Roast chicken revisited

I posted some time ago about Marcella Hazan‘s extremely simple (and not particularly Italian) roast chicken recipe. I make this all the time and have refined the procedure a bit. The result is absolute perfection these days.

Here’s the modified recipe – the key is to observe the ratio of weight to cooking time to the letter, to really loosen and puncture the lemons (whose purpose I now understand better), and to follow the trussing instructions to a tee. The addition of good paprika adds a really nice color and a smoky undertone. The higher temperature at the end leaves you with a really golden-brown, crackly skin – just be sure to disable the smoke detector before that part.

one 2.85 – 3.85 lb whole chicken (preferably Murray’s)
two small lemons
good, fresh Hungarian semi-sharp paprika (e.g. from The Spice House)
coarse sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
butcher twine
trussing needle

Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove giblets and neck, pat chicken completely dry with paper towels, both inside and out. Put two tablespoons salt in a mortar, add a generous dump of the semi-sharp paprika, and a good amount of freshly ground black pepper. Grind with pestle. Season chicken thoroughly all over, inside and out. (You don’t need to use all the seasoning – it may get too salty – just make sure you have covered with a thin layer.)

Wash and dry lemons, then loosen their insides by rolling them with both hands pressed firmly on top until you can feel that the juice is flowing. Pierce them deeply all over at least 20 times each with the trussing needle. Insert into cavity of chicken.

Sew chicken closed with 18″ twine. If lemons don’t quite fit, use skin flaps and the pope’s nose to close the gap (I never remove any fat). Sew tightly. Truss legs tightly together so that they are pressed firmly against the breast (you may need the help of someone’s finger to get the knot right).

Place chicken upside-down (legs facing DOWN) in a glass baking dish and put in oven. Cook for 30 minutes at 350.

Remove chicken from oven and rapidly turn over (legs facing UP). Return to oven and cook for an additional 30 minutes (for a 3-3.85 lb chicken) or for an additional 25 minutes (for an under-3 lb chicken).

Now turn heat up to 450. Cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carve. Save the juices that run onto the carving board and pour them over the chicken (and over the white rice, which I strongly recommend serving with this dish) – they are “perfectly delicious,” to quote Marcella.

Note: No basting is needed! Again, to quote Marcella, “This bird is self-basting.”

I’m not certain why this recipe is always such a success, but I think it’s due to the following:

– The salt opens the pores inside the cavity
– The punctured lemons inside the trussed-up cavity baste the upside-down breast in the first phase, keeping it moist
– The trussed legs protect the breast from drying out on the other side
– Because the breast is both moist and protected, it’s possible to cook the dark meat to the degree required for doneness
– The paprika lends the skin an appetizing reddish-brown color – appearance is a huge part of what makes things tasty!

Try it and report back!