Too bad more cooks don’t know how little work it takes to roast a chicken. How delicious that juicy meat is under that oh-so-crisp skin. And how cheap it is to prepare.
Arecent article in The Wall Street Journal, comparing the costs of some home-cooked dishes with restaurant versions, concluded that novice cooks often end up spending more money when making their own dishes. A homemade blueberry pie cost more than $30; a Halibut with Maple-Nut Crust, more than $27 per serving.
But the dishes were loaded with out-of-season and "designer" ingredients.
If they’d chosen chicken roasted with in-season vegetables, they could have had an entree and side dish fit for company for about $2.50 per person. Buy the bird on sale, and it can be even less.
"You couldn’t get out of Mc-Donald’s for what it costs to roast a chicken," says Sally Sampson, author of "The $50 Dinner Party" (Simon & Schuster, $14). "Roast chicken speaks of home and comfort. It’s like a simple black dress: You can dress it up or down."
To doll it up, she likes to roast two chickens surrounded with apple wedges and piles of assorted vegetables. As the chickens roast, the fruit and veggies caramelize to a sweet, golden brown in luscious pan juices. A coating of olive oil, dried sage and coarse salt rounds out the flavor profile.
Most recipes suggest a roasting time of about one hour, but the actual "work" time is about 10 minutes. Once the bird is in the oven, the cook is free. No basting or supervision is required. It’s so easy, even a beginner cook can produce a work of art.
"There’s nothing to screw up," Sampson says. "And, basically I’m lazy. This is arustic dish, so I serve it right from the roasting pan. Friends and family attack the bottom of the pan with bread, soaking up juices and brown, crunchy bits."
But it’s not just practical home cooks who love roasted chicken. Hoity-toity restaurants value them, too. Eric Ripert, chef and partner at Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City and author of "A Return to Cooking" (Artisan, $50), says you don’t have to use expensive ingredients to make a great roast chicken.
Although his Roasted Chicken with Poached Egg, Asparagus and Truffle Jus calls for some high-ticket truffle juice to flavor the broth, he says you can leave it out. Use the same basic technique and it will still be delectable.
"I stuff chicken with day-old French bread along with garlic, herbs and butter," says Ripert, whose restaurant has been rated among the top five in Zagat’s "Best in New York" category for years. "The bread keeps the chicken moist; it steams from the inside. After it roasts, the bread is delicious, too. It’s a country trick."
Notonly is roasted chicken terrific straight from the oven, it’s great eaten cold as leftovers — another economical aspect of this dish, Sampson says. She suggests putting an extra chicken in the oven when you’re roasting one for that day’s meal.
"Leftover roast chicken in the refrigerator is great for snacks or lunches," she says.
Ripert says home cooks also can save money by buying produce that’s in season. Spring is a great time to find good buys on the asparagus specified in his recipe.
But green beans, snow peas or sugar snap peas also would be scrumptious.
"The poached eggs could be optional, but they are really wonderful," he says. "The yolk enriches the sauce and enhances the chicken."
With or without those runny yolks, roast chicken reigns supreme in cuisine
economique. In these penny-pinching times, it’s comforting to know that homestyle roast chicken may cost less than a boutique coffee concoction.
And we haven’t even touched on making soup from the bones.
That’s the rub
Before roasting a chicken, some cooks like to use a rub or flavored butter to add zing to it. Some rub it inside the cavity and on the surface of the skin; others like to loosen the skin and rub between the flesh and skin. Here are some formulas:
Tom Douglas, chef-owner of Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, combines 3 tablespoons coarse salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme. He rubs it on a 3 1/2-pound bird, then refrigerates it, uncovered, eight hours before roasting. Source: Fine Cooking magazine, November 2001
Steven Raichlen (author of "Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs and Marinades," Workman, $22.95), combines 1/4 cup each coarse salt (kosher or sea), dark brown sugar (packed) and paprika; 3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper; 1 tablespoon each garlic powder and dried onion flakes; and 1/2 teaspoon each cayenne pepper and celery seeds. Lightly coat skin and cavity. Store in an airtight container.
James McNair, author of "Chicken" (Chronicle, $10.95), suggests rubbing an herb-lemon-butter mixture under the skin. Combine 4 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, the minced zest (colored part of peel) of 2 lemons, 5 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons minced rosemary leaves and 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage or 2 teaspoons crumbled dry sage. Makes enough for two 3-pound chickens.