Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad

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One of my culinary goals this winter was to make Zuni Roast Chicken, the legendary dish from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. The recipes is included in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, a 500-page collection of recipes from Chef-owner Judy Rodgers.

I checked out a copy of the cookbook from the library and dove into page after page of delicious sounding recipes. But one thing I realized is that the recipes seemed needlessly detailed and complicated. The recipe for roast chicken alone takes up four-and-a-half pages. I almost aborted my mission right then. But luckily, Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen simplified the recipe down to the basics, creating a more user-friendly version for home cooks. I referred to both the original recipe and Deb’s “cliffs notes” version as I made this dish.

The roast chicken is actually remarkably simple. According to Judy Rodgers, Zuni Roast Chicken depends on three things—a small bird (ideally free range), high heat, and salting the bird at least 24 hours in advance. Rodgers is a big proponent of “the practice of salting early,” which “improves the flavor [of the chicken], keeps it moist and makes it tender.”

I also made the accompanying bread salad, which Rodgers describes as “sort of a scrappy extramural stuffing, it is a warm mix of crispy, tender and chewy chunks of bread, a little slivered garlic and scallion, a scatter of currants and pine nuts, and a handful of greens, all moistened with vinaigrette and chicken drippings.” The bread salad certainly ups the complexity of the dish, however, so only include it in your plans if you have amble time and patience.

This chicken is, without a doubt, the best chicken I have ever tasted. The bread salad is also incredibly tasty. Below is the recipe for the roast chicken, along with a link for the bread salad, if you’re so inclined. If nothing else, try to the roast chicken. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Zuni Roast Chicken With Bread Salad (from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and Smitten Kitchen; serves 2-4)

One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage
Salt
About 1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
A little water
Bread Salad with Currants and Pine Nuts, for serving

Seasoning the chicken
(1-3 days before serving; for 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 pound chickens, at least 2 days)
Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Using your fingers, gently loosen the skin from the chicken breasts and thighs, and stuff an herb spring under the skin in each pocket. Sprinkle salt and pepper liberally all over the chicken (3/4 teaspoon sea salt per pound of chicken). Cover loosely and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.

Roasting the chicken
Preheat the oven to 475°. Preheat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Put the chicken in the skillet, breast side up, and roast for 30 minutes. Turn the chicken breast side down and roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a board and let rest for 10 minutes; carve.

Skim the fat from the juices in the skillet. Arrange the Bread Salad with Currants and Pine Nuts on a platter and top with the chicken. Pour the juices over all and serve.

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