A plain cook: on chicken

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In her regular series, award-winning blogger and best-selling author Laura Hutton explores simple ingredients that can make the daily necessities a delicious pleasure. This month: chicken

Words: Laura Hutton

Hardly a week goes by without chicken on my table. In fact, it’s almost a steady stream of chicken. And pasta. Except when it is mince. It seems unimaginative to consider roast chicken for feast days, but I live with culinarily difficult people and chicken is about the only thing everyone agrees on.

So I’m thinking about it for Father’s Day.

I am trying to think of something different and nothing is coming to mind. Except the realisation that my chicken cookery has evolved with the times. In much the same way a song can take you back to a specific time and place, it seems possible to use chicken as a benchmark for any given era. The chicken timeline of life.

As a kid, it was chicken teriyaki on the barbecue; California in the seventies. Later it was coq au vin and poulet sauté type things; France in the eighties. There was a period of wrapping chicken breasts in prosciutto, I seem to recall. Nineties? Then brining became a thing—I used to joke that if it moved my mother would brine it and, since we always talk recipes, we always talked brining. And it always involved a chicken.

Formula for disaster
Finally, common sense prevailed and tray bakes came to the fore. I love a good tray bake. They are simple, pretty and, if you line the tray with baking parchment, they are also easy to clean up after. But a tray bake is usually about feeding a crowd and packs of multiple chicken pieces are not the most cost effective. Unless the chicken is so cheap as to be inhumanely and unsoundly produced. Nor should you consider boneless chicken breasts for this treatment. Actually, boneless chicken breasts are almost always a formula for disaster. I have yet to find a way to cook them that does not end up tough and/or stringy (schnitzel excepted, but that is basically a whole other thing in itself).

Here’s the thing: If you want to eat chicken, buy a chicken. The whole thing. From a butcher.

Even better, ask your butcher to spatchcock it for you. Firstly, a whole chicken is always a better buy than individual pieces. Secondly, roasting whole has the disadvantage of uneven cooking. If the legs and thighs are cooked, the breast meat is usually overcooked. But flatten it out and problem solved; cooking is even. It is also infinitely easier to carve for serving.

The rest is down to oven temperature. Slow and low. The method, in a nutshell: Season well on both sides with salt. Line a baking tray large enough to comfortably hold the flattened chicken with baking parchment and set the spatchcocked chicken on top, skin side up and press down to flatten it. Rub the skin lightly with olive oil or a bit of butter, or both as you like. Or neither; it is optional. A bay leaf or two tucked underneath imparts a pleasant perfume. Wash your hands well after handling raw chicken and surfaces too.

Enjoy the simplicity
That’s it, seasoning wise. There are various reasons for this. 1) I live in a plain house. 2) I use the bones for stock. Always. Never roast a chicken without recycling the bones for stock. And since I make stock, I like to keep the flavours unadorned. 3) If it is a good quality chicken, it is nice to enjoy the simplicity.

If the plain-ness is too much to bear, add to the tray a halved lemon and a head or two of garlic rubbed lightly with olive oil and sliced at the top to reveal the cloves. Sprinkle lightly with dried thyme leaves. Squeeze the baked lemon over the chicken at the end of cooking and serve the roasted garlic alongside for squishing on the chicken as desired.

So the menu for our plain Father’s Day feast will be roast spatchcock chicken, accompanied by boiled new potatoes tossed in butter, and two trays of oven-roasted veg: one of lightly olive oiled thin-ish carrots and the other of spring onions. Plus three simple sauces, because a trinity is always a good thing. And because it would be far too plain otherwise.

Read Laura’s recipe for roast chicken with three sauces