Monday, June 6, 2011

Zuni Cafe roasted chicken and bread salad

This is, without a doubt, the best chicken I've ever had.

I try to avoid using superlatives like that (because I find it disingenuous when other people do), but this is something I just know. Kind of like how before I met my husband, I had always assumed that in the weeks approaching my theoretical wedding I would be a little nervous and unsure, even though I would love my beau completely. I imagined it would be the normal reaction to such a Big Decision, and I was ready for it. But those feelings didn't come; I was actually more confident and excited by the day to marry him. It was just right, and on every level of consciousness, I knew it. It was intuitive, primal. And it's the same rare sensation of certainty (certitude?) I feel when I say this is the best chicken I've ever had. You will want to marry this freakishly delicious chicken.

The Zuni Cafe in San Francisco is famous for this recipe. I can hardly wait to devour the rest of the cookbook. I expected to like it - with its reputation, I even expected to love it. But I honestly did not expect to be stunned by it. It will change everything you think you know about chicken. It's freaking good, people. We've been grocery store rotisserie chicken junkies in the past, because it's just so easy - grab a chicken, fluff some couscous, chop a head of romaine and you've got a healthy meal in five minutes. I would usually whip up a little mustardy French vinaigrette to moisten the chicken and use some Trinidadian pepper sauce to add flavor. As I sat down to eat this I grabbed the pepper sauce from the fridge as I usually do, and it wasn't until I was clearing the table that I realized it hadn't occurred to me whatsoever to use it. That speaks volumes.

You do have to start a day in advance, but it actually cooks very quickly - it's on the table an hour after you put it in the oven. All you have to do is prepare the bread salad while you listen to your glorious chicken sizzle. I did take a few short cuts with the bread salad to save time and dishes, and while I'm sure the original is better, this method left absolutely nothing to be desired by us. Say it with me: Bread. Salad. Oh yes. Take that, Dr. Atkins.

2 3/4 - 3 1/4 lb chicken (the size is important - don't go larger than 3 1/4 lb. Mine was just over 2 3/4 lb, so  erred on the low end of all the roasting time ranges)
3/4 tsp kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper
4 sprigs fresh thyme, rosemary, marjoram, or sage (I had thyme leftover from this rad grilled ahi I made for friends this weekend)

~ 1/3 - 1/2 a loaf of day-old bread (I used French)
1 1/2 tbsp champagne vinegar
~ couple tbsp of good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp currants
1 tsp red wine vinegar
4 scallions, thinly slivered
2 cloves of garlic, also thinly slivered (work on your Mario Batali rapid fire garlic slicing technique, carefully)
~ 4 good handfuls of arugula or whatever lettuce you like (I used half arugula and half whatever that green one that's doing well in my garden is)

Rinse the chicken well and pat it very dry inside and out with paper towels. Trim off any excess fat (leaving the skin on). Gently loosen the skin on the breasts all the way down to each thigh and stick one herb spring down into each of the four cavites. Sprinkle the surface and inside liberally with the kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders, but don't bother trussing the legs. Cover with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Get the chicken out to come up to room temperature while the oven warms up. Combine the currants and red wine vinegar in a small bowl to plump up.

Dry the chicken completely - this is critical. If it's not completely dry, it will steam instead of roast, and you won't get that gorgeous bronze crispy skin. Heat a nice heavy oven-proof skillet (or roasting pan, but if you don't own an oven-proof skillet you should get one) over medium heat for a minute or two. Heat it dry - there is absolutely no added fat in this recipe. Carefully place your chicken in the pan breast side up. Now, a warning: the sound it made when it hit the pan scared the absolute crap out of me. For some reason I just wasn't ready for any sound - I may have still been jumpy from the stupid ass train driver blowing his stupid ass massive train horn just as I was driving past him on my way home. I thought that had depleted my adrenaline stores, but apparently not. Anyway, consider yourself warned - in my kitchen, at least, adding the chicken to the pan made a very sudden loud hot popping sound (and then it was gone). Now, stick it in the oven for 30 minutes, checking to make sure it's browning nicely after 20 minutes. If it isn't, crank the heat up by 25 degrees. If it looks like it's browning too fast, crank it down by 25 degrees.

Meanwhile, tear up a bunch of day old bread into bite-sized chunks, about 4 cups worth. Toast them in the hot oven while the chicken is roasting until nicely browned on all sides, then tumble them into a large bowl. Whisk together the champagne vinegar and olive oil to form a vinaigrette and drizzle it over the toasted bread. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and toss well. In a small dry skillet, toast the pine nuts lightly, then add them to the bread. In the same skillet, saute the scallions and garlic with a drizzle of olive oil over low heat until softened. Don't allow them to brown. When softened (after 2 or 3 minutes) add them to the bread along with currants and toss again.

By now it's probably been half an hour, so pull your chicken out of the oven. Using tongs, carefully flip it over without ripping the lovely breast skin. I ripped it. I can confirm the skin is delicious ripped, but I can't comment on how much more delicious it is intact. Apparently the back skin is also not supposed to stick to the bottom of the pan, but mine did. Not a good day to be chicken skin in my house, apparently. Pop it back into the oven for another 10 to 20 minutes. Continue with your bread salad prep while that's happening.

After that time has passed, flip it breast side-up again to crisp for another 5-10 minutes. I promise you, all this silly flipping in and out of the scorching hot oven is completely worth it.

Remove the pan from the oven and place the chicken on a plate to rest. You will see all kinds of golden brown loveliness gummed up in the pan. Pour off all the clear chicken fat, leaving behind just the golden bits. Turn the heat on low underneath the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of water and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to dissolve the crusties. Slash the skin between the thighs and breasts of the resting chicken and pour the juices from the plate back into the pan. Cook the drippings down just a minute or two, until nice and thick, and pour over your bread chunks (*faint*). Toss. Add the lettuces to your bread salad and toss well.

Serve a nice big pile of bread salad on each plate with a half or quarter of the glorious chicken perched atop. Dudes, even the wings were juicy. Be swept away!

Serves 2 - 4 (we have half of the chicken left), takes an hour plus a day.


  1. This is my fave roast chicken recipe. The first time my husband and I made it, we wanted to tear off every last shred of skin and eat it all that night. That's because it was so astoundingly crisp, and we knew that once we refrigerated the leftovers the skin wouldn't be quite that way again. This is chicken perfection.

  2. I've always heard that the Zuni Cafe chicken is the best. I've been pretty in love with Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home chicken for the past year, but I'm eager to give the Zuni a try!

  3. This sounds amazing. I'm definitely trying this. You're very convincing!

  4. I have Ad Hoc and haven't made anything from it yet! I'll take it out and force myself to decide on something this weekend.

    It really is knock-your-socks-off good. I ate it in a trance. My husband had his about an hour later and it was just as juicy.