If you Google "Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken," you will find quite a number of foodie bloggers waxing poetic about the miracle of Judy Roger's recipe. Zuni Cafe is, of course, Judy Roger's restaurant in San Francisco. I had the privilege of eating at Zuni Cafe during a vacation last summer to San Francisco and Sonoma wine country. Among other seasonal and delicious dishes, my husband and I ordered the roast chicken for two, which comes with bread salad. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about paying quite so much for chicken and a salad made mostly out of bread. Happily, I was proven wrong because the chicken was phenomenal -- perfectly seasoned, with super moist meat (including the breast meat) and crackly brown skin. It is what roast chicken should be but rarely ever is. The bread salad also surprised me -- it provides great texture and the perfect vehicle for soaking up delicious chicken juices.
I had not really considered trying to replicate the dish at home as I had a go-to recipe that I made quite often. As a lot of roast chicken recipes do, my recipe called for lots of butter and herbs stuffed under the skin, lemon halves and garlic cloves stuck into the cavity, trussing the chicken, and a bed of celery and onions. Judy Roger's recipe, on the other hand, requires no butter or oil, no added vegetables (inside or outside of the chicken), and even foregoes trussing. The secret is using a small-ish chicken, patting the chicken very, very dry, and salting the chicken generously a day or two before roasting (a sort of dry brine). The chicken is then roasted at a very high temperature (which inevitably creates an extremely smoky apartment and an oil-spattered stovetop). This method relies on the chicken skin to provide all the fat needed and the salt to make the meat succulent. I have to say -- I am not sure I will ever use my original recipe again! What I produced in my kitchen was surprisingly very close to what we had in the restaurant. I have since made this recipe three different times, and it has been a success each and every time.
The original recipe is famously very long and wordy. None of the steps in the recipe is difficult, however. I used Smitten Kitchen's shortened version as a starting point and tweaked it ever so slightly below.
Zuni Cafe's Roast Chicken
One small chicken, 2-¾ to 3-½-pounds
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage, about ½ inch long
¾ tsp salt
¾ to 1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1. One or two days before roasting, remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
2. The day you intend to roast the chicken, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature.
3. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Preheat the roasting pan or skillet over medium heat and spray with non-stick spray.
4. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle. Place the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for the chicken to start browning within 20 minutes. If it does not, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees.
5. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over. Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes.
6. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting oven, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste - the juices will be extremely flavorful. Reserve for the Bread Salad.
Zuni Cafe's Bread Salad
Generous 8 ounces slightly stale chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 Tbsp mild-tasting olive oil
1½ Tbsp Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 Tbsp pine nuts
2 to 3 garlic cloves,
¼ cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part, slivered
2 Tbsp lightly salted chicken stock (or chicken drippings from the Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken)
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried
1. Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the bottom and most of the top and side crusts from your bread. Cut bread into 2 to 3-inch chunks. You should get about 4 cups. Toss them with just a tablespoon or two of olive oil, lightly coating them, and broil them very briefly, just to lightly color the edges.
2. Toast the pine nuts in a skillet and set aside.
3. Combine about ¼ cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about ¼ cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.
4. Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Fold in the pine nuts and arugula or other greens. Dribble the chicken stock or drippings over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread - a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well.
Note: The recipe for the bread salad also calls for 1 tablespoon dried currants plumped in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon warm water for ten minutes or so. I omitted the currants as I am not a huge fan of the sweet/savory combination.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.