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Standing up

Simple Smoky Roasted Chicken

It’s not that I believe there’s one way to roast a chicken; I believe there are thousands, and each has its merits. I love Marcella Hazan’s lemon-stuffed roasted chicken, a) because it’s fun to voodoo all those holes into the lemons, and b) because if it works, and the steam from the lemon juice puffs the chicken’s skin up from the inside, it’s quite a sight to behold. I love spatchcocking because you get to say “spatchcock” for the next 48 hours. But when I roast a chicken at home, I do it one particular way, because it’s quick and easy and because I’m hopelessly in love with the imagery of the chicken world’s version of a total floozy settling in for a snooze in the sun, which is exactly what I think of when I prepare my bird. It’s quirky. It’s silly. It’s a foolproof way to teach newbies which side goes up. And the wing tips never, ever burn.

Here’s how it works: first, you’ll need to imagine your chicken is settling in for a nice long nap at the beach. Never mind that your chicken is well past dead, and that you don’t want sand in your dinner. She’s tanning, okay? Everyone looks better with a tan. Give her a good lather, with olive oil, perhaps, or melted butter, and maybe some spices. Next, make her comfortable. Tuck her wings behind her back. Cross her legs. Take the extra material around her neck off, because no one likes weird tan lines. Now she’s ready to roast.

It might be the easiest way, or it might just be the way I’ve roasted a chicken most often, so it seems the easiest to me. But the real reason I roast chicken like this—the important reason—is because if I had to pick, crisp, salty chicken skin might be my favorite food on the planet. And in my 425-degree oven, this little trick tans the chick.

I’d eat a crunchy chicken skin—almost all of it, if you want the truth—everywhere Sam would eat green eggs and ham, and then some. Only poor Sam, in his seemingly infinite quest, never ate his gourmet treasure standing at the kitchen counter, which is a shame. Any food worth calling a favorite is worth eating standing up. Or, perhaps more accurately, said food should be capable of making one forget to sit down.

But aye, there’s a rub—I’ve always massaged my chickens with at least a half teaspoon of salt. At least. It’s an effective way to get the job done, but for people like me, it may not be the healthiest–1/2 teaspoon is about 1500mg of sodium, which is the upper limit for people who should theoretically be watching their sodium intake. So this week, for Sodium Girl’s 3rd annual Love Your Heart Recipe Rally (my participations in the first two years are here and here), I decided to give my roasted chicken a little makeover.

Recipe Rally Icon

Every year, Jessica Goldman Fuong asks folks to take a normally salty recipe they love—a recipe they can’t imagine changing—and reduce its sodium. It’s certainly a challenge; for most of us, taking salt out of a recipe is akin to taking away our favorite pair of jeans. (How do you get dressed in the morning when you don’t have any pants to put on?) The chicken was a natural choice for me, since the salinity of the skin seemed to be what I relied on for flavor. Oh, and because I’m apparently pickling my kidneys; looking at Jessica’s numbers, I add as much salt to my food daily  as most people are supposed to consume in a day, never mind the sodium even the healthiest foods contain naturally.

I started with Jessica’s recipe for “Beer Butt Chicken” in Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook—a gutsy recipe name, for one thing (be with what is, right?), but the recipe itself is also clever, because Jessica offers a few different spice combinations to round out the classic beer-chicken combo, where you roast the chicken standing up over a can of your favorite brew. I’d planned to use cider instead of beer (hard cider is also naturally low-sodium), but the cider was accidentally, um, consumed too soon. So I did what I’d never have done, say, a month ago: I went about my normal chicken-roasting routine, adding a bit of smokiness in the form of pimenton de la vera and a flavorful depth with cumin, smearing and tucking and tying per usual. But I skipped the salt entirely.

And you know what? That gal came out pretty as ever, puffed and crisp in all the right places. I shared her with friends, and later, when they were long gone, I stood at the counter, chipping the shattery, smoke-infused skin shards off the chicken’s legs, and I didn’t even think of sitting down.

Sure, she’s had work done. And in some ways, I guess it makes her no longer the chicken I always roasted before. But she’s still got her merits, and she’s healthier for me than the last bird I made. And–most importantly–she’s still worth standing up for.

Simple Smoky Roasted Chicken (PDF)
For a low-sodium dish, the numbers on this flavorful roasted chicken are a little high—if you split it between four people, it has about 162mg of sodium per serving, a hair higher than the recommended 140mg per serving for those following a strict low-sodium diet. For the rest of us, it’s just delicious—crisp in all the right places, and flavored with a good smear of ground cumin, smoked Spanish paprika, and dried oregano.

Time: 10 minutes active time
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Equipment: Kitchen string, for tying legs

1 (4- to 5-pound) whole chicken, patted dry with paper towels
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon pimentón de la vera (smoked Spanish paprika)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Remove all chicken innards, trim any excess fat from around the chicken’s neck, and dry the chicken thoroughly with paper towels inside and out. Rub all parts of the chicken with the oil. Place the chicken in a roasting pan or in a cast iron pan. Blend the pimentón, cumin, and oregano together in a small bowl, then sprinkle the entire chicken with the spice mixture. Fold the wings behind the chicken’s back, tie the legs together, and sprinkle any remaining spice on any bare spots.

Roast the chicken for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the breast meat measures 165°F on an instant-read thermometer. If the skin is dark golden brown before the meat is done, slide a baking sheet onto an oven rack above the chicken.

When the chicken is done, let rest 10 minutes, then carve and serve hot.

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