Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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Spring Chicken
Perfect roast chicken every time, and what to drink with it!

by Jonathon Alsop
May 2001

In one of MFK Fisher's brilliant food essays -- there are so many I can't begin to remember which one -- she gives a recipe for some chicken dish, and the first instruction reads, "Roast a nice chicken." It goes on from there in great detail about steps two and three and so on, but the roasting of a chicken is so essential that Fisher doesn't even bother to elaborate. The implication is clear: if you don't know how to roast a nice chicken, turn back now.

Roast chicken is a simple recipe: wash, trim, stuff, tie; douse with oil and herbs; roast in a hot oven till it's perfect. The thing that makes a roast chicken better than good is the cumulative effect of a few techniques, tips, and secrets that can't really be communicated on a 3-by-5 recipe card. That and a great bottle of wine.

In Praise of Scrawny Chickens As counterintuitive as this may seem, the best roasting chickens are the smallest of the bunch. It's the skin-to-meat ratio that's important here, and you want the most skin possible when roasting. It's better to do two four-pound chickens than one seven-pounder. Asking for the "smallest, scrawniest chicken you've got" always gets a laugh at the meat counter, too.

Trim Snip off the tail and the tips of the wings just above the last joint. In a hot oven, the wing tips can get charred and burnt, and at a certain temperature, the tail can impart some really nasty aroma sometimes. Get rid of that blob of fat that sometimes adheres to the chicken's torso while you're at it. Yuck.

Inside Stuffing versus Outside Stuffing Stuffing the cavity of the chicken with onion or celery doesn't honestly impart any flavor. The reason for doing this is so the chicken cooks evenly from the outside in. If the cavity is vacant, it creates a hot center while the chicken roasts, and this tends to dry the bird out. If you want to do something that adds flavor, stuff the chicken beneath the skin.

On The Side Once my chicken is ready to go into the oven, I toss some tiny red potatoes and a few un-peeled cloves of garlic right into the roasting pan. Other roasting vegetables work well too: parsnips, leeks, squash, or big chunks for carrot.

Running a Temperature Before you start cooking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature, and after you're done cooking, let your dish cool for five minutes before serving.

Herb Roasted Chicken Serves four

1 4-pound chicken
1 medium onion, quartered
Cotton string
2 bacon slices, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon each, rosemary, sage, basil

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees. Discard the giblets. Wash the chicken and cut off the tail and wing tips. Put the quartered onion in the cavity and tie the ends of the legs together with string. Slide the diced bacon beneath the skin around the breast and legs. Put the chicken in a medium roasting pan or cast iron skillet. Drizzle the olive oil over the chicken. Sprinkle the herbs on top so they make a coating. Roast for 45 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and roast another 30 minutes. Adjust the final cooking time to the weight of the chicken, adding 10 minutes per pound over four pounds.

1998 Pouilly-Fuisse "La Roche" Pouilly-Fuisse (pronounced "poo-wee fwee-say," and I'm not kidding) is a classic white Burgundy from France that is 100 percent chardonnay. If you've only had California chardonnay, you will be hard pressed to place this one because it is entirely in the French style: light on the oak and fruit, strong on mineral flavors and bright acidity. Pouilly-Fuisse is a classic example of a wine that drinks beautifully with food (crispy-skinned roast chicken, especially) but can be tough to love on its own. Don't be scared if it isn't yummy right out of the bottle. Let is swish around in your mouth with a bite of chicken and herbs, and you'll feel the magic. About $18, available at The Wine Vault in Framingham and others. A bargain variation is Saint-Veran, the next town over from Pouilly-Fuisse but without the famous name. Saint-Veran sells for about $11, and itís nearly identical.

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