Roasting chicken always, always reminds me of Jeffrey Steingarten. I think the moment my crush on him bloomed into undying love was when I read his essay “As the Spit Turns” in the August 1999 issue of Vogue (reprinted in It Must’ve Been Something I Ate), in which he discusses his efforts to rig up an effective spit-roasting system at home. Two passages near the beginning won me over: “Whenever I have nothing better to do, I roast a chicken. …I’ll roast a chicken in the afternoon even when I am not hungry and have plenty of food in the fridge and a reservation for dinner. It’s like a hobby.” And then, “The great Brillat-Savarin declared, ‘We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.’ I often lie awake nights worrying about whether I was born to roast.’” I like a man who has his priorities in order. It is in this spirit that I offer you Marcella Hazan’s beautifully simple bird stuffed with two lemons. I suspect that many of you already love this very recipe, and if you do not know it yet, that you, too, are always tinkering with roast chicken, perhaps even roasting a bird whenever you have nothing better to do.
I have never managed to roast a chicken to Steingarten’s exact specifications (“Dark and crispy skin, intensely savory, covering every square millimeter of the bird with no unsightly white patches”), a shame because I love crispy poultry skin as much as the next glutton. It’s something to strive for, but is it not impossible to cry over skin that is flabby here and there when the roasted flesh beneath it is so uniformly juicy and delicious? It was once my habit to massage a bird with butter and salt and pepper and stuff it with garlic and lemon before roasting it on a bed of vegetables, but a year or two ago the recipe below won me over with its effective simplicity: chicken, lemon, salt, pepper. I don’t bother with trussing, but I do flip the roast midway through cooking: it isn’t too much trouble, and it does get good results. A 12-inch cast-iron skillet has been my roasting pan ever since I first made Zuni roast chicken.
Though I am fairly certain I was not born to roast—my reliance on meat thermometers suggests that I am not a natural—I see no reason to stop working towards that crispy, thoroughly bronzed goal. After all, it’s a great hobby.
Roast Chicken with Lemons
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
- A 3- to 4-pound chicken
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 rather small lemons [I have also used 1 large one with success, in a smallish chicken]
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash the chicken, inside and out, in cold water. Remove any loose bits of fat. Let the bird sit for about 10 minutes on a slightly tilted plate to let all the water drain out of it. Pat it completely dry with paper towels. Season generously with salt and pepper, rubbing it all over the body and into the cavity.
Wash the lemons in cold water and dry completely. Roll on a counter to soften and then puncture each lemon in at least 20 places, using a toothpick, trussing needle, or fork. Put both lemons in the cavity.
Close the cavity opening with toothpicks or trussing needle and string. Close it well, but don’t make it absolutely airtight or the chicken may burst. Run kitchen string from one leg to the other, tying it at both ends. Leave the legs in their natural position without pulling them tight. If the skin is unbroken, the chicken will puff up as it cooks; the string is just there to keep the thighs from spreading apart and splitting the skin.
Place the chicken breast-down in a roasting pan. Do not add any fat: it isn’t necessary. Put the bird in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken so that it is on its back, breast facing up. Be careful not to puncture the skin while turning. Cook for another 30-35 minutes, then turn the oven up to 400°F and cook 20 minutes more. Calculate between 20 and 25 minutes’ total cooking time for each pound of chicken. You do not 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, as they may squirt.