Roast chicken with fennel gratin
Most chefs I know don’t enjoy their own cooking. The hours spent on a dish, repeatedly tasting it, tend to dull the palate. Ironic injustice, not being allowed to enjoy the spoils. There is one exception, though: roast chicken.
The simplicity of the roast chicken draws me in almost weekly. But this simplicity is too often its downfall: poor-quality ingredients and poorly timed cooking are so blatantly obvious. Quite simply, there is nowhere and nothing to hide a cheap, overcooked, chain-bought roast chicken.
Care and timing when cooking a chicken is the key to its success. This means not just bunging a lemon wedge and a few sprigs of herbs in the cavity and throwing it in the oven. The oven temperature needs to be hot enough to caramelise the skin, to release the magical aromas of a roast chicken. But too long in a hot oven will force any moisture from the bird.
I believe the best recipe for a roast chicken is possibly your own, although this has not stopped me sharing my version here. For more than 20 years I have roasted chicken the same way. I have always been a breast-up guy, meaning the chicken is cooked breast up for its entirety in the oven and left that way to rest. This method has recently evolved.
Saskia Beer owns and runs Barossa Farm Produce. Last year, Saskia came to Melbourne and presented a masterclass for a small group of chefs. She discussed game birds, poultry farming, and the cooking of fowls. Saskia took us through the difficulties and expense of raising game and poultry in this country. The problems of transport for a small producer, the monopolies held by so few, and the frightening cost of organic grain that does not contain animal protein. And the annoyance of foxes, too.
During the class, Saskia demonstrated the technique of turning the chicken onto its breast after roasting. Surprisingly this technique created a more succulent, evenly cooked chicken. The chicken juices worked their way down through the carcass to the breast, ensuring meat that has the tendency to dry during the cooking process remained succulent. Indeed, resting the bird at all is another element not often considered. A chicken, or any joint of meat cooked on the bone for that matter, can only improve with generous resting time.
What you serve with the chicken is as important as the method of roasting. The elusive flavour of tarragon, its subtle anise flavour, and buttery roast chicken is a classic partnership. Fennel, another anise, is a favourite vegetable of mine – roasted until caramelised, dusted with parmesan and dried chilli. I love the overcooked parmesan bits that form around the edges best.
This is my recipe, of course, but it would be just as good if it were yours.
2013 The Other Right Catch Up chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills ($30) – Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel.
- 1 x 1.6kg chicken
- 2 tbsp butter, at room temperature
- salt flakes
- When you get home with your just-bought chicken, remove it from the packaging. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels and leave in the fridge on a plate sitting on another paper towel until ready to use, even if this is a day before you wish to cook it.
- Take the chicken and butter out of the fridge one hour before you wish to roast it. Preheat the oven to 250ºC.
- Place the chicken in a bowl and slather it with plenty of butter. Dust it with a sprinkling of salt flakes. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan and place on the centre shelf of the oven. Roast the chicken for 45 minutes, remove from the oven and turn over. Take care when turning the chicken, as kitchen tongs can easily damage the skin. Leave the bird in the pan to rest for a minimum of 30 minutes, breast side down before carving.
- Before serving, remove the legs and return them to the oven in the roasting tray for 5 to 10 minutes to finish cooking. Meanwhile, carve the breast meat from the carcass and lay on a hot platter. When the leg meat is ready, arrange on the serving platter. Serve with half a lemon for juicing over the chicken at the table.
- 3 medium fennel bulbs
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- salt and black pepper
- 3 tbsp cream, optional but recommended
- 40g piece of parmesan, grated on a microplane or fine grater
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- pinch dried chilli
- small handful of parsley leaves, chopped
- Preheat oven to 180ºC.
- Cut the fennel bulbs into equal-sized two-centimetre wedges. Melt the butter and olive oil and toss through the fennel to coat it. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and spread the fennel evenly.
- Dust with a little salt and pepper and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. With tongs, turn the fennel and spoon the cream over the top of it. Dust with the parmesan cheese and cook for another 10-15 minutes or until golden. Leave on the tray to cool, then transfer to a bowl. Sprinkle with the lemon juice, dried chilli and parsley leaves and toss lightly.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Savour the flavour".
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