Zuni Cafe Chicken – A Benchmark

One of the best chickens I’ve ever eaten

My family was not a fan of roasted chickens. In their heads, it is not a good idea that I squander my time in the kitchen and make the boring chicken. There are too many of those rubbery chickens served in catering or convention halls everywhere. There’s nothing special about them.

That’s one reason why I haven’t posted a single chicken dish since I started blogging over a year ago. But I have tasted the most spectacular roasted chicken in French bistros in Paris before. You can smell the aroma of pitch-perfect roasted chicken in the air as you walk into the restaurant. That’s my quest — that ephemeral ultimate succulent chicken.

The chase is over; I have found it in the Zuni cafe chicken. For my husband and daughter, they said they weren’t hungry, but they couldn’t stop eating the Zuni cafe chicken. They’ve become converts of the home-roasted chicken, no arguments. This chicken dish will see many happy returns to my dining table. All other chicken dishes will be compared to this one.

The Zuni cafe chicken is better known in the Bay area. We are on the East (wrong) Coast. In fact, there was a local cult following, diners and chefs alike, for this legendary dish at the cafe. The recipe is published by Judy Rodgers in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, based on her restaurant. The recipe goes on for pages. They are very good reads. I wrote a condensed version of it here so that I can quickly review it while cooking. The ingredients are few, its all about the technique.

The key to success for this recipe is threefold. First, a small bird, preferably less than 3 lb. They are hard to find. I used one that’s close to 4 lb. Not ideal but it still works. The smaller bird provides the right amount of skin to meat ratio that keeps the skin crispy and the meat tender and moist. Next, the long cold seasoning with fresh herbs, salt and pepper spanning two days, resulting in the deepest flavor like none other. The swells of fresh rosemary, thyme and sage infuse the chicken meat with intoxicating earthy aroma. Last, the high roasting and searing temperature at 475°F keeps the bird sizzling almost the entire time it is in the oven. You know something great would emerge by the sounds and the smell of the roast.

I inserted as many rosemary, sage and thyme springs as they can fit

I made the mistake of turning on the convection setting of the oven, thinking convection bake would better circulate the air in the oven and produce even cooking. There was so much oil spattering around the chicken. Turning on the oven fan created an excessive amount of smoke inside, as well as outside, the oven. I did not want firefighters to show up when the alarm screamed: fire, fire! (I had too many similar experiences before.) I quickly turned off the convection bake and used regular bake with no fan. Still, the amount of grease on the bottom of the oven required a fair amount of cleaning afterwards.

Instead of putting the chicken on a rack in the pan, I used a vertical rack so that the whole chicken sat upright. I guess an empty beer can could achieve the same. That eliminates the need to turn over the chicken midway. I only needed to reposition the pan, not the chicken, once. Another warning: beware of the splattering hot oil when you open the oven door. The high oven temperature and sizzling oil may be a familiar scene in a professional kitchen, not in the home front. Now you know you’re teetering on the edge.

The kitchen still smelled the smoke and fury of the roast on the next day. The taste of the herbaceous and juicy bite of chicken makes a lasting impression on all of us. One of the best chickens I’ve ever eaten!


Trussing is not necessary



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