I recall the day we prepped and roasted whole chickens in culinary school to be terrifying. My fear was clearly irrational. I had, after all, cooked whole turkeys for many Thanksgiving feasts prior.
I suppose the idea that this time I would be judged for my efforts, given a grade and potentially told I had been doing it wrong for all those years caused unwarranted anxiety to build up inside me from the moment I saw “Whole Roast Chicken” on the syllabus. On some occasions I allowed that fear to paralyze me and my team mate, Norma, a lovely lady who had worked at a Tyson Chicken Factory, took the lead.
It’s funny how a couple of years of life has changed my perspective from paralyzing fear of being told I’m wrong to seeing criticism as an opportunity to gather feedback, learn something new and continue to grow.
If you have never roasted a whole chicken and you feel fear and anxiety building up in your gut, don’t worry! I’m hear to hold your hand and walk you through it, and you will not be graded on your efforts. In all likelihood, the people you serve this chicken to will be nothing but grateful, giving praise and thanks for your love and care to have prepared such a meal for them.
Sharing Our Community Table
That’s what this meal is really all about: the people you share it with. A small roast chicken can serve about 4 adults. Find one large enough, add a side (like Warm Potato Salad) and you can feed a couple of little ones as well.
For me this meal showcases what cooking means and why it is so important to me. When I cook for someone, it is my way of showing my love for that person or people. I put everything I am into the meals I prepare for friends and loved ones. It’s my way of saying “I love you so much that I’ve prepared this delicious dinner just for you and my hope is that it not only nourishes your body, but your soul and spirit are warmed by sharing it with me.”
In my opinion, it is important that we continue to teach this sense of community to each other and to our children. We recently bought my 3-year-old son a step stool so that he can help me cook. He is so fascinated by it and wants to help and is just a little sponge for knowledge and information.
The fearful member of the “committee in my head” (you know, the various sides of your personality that attempt to influence your decisions every day) often pipes up and tells me it’s too dangerous for him to participate in the kitchen and so he should just get out.
I’ve learned that have to actively subdue that part of the committee because if I’m too afraid to teach him, he will never learn a respect for the food we eat, the dangers of the kitchen, or the joy of sharing a meal with another human being. I’ve learned that caution is healthy, but fear paralyzes us. You can’t live your life in fear. A life of fear is not living at all.
So let’s roast a chicken, shall we?
Know Your Chicken, Prep Your Chicken
First thing’s first, rinse your chicken under cold running water. Remove any excess fat near the open cavity without removing too much skin. This skin will help protect the breast as the chicken cooks. Stretch your chicken out from wings to legs.
Tuck the wing tips behind the shoulder blades. Lay your chicken, back down, on a pad of dry paper towels. Pat the breast and legs dry with additional paper towels and tuck these inside the cavity.
Slip your hand between the breast meat and skin to separate most of the thin membrane between the two. You will tuck pieces of butter and fennel into this space later. Allow your chicken to rest and dry with paper towels while you prepare the rest of your mise en place (French for “putting in place”).
Trussing Your Chicken
Some people don’t truss. I like to truss because I cram the bird full of aromatic vegetables and herbs. I don’t want any of that to come out and I want the skin to stay in place to protect the breast meat.
There are many ways to truss. If you have a spare upholstery needle you can do it the Julia Child way (Julia, by the way, is an excellent model of fearlessness). I simply tie it up using a slip knot and the number “4” method.
First, remove the paper towels inside the chicken and place it on the sheet pan with rack insert that your chicken will roast on. Start with clean, plain cotton string or butcher string. Make a slip knot and loop the opening around the wings and breast and pull tight. Work your way from breast to legs creating the shape of a “4” with the string. Loop the opening of the “4” around the legs and back and pull the “4” up to the breast about 2 inches from the original slip knot loop and pull tight, adjusting the places where the strings overlap so that they are neat. Repeat this process twice more over the legs. End your truss by tying the legs together.
Caring for the Delicate Breast Meat
Before putting your chicken in the oven create a small triangular shaped “breast shield” out of aluminum foil. Tear a section of foil just large enough to cover the breast of the chicken. Fold up the top corners and bottom so that the breast is completely covered, but the legs and wings remain uncovered.
Start your chicken at a very high heat (425 degrees Fahrenheit). This will allow the skin to crisp up and become a lovely golden brown and delicious color.
Once the breast is golden (about 35-40 minutes) carefully place your breast shield over the breast. Lower the heat to 375 and continue to cook until your chicken is done (see instructions below).
Fennel Roasted Chicken
- 4-5 tbs butter, cold, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 1 head fennel, fronds removed and reserved, 1/2 sliced in rounds, 1/2 quartered
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- Preheat oven to 425. Prepare a sheet pan (cookie sheet) with a metal cooling rack that fits inside the sheet pan and set aside. Prepare your mise en place as the oven heats.
- Season your chicken on all outer sides, inside the cavity and in between the breast and skin with kosher salt, black pepper and oregano. Really massage these seasonings into the meat and skin.
- Layer the fennel slices with slices of butter. Slip each layer between the breast and skin with the butter up and fennel against the breast meat.
- Stuff the cavity of your chicken with the remaining quarters of fennel, onion quarters, garlic, and bay leaves.
- Truss your chicken and create your “breast shield” (see above).
- Cook chicken on 425 without the breast shield until breast is golden (about 40 minutes).
- As the chicken cooks drizzle safflower oil over the reserved fennel fronds and season them and any remaining fennel and onion quarters with salt and pepper.
- Lower temperature to 375. Place the oiled, seasoned fennel fronds over the breast then apply your breast shield over the breast and fronds. Be very careful as the chicken will be very hot. Place remaining onions and fennel quarters around the chicken for additional aromatics.
- Allow your chicken to continue cooking at 375 until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the bird reads 160 degrees (about 45 minutes to an hour). Remove from oven and allow chicken to rest. Temperature should continue to rise to 165 while chicken is resting.