the day of roasting, pat the chicken dry with paper towels.

Preheating the oven I often hear or read 10 minutes to preheat an oven. I don’t know where people come up with this number, but 10 minutes is definitely not enough time for my (gas) oven to come to 350 degrees. Buy an oven thermometer for $2 and get the oven to 350. In my kitchen, this takes at least 20 minutes.

The lemons The recipe calls for washing two lemons, softening them by rolling with pressure on a hard counter, and poking 20 holes in each. I use a poultry lacing needle (although a toothpick will do—they just tend to break) and put as many holes in those lemons as I can without injuring myself.

Preparing the bird Put the two lemons in the cavity and close up the openings with toothpicks or needle/string. Hazan suggests very loosely trussing the bird only to prevent the thighs from splitting apart as the skin balloons. Well, like I said, I don’t really have that problem. I think the trussing is optional. I’ve done it both ways. What you get with trussing is more even cooking. What you get without trussing is more exposed skin to get brown and crispy. Up to you.

Put the chicken into a roasting pan, breast side down. I use a 10″ skillet for this. What matters most here is not the material (I use cast iron), but the size. The bird is self-basting, so you want a pan just large enough to hold it, but small enough that the drippings don’t evaporate.

Roasting Put the pan/skillet in the upper third of the oven and cook for 35 minutes. Turn the chicken to have the breast side facing up, and cook another 35 minutes. Increase the oven thermostat to 400 (mine will actually only get to around 375 before the chicken is done). Using a meat thermometer, check the temperature of the meatiest part of the thigh about once every 20 minutes. Cook until the thigh is between 170 and 175. For my 4 – 5 lb bird, this ends up at around 2 hours of total cooking time. You don’t need to turn the chicken again.

Resting Remove the chicken from the skillet and let it rest on a serving platter or large plate for 15 minutes before serving. A lot of juices will flow out of the chicken during resting and carving (particularly if the chicken was wet-brined). Spoon these over the chicken slices when serving. 

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16 comments… read them below or add one

Amy March 2, 2010 at 9:35 am

I am still reeling from last night’s dinner at Gary Danko’s, but I’m almost inspired to take on the chicken balloon challenge.

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Ben March 2, 2010 at 10:04 am

I’m almost jealous. Game on, sister!

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Amy March 2, 2010 at 1:55 pm

I just bought my 3.02 pound chicken and 2 “rather small lemons”. It’s on.

Also, your trussing method may be preventing the ballooning. I believe the criss-crossing happens inside the bird. Have you tried trussing the bird in other ways?

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Ben March 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Ya, the first bunch of times I tried it, I didn’t truss it at all. I just closed it up with toothpicks. The pictured bird had obvious holes in the skin from the beginning, so I bailed early on the ballooning attempt. Curious to see if it works for you, though!

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Michelle March 4, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I just came across your blog via Amy’s blog. This is not exactly recipe related, but I’ve found that the Zuni Roasted Chicken, though delightfully delicious and perfect in every which way, creates quite a disastrous mess in the oven. Have you figured out a way to clean the oven without subjecting the household to EZ Off fumes?

BTW–this is Michelle, Jack’s mom.

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Ben March 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Hi, Michelle! Hm, perhaps I’m not the best person to ask. I don’t have self-cleaning oven either, and I’ve only cleaned it once in the 4.5 years that we’ve lived here. I used oven cleaner, though I know it’s not the best for the world.

I’ve heard of people leaving a bowl of 0.5X ammonia in the oven and letting it sit overnight. Also, cleaning with baking soda and vinegar. Dunno … sounds like a lot of work.

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angi April 5, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Yo Ben,

For the record, this ‘Zuni with Two Lemons’ totally wins over the one from Ad Hoc at Home. In fact, it wasn’t even a close contest…which is incredible considering:

1. It’s freakin’ Thomas Keller
2. He puts butter all over the chicken

The only saving grace of his recipe are the incredible roasted root vegetables that go with his chicken.

So in our house, we now combine all three recipes into a tasty meal. Chicken as written here and then in a separate roasting pan, leeks+carrots+fennel+potatoes+rutabagas+onions+whatever tossed with olive oil+salt+pepper. Then dots of butter on top and roast the whole thing next to the chicken. When chicken comes out of the oven, skim off as much of the fat as you can (or want to) from the leftover drippings and pour all the rest of the good stuff onto the veggies and toss. We also add in the juices from carving the chicken because I’m Chinese and cannot waste anything meat-related. ;)

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Ben April 5, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Nice! I’ve also recently tried Joel Robuchon’s roast chicken, which was also good, but not remarkably better, especially considering the 90g of butter that go into it. I did scatter chopped giblets into the pan again last time, and that definitely doesn’t hurt. So, maybe an Ad Hoc-Zuni-Yoda-Chicken-with-2-lemons is really the winner?

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angi April 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Ben, we should write our own cookbook, one with recipes where each one is a combination of a bunch of famous chefs’ versions of the same thing. :D

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Ben April 5, 2010 at 2:26 pm

We can call it: “Mashed Up: A Compendium of Unlikely Combinations” And the cover illustration can be a Photoshop merge of Paula Deen and Wylile Dufresne.

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angi April 5, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I believe we may know a few people who can help with that cover…

Amy July 27, 2010 at 11:43 am

Just made Chicken with 2 Lemons again. I don’t know why, but every time I make this I’m always surprised at how moist and tasty the chickens come out. I think this is truly a fail-safe recipe. MY mom can’t get over it either!

I’m not sure when I’ll be blogging again, but hopefully soon. I think I need to go back to Lyon for more inspiration. :-)

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Ben July 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Amy, I make this every week and I still can’t get over how awesome the method is. Hits all the main points: salt, fat, acid, and umami! As you may have noticed, I’ve lately been switching it up and using marinades, rubs, etc. It kills every single time.

Re: blogging I’m sure you can find plenty of inspiration in the ‘Wood. :)

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Meg @ Soup Is Not A Finger Food December 5, 2010 at 10:55 am

I’m totally doing this next time I roast a bird. Yum!

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Meg @ Soup Is Not A Finger Food November 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm

It just so happens that I have a chicken in the fridge, and lemons, but no time for the salting business. Still, I’m trying this tonight… I remembered something about a simple recipe involving a chicken and a couple of lemons and I thought I remembered you wrote about it. My memory served me well!

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Ben April 5, 2010 at 2:34 pm

… illustrated by Matthew C. Good, PhD

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