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Salt of the earth

Judy Rodgers knows the transformative power of a most basic ingredient.

July 05, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

The three beef fillets, roasted quite rare, are dramatically different. The unsalted is fine -- it's a nice piece of grass-fed beef -- but the pre-salted has much better flavor and is firmer in texture, so it slices cleanly, rather than in rags. And a hint of black pepper seems to have been carried to the center of the one that was peppered as well as pre-salted.

It is the roast chicken that is the coup de grace, though, and that is fitting. Zuni's roast chicken is so popular that the restaurant goes through 350 birds a week -- each one roasted to order in the wood-fired oven.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Salting technique: An article in Wednesday's Food section about chef Judy Rodgers' salting technique misidentified the town in which the Troisgros family lives and owns a restaurant. It is Roanne, France, not Rouen.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 12, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Salting -- An article in last week's Food section about chef Judy Rodgers' salting technique misidentified the town in which the Troisgros family lives and owns a restaurant. It is Roanne, France, not Rouen.

You can tell the difference between the birds just by looking. The pre-salted chicken is a uniform golden color, whereas the other is more mottled, with some gold, some pale and even some black charred spots.

The difference in flavor is even more pronounced. The bird that was salted just before roasting tastes like, well, chicken -- nothing special, and the texture is a little stringy.

The pre-salted chicken is a revelation: The flavor is full and deep. It's not salty at all, but has a profound chicken taste. The meat is moist and tender; the texture is downright buttery.

Sure, it's a roast chicken. But it's not just any roast chicken. "That is the taste of a Zuni chicken," Rodgers exclaims. "That is the taste of Zuni restaurant. This is what I've always wanted to do: Serve dishes that weren't just playful and amusing, but were keepers. I like keepers."


Zuni Cafe roast chicken with bread salad

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus 1 to 3 days standing time

Servings: 2 to 4

Note: This recipe is adapted from "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" by Judy Rodgers. From 1 to 3 days before serving, season the chicken. Begin preparing the bread salad up to several hours before serving.

Roast chicken

1 (2 3/4 - to 3 1/2 -pound) chicken

4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary, or sage, about 1/2 -inch long

About 2 1/4 teaspoons sea salt

About 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough -- a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.

2. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

3. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper, allowing about three-fourths teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but otherwise don't worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate for 1 to 3 days.

4. When ready to cook, heat the oven to 475 degrees. (Depending on the size, efficiency and accuracy of your oven and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during the course of roasting the chicken to get it to brown properly.)

4. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Heat up the pan on the stove over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast-side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

5. Place the chicken in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn't, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoky, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on its size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to 1 hour.

6. When the chicken is done, lift it from the roasting pan and set it on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

7. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juices into the drippings.

8. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stove top) and leave it to rest while you finish the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

9. Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.

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