Roast Chicken (Poulet Rôti )
When I was a student in Strasbourg, France, I was not the American girl who came home twenty pounds heavier from all the pastry I consumed. My idea of French food heaven was a hunk of stinky cheese, a thick slice of paté de porc (because I couldn’t afford the duck or goose liver) and a baguette. I rarely ate pastry—expect for my daily croissant and pain au chocolat washed down with un grand café au lait.
Back in the ‘70s, French university students were expected to eat at a Resto U (Restaurant Universitaire). They were mean little places that bore no resemblance to a restaurant and offered up food that was as far from our idealized version of French cuisine as you could get: thin, watery yogurt and a version of steak frites that made us all wonder if we were being served the horsemeat of urban legend.
Our year abroad was pre-paid and included housing, tuition, a monthly book of meal tickets at the said Resto U and spending money amounting to 600 francs (roughly $100) per month. It wasn’t enough to get me into a better class of food establishment, so like any spoiled American living abroad, I wrote home and laid it on thick. University food was just too vile and I should not be expected to eat it and I was sure they were serving us horsemeat. My parents sent me another $100 per month and I was liberated from the Resto U for the duration.
Still, I was careful with my money and economized where I could so that I would have enough left over to do a bit of traveling. This was how I learned that a restaurant’s midday offerings were the same quantities for less money than the evening fare so I took to eating my main meal at lunchtime. An American classmate (whose disdain for the Resto U equaled mine) and I would often frequent the same neighborhood establishment every day of the week. It was cheap and cheerful but made us both feel we were living it up.
It was at this little neighborhood establishment—whose name I no longer recall—that I ate my first poulet rôti accompanied by thin, crispy frites and a few leaves of lettuce drenched in a sharp vinaigrette. I had never had anything like it and to this day it is one of my favorite meals—crispy-skinned, moist chicken served with its jus along with well-seasoned, thin-cut frites and a simple green salad. It is a quintessentially French meal and utterly delicious, especially with a nice glass of Burgundy.
It is also a meal that can be made at home. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child writes, “You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken.” That, to me, sounds like a setup.
When I was taking French cooking classes from Henri-Etienne Lévy in New York back in the ’80s, I watched him truss a small, three pound bird and roast it at 425° for forty minutes without breaking a sweat or hovering over it like a helicopter parent. He was terrific at deconstructing technique and instilling confidence.
After watching my teacher, I went home and roasted a chicken myself the very next night. It turned out perfectly and I continued to roast chicken without fear many more times and then, inexplicably, I stopped. In part, I suppose, I fell victim to the trap of picking up a freshly cooked rotisserie chicken at the corner of 86th and Broadway on the way home from work whenever I had a craving. Then when my husband and I lived in Brussels I discovered the rotisserie chicken trucks at the local markets where the sight of all those lovely little golden brown chickens rotating on their spits with the fat collecting below on pan-roasted potatoes convinced me that I never again need roast a chicken at home.
Lately, though, I have had a yearning to roast chicken at home after a splendid meal at Rotisserie Georgette in Manhattan. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the most opulently furnished establishment pretending to be a humble rotisserie chicken restaurant, the meal was exceptional. Of course it wasn’t just that the chicken was wonderfully crispy-skinned and succulent or that the pommes frites were fried and seasoned to perfection, it was the whole New York-dining-experience-as-theatre that made it so memorable. You can really get your money’s worth in New York if you know where to go.
My husband and I had driven up to New York from Delaware on a Saturday to take in an exhibit at MOMA. I’d read about Rotisserie Goergette in the Times which had given it a good review and was eager to try it. Luckily, we were seated at the end table along the banquette wall so that we were seated perpendicular from one another with my husband having a view down the line of tables. He said he had to force himself not to stare too much because two tables over (there was an empty table in between) was seated what can only be described as a certain kind of Upper East Side wealthy middle-aged couple with their adult son and his wife out for a Saturday lunch in this gilded restaurant that is pretending to serve homey French bistro fare for a lot of money. I doubt they saw the irony.
The older woman, with her unnaturally tight skin, was sporting a ring with what had to be at least 3 karats worth of diamonds nestled around it. Next to her was a Chanel bag and at one point during their mealtime conversation I overheard her asking her husband how much he had paid for it several years ago. “Oh about $2,000”, he replied. “Well I just went to Bloomingdales”, she exclaimed, “and it costs $5,500 now and there’s a waiting list!” You cannot make this stuff up.
Back home, I decided it was time to try my hand again at my own roast chicken. It proved to be somewhat intimidating after all these years. I kept hearing Julia Child (usually so nonjudgmental) saying, “You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken.” I used the method I had learned in New York more than thirty years ago on a small, grass-fed bird that I bought at a farmer’s market in Pennsylvania. Let’s just say Julia would not have pronounced me competent.
But then my husband discovered a roasting technique on the website of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the educational arm of Chef Dan Barber’s critically acclaimed restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. It is reminiscent of the roasting technique for standing rib roast made popular several decades ago where you place the roast in a very hot oven, roast for a time, then turn the oven off for a few hours to finish it. The trick is not to open the oven door.
Another beautiful farm-raised small chicken, a cast iron skillet to hold it, some garlic, lemon wedges and freshly snipped rosemary to fill the cavity and I was ready to try again. The method calls for heating the oven to 500°, roasting the bird—that has been seasoned and slathered with butter or olive oil—breast side up for twenty to twenty-five minutes until the skin is golden and then turning the oven off to continue cooking for a further forty minutes to an hour until done.
Of course, the problem is since you are not supposed to open the oven, you will have to estimate the cooking time. I roasted my 3.5 pound bird for twenty minutes before I turned the oven off and waited another forty-five minutes before I opened the oven door. I might try to cook it at 500° for twenty-five minutes the next time, but otherwise it was perfectly delicious, as Julia Child would say.
I served it with oven-roasted potatoes and a simple green salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. And of course a cool, crisp glass of Burgundy.
I think I’m back in business.