I discovered the joys of roasting a whole chicken as recently as three months ago and I have been doing it left and right since then. You would understand the significance of the statement appropos coming from me, if you knew me better. Meet me. A firm believer in the fact that if it used to move on its own, it needs a lot of help (read, heat and spice) to be made edible. Me, for whom seafood or chicken (the extent of my non-vegetarian existence) equals hot and spicy food. The neurotic eater, who would never touch a dish that does not have at least 50 spices in it. Ok, so maybe that is exaggerating a bit. 49 would do as well. But, you get the point. I did not try alfredo for quite a while after I came west just because it was…ahem… not colorful enough. That’s me.
The only reason I ever tried my hand at it was because it satisfied some primeval urge in me. There is something primal about cooking a whole bird. No use of those fancy knives (until after you have cooked them, that is), no chopping, no bhuno-ing. Just some TLC is all it needs and a hot oven…well, medium hot oven…you know what I mean. But, that urge to go primitive stops at the swanky grocery store. Nope, not gonna see me wring a chicken’s neck and pluck its feathers, no siree. I have to hop in my heated seats, power doors, gas-guzzling much-bigger-than-I-actually-need sports utility vehicle, pick me up some nice, already dead, de-necked, de-feathered and definitely ‘de-cavity’-ed chicken before I can go ‘primitive’. Again, that’s me.
What surprises you is how juicy, the chicken that results, is. I am a firm believer that any kind of meat, poultry or seafood tastes better on the bone. Not that, that stops me from appreciating the quick cooking nature of the boneless ones or using it to the optimium. But, the biggest difference here is the use of the skin,which has all the fat. The fat that keeps the meat moist during the lengthy cooking process. It is the kind of thing that makes you appreciate the meat for its own flavor and taste rather than its blandness that takes well to being smothered in a spicy gravy. Which is why, even someone like me, who can’t imagine a meal without rice or roti or any meat without gravy, can make a whole meal with this. With a little rice on the side, of course. You know by now, that’s just me.
I am not going to go into the details of How to roast a chicken. You can just google it and find hundreds of sites that will tell you how to do it. I am just going to give you some tips to twist it to the Indian palate without turning it into Murgh Musallam
1. First of all, I do not eat the skin of the chicken. There are hardly any Indian dishes that cook chicken with its skin on. Even the famous Tandoori Chicken is not cooked with its skin on. While this may largely be due to the fact that we most often than not broil or stew our chicken which does not bode well for the skin, it also means that much less fat that we are consuming (which we make up for in all that ghee we use for the gravy, but hey, the chicken is healthy). So, I concentrate all my seasonings under the skin.
2. Seasoning, Seasoning, Seasoning. Most sites you see will tell you the season the bird well. But, how well? And how well is seasoned well? How do you know? Well, the measure I use is this. Consider, chopping up the whole bird to make a Chicken curry. Consider how much salt you will put into the curry, in that case. That’s the amount of salt you require to cover every portion of the bird. Season the outer skin, under the skin and inside the cavity, too. Be equally liberal with the Black pepper, too. Try using rock salt as opposed to regular salt. Much more flavor.
3.Consider the flavorings you are going to put. Resist the temptation to put in all your regular spice powders. Concentrate on one or two and use that to the optimum. Consider mixing in the spices with room temperature butter and then slathering the bird with it rather than just sprinkling on the top. Since, I prefer to put my flavorings under the skin, I always mix them with unsalted butter. Separate the skin from the meat using a thin paring knife.Now, this requires a lot of practice and a stomach of steel. But, the end product, my friend, is worth it. I mostly go with some Chilli powder, Cumin and some garam masala. I also like using some dried herbs, thyme, being the all time favorite with chicken. It also goes well with the spices. Massage the flavored butter into the bird all over. If you decide to mix in the salt and pepper with the butter, remember to sprinkle some more salt on the skin and the cavity.
4. Consider using a spice bouquet. I fill the cavity with a whole garlic bulb slit across, an onion-halved,two cinnamon sticks, a bay leaf, two Black cardamoms and some cloves. Sometimes, a lemon halved.
5.Place the chicken on a bed of veggies, especially some root veggies like Potatoes and carrots. The veggies absorb all the flavor from the chicken juices making them delicious. Remember to coat the veggies with a thin layer of oil and salt.
6.I do not bother tieing (trussing) the chicken legs. I have never ended up with burn’t chicken tips, so I haven’t felt the need to.
7. Even though, We don’t eat the skin, I like to bring a golden brown bird to the table. Pre heat the Oven to 450 degrees F. Cook the chicken for 15 mins before lowering the heat to 350 and cooking for another 35 to 40 minutes depending upon the chicken and the oven. I always use a 5-pound chicken and these instructions work perfectly with them.
8.Most sites will tell you to cut into the thigh of the chicken and check the juices that run out. If they are clear, you have a cooked bird. That’s very sound advice. I know the chicken is cooked, when the leg moves freely when wiggled. That is the test that works for me. When in doubt, use a thermometer
9. Let it rest. For at least 15 minutes before you start carving it. Results in a juicier chicken.
10.You can try carving it in a fancy way. I just like doing it in a very basic way. Use a very Sharp Knife. Hold the tip of the chicken leg and let your knife in to the joint between the leg and breast and slice right through. If you are at the correct place, the knife will cut through like butter. If not, wiggle the tip of the knife gently, till you hit the spot. Apply the same logic to the joint between the thigh and the leg. For the breast, I just like to let the knife follow the breast bone and get the whole breast out in one go. Remember to slit through the bone between the two breast first, though. That’s it.
Now, at this point, most cooks will ask you to save the carcass to make chicken stock. I haven’t reached that culinary peak yet nor has my stomach. Which is why I don’t save the carcass. I do save the bits of meat on the back of the chicken and the juices that accumalate in the roasting pan and make my stock using them. Any guesses on what my next post would be??