Roast Chicken. Leaping frogs and butterflies.

(adapted from Alton Brown, on youtube: part 1 and part 2)

1 chicken (mine was around 2 kg)
1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 lemon, just the zest
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
fresh parsley, chopped
6 carrots
1 leek
1/2 celeriac
2 cups red wine (white wine also works!)
lemon juice

This is a chicken I bought at my supermarket. And I realized that the whole chicken is much cheaper than buying just parts of it. Another big advantage: my husband and I never argue, because he prefers the breast meat and I the legs.

You can roast the chicken whole, but I for my part can never remember if you should put up first the breast or the back side. And on the bottom side, the skin will always be soggy instead of crunchy. Apart from the trouble cutting up a whole, piping hot chicken. In my case, that ends often in disaster – much to the joy of Henry and Nala

Before you start anything at all, preheat your oven/broiler to the highest setting.

When I saw Alton Brown’s Good Eats episode on spatchcocking/butterflying a chicken, I thought “genius”: all the skin is facing up and I don’t have to go through all my chicken recipes to find out if the breast or back side should go up first. And a bit later, I discovered the “leaping frog” method of cutting up a chicken on the internet.. I find it even better: you just cut it up, not cutting things away (like the backbone). Head over to Gourmet for detailed pictures, but no worries, this is really easy.

  • Place the chicken on the cutting board with the legs facing you and upwards. 
  • Cut the skin in the crease between the drumsticks and the body. Try not to cut the meat, just the skin and connective tissue – let gravity help you! 
  • Flatten the drumsticks, so that they lie flat on your cutting board. OK if you hear the joint pop, but don’t worry if you don’t.
  • Take your sharpest knife or kitchen shears and cut the ribcage in half, parallel to the backbone. No need to be too exact.
  • Flip the bird open like a book, lay it on the board with the skin side up and press down on the breast and backbone with the heel of your hand. Done!

My cutting boards are all way too small, I know.

Next stop: the spice mix. Put whole pepper corns in your mortar and crunch them up a bit. Add the peeled and chopped garlic and coarse salt and make a paste.

If you don’t happen to have pestle and mortar at home, crush the pepper corns on a cutting board with a meat hammer or something else that’s heavy and has a flat bottom. Search your house and be creative: marble slabs, corn cans, mason jars work just fine. Or just fill your pepper mill with 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper and grind it all on the coarsest setting. Puree or press the garlic and mix with the pepper in a bowl.

Grab a lemon (and read the label before buying it – be sure that it’s not been chemically treated so that you can eat the peel). Run it over the zester to get just the yellow part of the peel, not the white stuff – it’s bitter.

No zester at home? Any other fine grater will do. Or a vegetable peeler and then chopping the strips up very finely. But let me tell you – buy a microplane zester. It works wonderfully on citrus peel and parmesan and it is incredibly sharp. Don’t ask how many fingernails I ruined.

Mix the lemon peel with the garlic/pepper paste and thin it with olive oil. Chop a small handful of parsley and mix it with the rest.

Mr. Brown says to use a teaspoon, but I made a little piping bag. Just fill the paste into the corner of a regular freezer bag, twist it closed and – in the last moment – cut away the tip of the corner.

Wiggle your index finger between the meat and the chicken skin to loosen it. Be gentle and try not to tear the skin. You don’t need to get it all loose, just the breasts and the drumsticks are fine. Pipe in around 1 teaspoon of the spice mix and massage the skin so that you spread the spices under the skin. Don’t worry if you have some of the paste left.

Why under the skin? Basically, skin is there to keep the good things in and the bad things out. But I guess you want the meat to get a taste of the spices and that would not happen if you put the spices on the outside of the skin. And of course in the hot oven, all those delicate spices would burn and leave you with a taste of charcoal.

Cut the vegetables into finger-long pieces and cover the bottom of an ovenproof pan or roasting pan. I used my favorite, a cast iron Le Creuset pan. But work with anything you have – even a disposable aluminum pan works fine.

Use whatever vegetables you happen to have, even if they’re not at their best anymore and as long as they don’t tend to get mushy when cooked. Potatoes and whole onions would also work fine. In Germany, you often find “soup vegetables”, that is celeriac, carrots, leeks and parsley bound together. The perfect combination for this.

Lay the chicken on top of the vegetables and massage some olive oil onto the skin. You want a crispy skin, right? Put it into the oven for 20-30 minutes – you want a crispy brown skin and an internal temperature of both breast and drumstick of 165°F / 74°C.

While you’re at it, wash some small potatoes, brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Pop them into the oven on a roast underneath the chicken. They should be ready just the same time as the chicken.

The meat was done, but for my taste, the skin could have been darker. Seems my oven does not get really hot anymore. Anyway, when the chicken is done, get it out of the oven and let it rest on a plate, cover with foil or another plate.

Crank up the heat of your largest stovetop and pour in the wine, let it cook and reduce a bit. While it cooks, scrape the bottom and sides of the pan to dissolve all that brown, crunchy stuff. This is what makes the difference between a good sauce and a really, really good sauce. Stir the vegetables so that the brown parts are submerged in the sauce. After 10 minutes, you can fish out all the vegetables if you don’t like them – in fact, I liked the wine-soaked carrots very much.

Give it a taste and season with lemon juice, salt and the leftover pepper-lemon-paste. Tastes good? OK, you’re done!

Now all you need to do is carve the chicken breasts, cut away the drumsticks and serve with potatoes and the sauce. Steal the skin from your husband’s plate and enjoy with a glass of wine.

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