Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken with Bread Salad

by Ginny on January 27, 2011

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Recently we gathered at the table with two of our dearest friends, Marge and Matt. On the menu was Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken, roasted pears and sweet potatoes, steamed broccolini, and a succulent Bread Salad with arugula, pine nuts, scallion, and currants, doused in a light vinaigrette and some of the warm juices from the bird.  It was a multi-purpose gathering, as we also shot some photos for Matt’s new creation: Angle 33 Wine Thermals. He’s a concrete artist and recently crafted a line of stylish, stackable wine thermals. They keep chilled wine chilled, without the dripping mess of an ice bucket, and they sort of create their own centerpiece.

 Once the last pics had been snapped, we sat down to eat, and to drink the wine we had opened for the photo shoot. As we lingered over our plates, I was reminded how important these moments are to truly knowing our friends and families. A whole lot of ground gets covered over dinner. In addition to tossing ideas around for Matt’s new business venture, we talked about this blog, and my technical triumphs and travails in getting it rolling. We talked about Noah’s adjustment to his new job, and Marge’s transition from stay-at-home to working mom. It wasn’t long before we delved into politics (gasp!). We spoke freely about our great big concerns, fears, and hopes for the world we live in. We talked about our health, and the health care system, about President Obama, Sara Palin, and the cynicism that has come with the realities of our adulthood.

 It’s hard, we agreed, to feel like we can do much to change things, and the numerous broken and backward systems we live with. It was beginning to feel a little morose around the table. But the energy shifted when the conversation detoured towards the places where we do feel empowered. I shared the excitement I feel when I stop to look at what’s happening with the American people. Across the board, left and right, I see folks bringing it back to basics, focusing on the change they can create under their own roofs, in their own backyards, in their communities. Matt and Marge are a perfect example of this, and part of a growing faction of what is becoming known as Radical Homemakers. They have not one but three gardens in their city yard: one for Marge, one for their daughter Logan, and one for their daughter Dylan. There’s also a chicken coop that’s beginning to turn out more eggs than they can handle, and a clothesline where Marge hangs the laundry– EVEN IN WINTER! Each fall, Matt fills the freezer in the garage with wild game. Last year he hopped on his bike, rode into the mountains, and came home with an elk. I don’t think they’re trying to be radical, or activist, or anything but themselves. They’re just trying to raise daughters who have an appreciation and a skill set for the world around them, and who are healthy, wild, and vibrant from filling their bellies primarily with what they grow, hunt, or gather.

 It’s cool to witness how their choices trickle down. Their four-year old daughter Logan absolutely LOVES to help Matt process wild game meat. This year, she spent an entire day, of her own will, helping her dad grind and package over 40 pounds of venison. And if I know anything about Logan, she probably had to change out of her Princess Tiana costume to do it. A butcher in the making? I don’t know. But I do know that Logan plays outside, every day. And the same goes for 3-year-old Dylan, who spends her afternoons baking “tookies” in her little play kitchen, and helping mom put up (and eat up) tomato sauce, apple chutney, and all the other fruits of their summer labor. They have a small TV in the basement that only gets used for the occasional DVD, and they play together as a family, fishing, skiing, hiking, or going to the park, every chance they get.

 Their activism looks different than mine, but I think in essence, it’s part of the same movement. The Sunday Dinner Revival shares a similar intention; essentially, to come back to what is real, to reclaim our quality of life, to create bonds with the people who are important to us, and to have fun! When we gather at the table, we linger long after the last scraps are nibbled from our plates, and long after the last sip of wine has left our glasses. We remember, we discuss, we laugh, we connect, and we feel more whole for having done so.

 For our photo shoot/ dinner I decided to cook something simple that would make a nice backdrop for the wine thermals, while still being yummy enough to devour as soon as the last pics were snapped. It’s a meal from Noah and my all-time favorite restaurant, Zuni Cafe. Not only is Zuni Chef, Judy Rodgers, a walking culinary encyclopedia, she ranks right up there with Alice Waters in regards to getting diners excited about what’s growing in our backyards. Farmers routinely show up at the back door of the restaurant with, for example, one small, perfect box of summer melons, oozing sweet perfume through their sun-baked rinds. And Chef Rodgers knows what to do with product like that– not much. Just pair it with the right, simple accompaniments, like meltingly rich prosciutto di parma, sliced thin enough to read the newspaper through. I admit without shame that while living in San Francisco, I wept, more than once, over her simple, beautiful preparations.

So it comes as no surprise that I own her masterpiece, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, where one recipe might take up three or four pages of text, but somehow all of it is essential, informative, and necessary to truly understand how to elevate ingredients, rather than mask them. The dish for which Zuni Cafe is most famously known is it’s Roast Chicken. Cooked in a wood fired oven, and seasoned only with salt and pepper, it is a legendary thing to eat. It is often served over a warm bread salad, tossed with currants, pine nuts, arugula, a light vinaigrette, and a drizzle of the warm chicken juices. I consider it a personal tragedy (one I must remedy asap) that of all the times I ate at Zuni, I never ordered the chicken! I was too distracted by platters of oysters, beef carpaccio, braised lamb shanks, roasted quail, and their other signature dish: The MOST insanely good burger you will ever devour. Lucky for me, I possess her detailed instructions to re-create the dish at home. In fact, her roast chicken has graced my table so many times, that it is beginning to feel like I can almost call it “my” roast chicken. But nay, I am forever indebted to Chef Rodgers, for introducing me to this technique.

The method is simple. The salad is essential. Make this, and you will understand. You may even shed a small, wistful, shameless tear.

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Recipe : Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken with Bread Salad

This is my simplified version of Zuni Roast Chicken, adapted from Judy Rodgers’ recipe in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook after making this recipe dozens of times. Her method of pre-salting the bird is crucial, and well worth the time, but whereas she states this can be done 1 to 3 days before serving, I have found best results, time and again, with a bird salted exactly three days in advance. No more, no less. It sounds like a lot of forethought, but this step takes about 5 minutes, and provides you with a spectacular Sunday Dinner that is essentially oven-ready.  If you don’t already have some in your pantry, invest in a high quality, coarse sea salt. Most often, I use Sel de Gris, or “Grey Salt” from Brittany, which has an incredibly savory, mineral flavor and is exceptionally versatile in other applications (like roasted potatoes). 


For the Chicken:

  • 4-5 pounds roasting chicken
  • Sel de Gris or other high quality Coarse sea salt like Hawaiian
  • Freshly cracked pepper
  • 4 sprigs thyme, rosemary, sage, or marjoram

For the Bread Salad:

  • 1 – 2 pounds peasant-style loaf with large holes (not sourdough), day old is best but not required
  • 6 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons dried currants
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced into coins
  • 4 scallions, white part only, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons defatted pan drippings from the chicken
  • 5 cups fresh arugula, washed, dried, and torn into pieces if leaves are large

For the Chicken:

3 days before serving, measure out 1/2 teaspoon of coarse sea salt per pound of chicken. In other words, for a 4 pound chicken, use 2 teaspoons of salt. Rinse the bird and pat dry with paper towels, inside and out. This will help ensure crispy, golden skin.  If necessary, trim any excess fat. Gently slip your finger under the breast skin, from the lower end of the breasts, and tuck one herb sprig under the skin of each breast. Repeat with each thigh. Rub the bird all over with the sea salt, sprinkling a small amount inside the cavity of the bird.  Sprinkle lightly with freshly cracked pepper, and store covered in refrigerator.

3 days later, preheat the oven to 450. Preheat an oven-proof skillet or dutch oven that is large enough for the bird over medium-high heat. Once again, pat the chicken dry with paper towels, and place breast side up in the pan. You should hear it sizzle. Place in center of preheated oven. Roast 45 minutes, undisturbed. At this point the skin should have some color. You can adjust the temperature up or down 25 degrees as necessary. If the chicken looks close to being finished, you can check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer, inserting it into the thickest part of the the thigh, along the bone, and again into the thickest part of the breast. This is the best way to monitor doneness. Continue checking periodically until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Total cooking time is typically between 60 and 90 minutes.

For the Salad:

While the chicken is roasting, Cut the tough parts of the crust from the bread, and cut into 1″ slices, to equal about a pound of bread. Brush with  2 tablespoons of the olive oil, place on a baking rack atop a sheet pan, and set aside. You may wish to toast the pine nuts in a small baking dish in the oven, alongside the roasting chicken. Watch carefully so as not to burn.

Combine the currants, red wine vinegar, and warm water in a small bowl and set aside until currants are softened. Combine 4 tablespoons olive oil and champagne vinegar in a small bowl. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Whisk to combine and set aside.

Once chicken is done roasting, remove from oven and let rest undisturbed, at least 10 minutes before carving. Meanwhile, finish the salad.

Turn oven to broil, and place prepared bread on middle rack of oven. When one side of  bread slices are crisp and browned, flip and brown the other side. If necessary,  when cool enough to handle, use the edge of a table knife to scrape off any charred spots. Tear bread into large pieces and place in large baking dish.

In a small skillet heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat and lightly saute scallions and sliced garlic, just until soft and aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Add to vinaigrette. Drain currants and add to vinaigrette. Pour over bread, along with pine nuts, and toss to combine. Tilt the chicken pan to harvest a couple spoonfuls of pan drippings. A turkey baster works well here, and also allows the fat to rise to the top, so you can squeeze the chicken juices onto the bread, instead of the fat. Sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly cracked pepper, toss to combine, taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt and pepper, or even a splash of oil or Champagne vinegar.

Make sure oven is turned off and place salad in still-warm oven while you carve the chicken and place on a serving platter. When chicken is ready to serve, remove salad from oven, toss with fresh arugula and serve immediately.


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