Nuggets of wisdom about roast chicken

Experts reveal how to attain dish that's worth savoring

January 02, 2008|By Joyce White | Joyce White,Tribune Media Services

A rack of bronzed chickens revolving in a head-high rotisserie near the entrance door to the shop on rue de Bretagne in the Marais section of Paris halted my steps.

It was late morning on a Sunday and I had just arrived in the City of Light, hungry and a little excited. In moments, the inviting aroma set in, and I looked up and saw the sign on the front of the shop, which read: "Jean Marc Stevenot: Maitre Volailler," or certified poultry expert.

I took my place in the queue outside, brushing shoulders with chic Parisians carrying the makings of Sunday dinner at home: baguettes of breads, aromatic cheese, fragrant tarts and cakes, a bottle or two of wine in hand.

I finally entered the shop and glanced over at the side dishes on display: burnished potatoes; roasted peppers glistening with herbs and oil; an array of gratins made with potatoes, squash and spinach; salads; coleslaw; and ratatouille, the savory eggplant dish that seems to be taking Paris by storm.

I bought a half-roast chicken with potatoes and ratatouille for sides, picked up a half-bottle of beaujolais wine on the way back to my little studio and settled in for Sunday dinner, French-style, where a roast chicken or two often grace the table.

Roast chicken is seemingly ubiquitous in France, favored as much in the countryside as in Paris, savored in both simple bistros and highbrow emporiums alike. Over the years in France, I have enjoyed roast chicken tucked with truffles, surrounded by morel mushrooms and potatoes at highbrow emporiums, as well as the simple herbaceous offering dished out daily at corner rotisseries in Paris.

Always on the lookout for a new roast-chicken recipe, a few days after I arrived in Paris during my recent visit, I walked back over to rue de Bretagne and introduced myself to Stevenot, who took time from his busy enterprise to tell me about his business. He lent me a book about how chickens are raised in the Landes region in southwestern France. Those are the only poultry he uses in his shop.

Stevenot also imparted these nuggets of wisdom about the chickens he uses: Free range is de rigueur. Corn-fed is the best diet and you can tell this by the chicken's yellow flesh, which reflects what the bird eats. The other touted region for superb chickens is Bresse, which is in eastern France near Burgundy and Jura.

"The best roast chicken is made in a gas rotisserie with flame," he said, "because the flame breaks the skin and melts the chicken's natural fat and the skin becomes crispy. ... No oil or butter is used."

I shrugged, regretting for once that I live in a high-rise apartment in New York City that forbids open-gas or charcoal-flame cookers. But a week later, my spirit was lifted.

"You do have an oven at home," said Claude Layrac, the owner of Paris's venerable Allard, a restaurant located in the heart of the Left Bank, touted for its whole roast chicken for two served with girolle or chanterelle mushrooms.

Layrac spent a few moments telling me how he makes his famous oven-roast chicken. No rotisserie gadgets in his kitchen, he said right away. No chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, either, he said, a technique favored by some cooks and food editors, who claim the rack allows air to circulate under the chicken and causes the skin to end up crispier.

The chickens at Allard are roasted at 250 degrees Celsius, he said, which is about 480 degrees Fahrenheit - hot indeed. The roasted potatoes and mushrooms aren't cooked with the chicken. Separately, he said, nonchalantly.

"Simple is the best way," said Layrac. "Salt, pepper, butter, a little thyme, a bay leaf, a few shallots. I use garlic at home but you got to be careful in a restaurant - some people don't like garlic or too much herbs."

Then he fell silent, in thought for a moment. "Don't forget the water," he said, surprising me a little bit. "A little water, mix with the butter and herbs and you pour it in the pan around the chicken. Start the chicken on the back, cook for 15 minutes, turn breast down for 15 minutes, and then back on back and finish cooking. That's all."

I followed his directions, adjusting the cooking time for 475 degrees, and turned the chicken twice on its breast, to allow for more even browning. I also boosted the herbs and garlic, which are savored in my kitchen. And the bird was lovely.

I also like this chicken roasted with sage or rosemary. A good sprinkling of salt helps to seal the skin.

Joyce White writes for Tribune Media Services.

Sunday Roast Chicken

Serves 4 to 6

1 whole free-range chicken, from 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 pounds, no larger

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or less if desired

freshly ground black pepper

2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme

2 or 3 small shallots, peeled (divided use)

lemon or lime peel, 3- or 4-inch-size pieces

1 cup water or dry white wine or mixture of water and wine or 1 cup of water mixed with 2 or 3 tablespoons dark rum

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon oil, such as grapeseed

1 large bay leaf, broken into pieces

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

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