Thursday, November 12, 2009

Barbara Kafka's Roasted Chicken and Crispy Potatoes

Last weekend, while visiting Anna's family, her mother was trying to pare down her cookbook collection to a more manageable size... and much to my delight, the classic 1995 Roasting - A Simple Art by Barbara Kafka came up for grabs. You might ask why, if it's such a classic, was it deemed superfluous? Well, for one thing Anna's mother is vegan, so a much smaller (though still very good) subset of the book's recipes are applicable to her... but another reason is that the cookbook was such a game changer that in the intervening years high temperature roasting has become ubiquitous, and many subsequent cookbooks have advanced that idea far enough that Kafka's simpler approaches may not seem quite as exciting as they once did. Indeed, the high roast chicken and potatoes recipe I blogged over a year and a half ago was directly inspired by Kafka's techniques. Cook's Illustrated took the high temperature roasting concept of Kafka further by brining and butterflying the chicken (to promote more even browning and cooking) while utilizing a broiling pan with the potatoes underneath (to obviate the need for flipping the potatoes constantly). Now, one might ask why I'd then bother making Kafka's recipe if I've already made (many times) and liked the Cook's Illustrated version... I guess I just wanted to see how well the original worked, since often it seems (especially with Cook's Illustrated) that changes to classic recipes are made just for the sake of change and to no real effect.

One warning: This recipe calls for a 500 degree oven, which if your oven is not really clean and your kitchen is not well ventilated, is likely to set off smoke detectors. This is one of the legitimate reasons people have sought to improve upon it, but I didn't have too much trouble... though my oven had been recently cleaned and I long ago learned to disconnect my apartment's smoke detectors when cooking.

  • 5-6 pound chicken (I used a 4lb broiler-fryer, as I prefer smaller chickens, and just shortened the cooking time a bit)
  • 1.5 lbs of potatoes ( I used red new potatoes, unpeeled and quartered)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh minced rosemary
  • 1/2 cup of white wine
  • 1 cup of stock
  1. Set rack to second lowest position, and preheat oven to 500 degress.
  2. Clear out the giblets and neck (skin removed) and reserve for stock. According to Kafka, the liver isn't supposed to go into the stock for some reason... maybe just because some people really love chicken livers (I do not number among them)... I threw it away, but kind of wish I had thrown it in the stock pot.
  3. Season the bird generously with salt and pepper, with a little bit going into the cavity. Put the chicken in a large roasting pan (no potatoes or onion yet) and put the pan, with the chicken going in legs first, into the oven for 10 minutes.
  4. Pull the pan out and use a wooden spoon to unstick the chicken... roll the potatoes around in whatever juices have been released, and then arrange the potatoes and onion around the chicken so that none are touching each other.
  5. Roast for another 35-45 minutes, flipping the potatoes every 15 minutes. When you do this, I also recommend tilting the pan around a bit to distribute the chicken fat around to all the potatoes. When it looks like you've got another 15 minutes left, sprinkle the potatoes with the rosemary.
  6. When the the thickest part of the breast is 160 to 165, and thigh is about 170... with juices running clear... you're done. Move the chicken to a serving platter with the potatoes and deglaze the pan with the wine and stock... scraping up all the brown bits with a wooden spoon... and simmering it for a couple minutes to reduce by half. Note that because the potatoes absorb pretty much all the fat from the chicken, there's nothing really to pour off (as you normally would) before you deglaze.

Even with a four pound chicken, it took... 10 (add potatoes and onion) + 15 (potato flip) + 15 (potato flip - chicken not done) + 10 (done!) = 50 minutes for my bird to be done. I was expecting more like 40, so jumped the gun with the rosemary - meaning it got a little burnt, but not disastrously so. The potatoes were perfect: crisp yet soft inside. What was most surprising was that, despite the lack of brining, the chicken was amazingly moist. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, being that I've often heard that brining mainly gives you an additional "margin of error", where you can overcook it and still get moist meat... so maybe that means I've cooked enough chickens to know when they're done? That would be nice. I also used a Bell Evans "air chilled" bird, but AFAIK there's nothing about that process that leads to a juicier final product... just a tastier one. One other thing... Kafka suggested either slicing up the onion and serving it or using it to make the stock... I served it, and was unimpressed, so I would suggest using it in the stock.

After eating and cleaning up, I took all the bones, including reserved giblets and neck, and threw them in the stock pot with enough water to cover them by a couple of inches (about 3.5 quarts for my stock pot). Brought it to a boil and then simmered, covered, for a few hours before I went to bed. After turning the stove off, I just left the pot there, so I can give it another few hours tonight. Michael Ruhlman actually suggested doing something similar in Ratio, but unfortunately I had to return that to the library... so I couldn't see what wrinkles he added (presumably aromatics in the stock). But a pretty good haul, nonetheless... a few meals and about a quart of stock should result from this. Are there better ways to roast a chicken? Probably... but I found this modern classic to be simple and straightforward, while producing an excellent roast chicken and perfect potatoes... and what more can you ask for than that?

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