During our trip to San Francisco two years ago, we ate a number of memorable meals, as you might have been able to tell from our 10-part "Revelations" series. Among those that continue to stand out after all this time, however, is our Zuni Cafe meal, the very last meal of our trip. Was it the space's triangular shape? Its wood-fired oven? Sitting upstairs in a cozy booth? Their sinfully good roasted chicken with bread salad? Or was it the fact that the Zuni Cafe got the honor (unbeknownst to them) of putting the finishing touches on our California holiday? [Answer: all of the above.] Since finally getting Judy Rodgers' inspirational The Zuni Cafe Cookbook a few months ago, the recipe for roasted chicken just kept beckoning to us until we could bear it no longer. We finally gave in and decided, "That's that," we had to try to recreate some of the magic of that fateful night.
In her preamble to the recipe, Rodgers attributes their roast chicken's renown to a combination of elements which includes the cafe's wood-fired oven, the high quality of their birds, and the practice that one gets when roasting hundreds of chickens a week. But, that said, the basic key to their success lies in three things, three things over which all of us have a fair bit more control: a small-sized chicken, high heat, and salting the chicken 24 hours in advance. You may not be able to duplicate the lovely smoky flavor that the Zuni Cafe's oven imparts, but otherwise there's no reason to despair, and Rodgers insists that The Zuni Cafe Cookbook's recipe has been thoroughly tested and fine-tuned for the home environment. That was enough for us. We took her word for it and plunged right in the other night.
And the bottom line is this: stop whatever you are doing, print out the recipe below, run to your local butcher, and pick up the nicest small-sized chicken you can find. That's how essential this recipe is. Aside from picking out a 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 pound chicken and taking the time to salt it properly, the trick (again) is to roast the bird at a very high temperature, 450°F, and it was that detail that really piqued our interest. We couldn't believe that such an indelicate method would get the results we (and the Zuni Cafe) were looking for. There's no question about it, this high-heat method really is very dramatic. The fat sputters a fair bit when the bird hits the sizzling cast-iron pan,
and the kitchen definitely gets a little smoky, but it's very worth it.
The Zuni Cafe chicken is one of the best homemade roast chickens we've ever had, and, as leaders of the Mile End chapter of the SCC, we've had our fair share. Don't go thinking you can skip the bread salad, either. That would be a terrible mistake. That bread salad is truly extraordinary; quite simply one of the best salads (of any kind) either of us has had the pleasure of encountering. The whole ensemble is perfect on a misty San Francisco night, as we found out in 2005. It's pretty awesome on a chilly Montreal winter night, too. Now, if only we had a fireplace, or one of those old-time Québécois bread-baking ovens that we've been reading about recently...
Anyway, if you're not already a proud owner of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and there are plenty of other good reasons to pick up a copy, here goes:
Zuni Roast Chicken (serves 2-4)
one small chicken, about 3 lbs.
4 sprigs rosemary, thyme or sage
2 1/4 tsp. coarse salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1-3 days before serving, rinse the chicken and dry completely. Tuck the herbs under the skin on the breast and thighs. Sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one day, but up to three.
for the bread salad:
a day-old medium loaf of peasant-style bread, not sourdough
6 tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp. champagne vinegar
salt and pepper
1 tbsp. currants
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. warm water
2 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted slightly
2-3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup slivered scallions
2 Tbsp. lightly salted water
1 bunch arugula, watercress or any other bitter green
Remove most of the crust from the loaf of bread and slice into thick chunks. Brush with olive oil and broil until golden on both sides. Let cool. Rip the chunks into rough pieces of varying sizes and place in a bowl. Mix 1/4 cup olive oil with the Champagne vinegar and salt and pepper. Add about 1/4 cup of it to the bread. Toss. Mix the currants with the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Heat a cast-iron pan over medium heat. Remove chicken from the fridge and shake off some of the salt, though you don't need to remove it all. Do not rinse the chicken. Pat dry with a paper towel if condensation has formed. Place chicken in the pan, breast-side up, and place in the oven. Roast for 30 min. If the skin is browning too quickly, reduce the oven temperature a bit. Carefully turn the bird over and roast for another 10-20 min. Finish breast-side up for 5 minutes to crisp up the skin. It should take about 45 min. to roast.
Meanwhile, sauté the garlic and scallions with a bit of olive oil until soft, but not browned. Add to the bread along with the pine nuts and drained currants. Add a bit of salted water, salt and pepper to taste and toss. Place in a baking dish and cover with foil. Place the salad in the oven after the final flip of the chicken.
Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat, leaving the bread salad in there to warm up. Let the chicken rest on a serving platter while you skim off the fat from the roasting pan. Deglaze the pan with a bit of water and any drippings that the cooling chicken has given off.
Place the bread salad back in its bowl, drizzle with a spoonful (or two) of the pan juices, add the greens, a bit of vinaigrette and toss. Season to taste. Place a generous heap of salad on each plate. Carve up the chicken and serve on top of the bread salad. Enter heaven.
Worked like a charm.
[Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons From San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant was published in 2002.]