This blog is obsessed with chicken. I mean, the poultry association of America should be sending me major $$$ for the amount of chicken I've eaten. And the Zuni Cafe people should be sharing royalties for how much I've promoted the heck out of their roast chicken recipe, which, as you should know by now, is what I regard as the gold standard. So when I read on a few Chowhound boards of a chicken recipe that some said was comparable to -- if not even better than -- the Zuni Cafe recipe, I felt a moral obligation to try it.
And that's how I found myself last Friday night rudely attempting to shove two lemons into what ought to be a very private part of a kosher bird, cursing all the while at the giant lemons I got at the market and the petite chicken I got from Trader Joe's.
All in the service of science, of course.
The recipe? Marcella Hazan's "chicken with two lemons." The outcome? A pretty good chicken: lemony, juicy, and beautiful. But better than Zuni? No way. The high heat of the Zuni recipe produces a crispy, savory skin. It also allows for tender, juicy meat, which is rendered even tastier by the fresh herbs you stuff under the skin of the chicken. And discounting the amount of time for prepping and salting the chicken (the Zuni recipe recommends overnight salting), Marcella Hazan's recipe takes a lot longer in the oven and requires more monitoring.
I'm glad I tried it out. I'll probably even make it again. And I encourage you to try it. If only because treating a lemon like a citrusy voodoo doll is fun.
Here's the recipe: Procure a 3-4 lb. chicken. (I prefer a kosher bird, as it's more tender and tasty.) Wash the chicken thoroughly in cold water, both inside and out. Remove all the bits of fat hanging loose. Let the bird sit for about 10 minutes on a slightly tilted plate to let all the water drain out of it. Pat it thoroughly dry all over with cloth or paper towels.
Sprinkle a generous amount of salt and black pepper on the chicken, rubbing it with your fingers over all its body and into its cavity. (I allowed the salted chicken to sit in the fridge for a few hours.)
Preheat the oven to 350. Meanwhile, wash two lemons in cold water and dry them with a towel. Soften each lemon by placing it on a counter and rolling it back and forth as you put firm downward pressure on it with the palm of your hand. Puncture the lemons in at least 20 places each, using a sturdy round toothpick, a trussing needle, a sharp-pointed fork, or similar implement.
Place both lemons in the bird's cavity. Close up the opening with toothpicks or with trussing needle and string. Close it well, but dont make an absolutely airtight job of it because the chicken may burst. Run kitchen string from one leg to the other, tying it at both knuckle ends. Leave the legs in their natural position without pulling them tight. (I didn't bother to truss the chicken legs, and it turned out fine.) If the skin is unbroken, the chicken will puff up as it cooks, and the string serves only to keep the thighs from spreading apart and splitting the skin. (My chicken didn't puff. Not even a little. Boo.)
Put the chicken into a roasting pan, breast facing down. Do not add cooking fat of any kind. This bird is self-basting, so you need not fear it will stick to the pan. (Just in case, though, I took a page from the Zuni Cafe recipe and allowed the pan to preheat in the oven, as a hot pan will usually prevent sticking.) Place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over to have the breast face up. When turning it, try not to puncture the skin. If kept intact, the chicken will swell like a balloon, which makes for an arresting presentation at the table later. Do not worry too much about it, however, because even if it fails to swell, the flavor will not be affected. (Yeah, no puffing, no swelling, no arresting presentation.)
Cook for another 30 to 35 minutes, then turn the oven thermostat up to 400 degrees, and cook for an additional 20 minutes. Calculate between 20 and 25 minutes total cooking time for each pound. There is no need to turn the chicken again.
Whether your bird has puffed up or not, bring it to the table whole and leave the lemons inside until it is carved and opened. The juices that run out are perfectly delicious. Be sure to spoon them over the chicken slices. The lemons will have shriveled up, but they still contain some juice; do not squeeze them, they may squirt.