My college years were less than traditional. I was the mother of a teenager, for one thing. My household consisted of a husband, daughter, grandmother (in her 90s), a cat, a dog and two rabbits. I was busy. Stressed. Short on time, long on homework, and writing my thesis in English literature.
But my family was incredibly supportive, and I was blessed with good friends in my graduating class of 1986 who were there for each other, especially my friend Jenny. Jenny was a mom like me, who had gone back to school with a similar house full of “other duties as assigned”. She was also majoring in English, so we shared classes, lunches and heart-to-heart conversations on a regular basis. Our friendship extended way beyond graduation, in fact. We even shared an office later as adjunct faculty.
I will always remember one particularly difficult day, however, when we were both walking to our cars after a long day of classes and research paper presentations. With all that schoolwork, I was going home with no plans for the family dinner. As I was complaining about how stressed-out I was, Jenny suggested an unlikely (in my mind) antidote: “Why don’t you just roast a chicken,” she said. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“Are you crazy?” I asked. “I don’t have time to roast a chicken! How could that possibly make me feel better?”
“Roasting a chicken is easy, and it is as calming as getting a massage,” said Jenny with total authority.
“Well, I don’t know how to roast a whole chicken,” I said (Yes, young and soooooo inexperienced.).
“Do you know the song Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel?” She asked, rhetorically. I nodded the affirmative anyway. “Then you know how to roast a chicken,” she smiled.
Ok. I realize this does not totally explain roasting a chicken, but in the end, Jenny was right about the easy dish preparation and the calming effect of roasting a sweet little bird. Further, my menagerie at home loved the dish, which afforded leftovers for another meal, and, as I got better at cooking, a carcass for stock that turned into yet another meal…soup.
To this day, even though I’ve been a vegetarian for over 25 years and don’t eat chicken anymore, I can calm my stressed-out self down by roasting a plump little bird, like the ones I buy from Jackie Mills at The Family Garden. That conversation with Jenny transformed my kitchen, I think. I don’t underestimate this fortuitus moment in my culinary life.
Needless to say, it’s the herbs that make this dish a standout—yep, you guessed it: fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And in this season that is famous for stressed out and frenzied households, I have decided to share the recipe on the blog. Many of you will already know how to roast a chicken, I’m sure. But in case you don’t and have reached the end of a harrowing day of shopping, cleaning and whatever else the holidays have thrown at you, roasting the Scarborough Chicken will make a wonderful comforting dinner and will…well…make you feel better. Jenny and I promise.
- One whole roasting hen, four and a half to five pounds, innards removed and reserved for another use (Think gravy!)
- Olive oil, about one-quarter cup or just a smidge more
- Unsalted butter, four to five tablespoons or just a smidge more
- About a half cup each, fresh parsley leaves and stems, sage sprigs, rosemary sprigs and thyme sprigs, divided. (You can make this chicken with dried herbs, which I have done in a pinch, but it will not be as good as with fresh. I highly recommend using fresh herbs in this recipe.)
- The rind of one large orange, optional
- Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. You want to start your chicken in a hot oven to encourage browning; then, you will reduce the temperature to ensure slow roasting that won’t dry the chicken out.
- While the oven preheats, prepare the bird. Though prepping instructions have changed over the years, I still give my whole bird a good cold rinse, inside and out, and pat dry with clean, unbleached paper towels. I then place it on a washable work surface.
- Rub the olive oil all over the bird—use your squeaky-clean hands—don't be shy. As you rub, lift the skin carefully from the breast and around the sides of the bird. Now shove pats of butter under the skin, massaging it in and then over the outside of the bird. Your little bird should be totally oiled and buttered when you are done, sort of spa-like. Now wash your hands, again.
- Salt and pepper your bird, as desired, I suggest a bit inside as well as out.
- Next prepare the herbs. Using half of each half-up of herbs, mince the leaves until you have a nice mixture of minced parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Pat the minced herb mixture all over the exterior of the bird. Take the rest of the herbs and the orange rinds (if using) and stuff into the cavity of the chicken. You can tie these up in a sachet, if you prefer, but I just stuff them in.
- Place the prepared chicken on a roasting rack in a large roaster pan. I usually line the pan with foil ahead of time for easier clean up at the end. If I intend to make pan gravy, I carefully remove the foil once the bird is resting, and allow the juices to flow into the bottom of pan. It is also a good idea to coat the rack itself with oil. My favorite oil for this is coconut—really allows the crusty, oily stuff to slide off.
- Place the prepared bird on its oiled rack in the roaster in the 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. During this time, your chicken should start to develop a beautiful browned crust. When it does, reduce the oven temperature to 325 and continue to roast for about one hour and fifteen minutes. Check your chicken a couple of times and take this opportunity to baste it with the pan juices. Chickens accumulate a lot of liquid inside where the herbs and orange rinds are roasting. You can tip your bird and let some of these juices flow out into the pan. The beginnings of a wonderful gravy.
- To check for doneness, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thick section between the breast and the leg. It should read 160-165. Once this temperature is reached, remove the chicken from the oven and wrap tightly in foil, allowing the chicken to rest, its temp to rise about five more degrees and reabsorb all the flavorful juices before carving.
- Resting the bird is critical to the success of this dish. Don’t shortcut it. While you wait, you can finish getting all your other amazing dishes to the table and make gravy, if you want it. Be sure to remove the orange rinds and herbs before carving. These should be discarded.
- If I'm making gravy, I use my fat separator to make sure I have all the flavorful juices but not an excess of fat. It’s a great little tool that saves time. While the fat is separating, you will want to deglaze the pan with some white wine or sherry, bringing up the fire to get a strong simmer going. Now scrape up every little bit of crusty flavor with a big spoon. Add the separated drippings. I typically thicken the reserved drippings with flour, forming a traditional roux and then adding chicken stock I have on hand to make the gravy. A little extra butter to help the roux cream out is never a bad idea, either.
Reaching the appropriate internal temperature is the best way to ensure your bird is safely done, so use that instant read thermometer. Cooking time here is approximate and will vary depending on the size of the roasting hen. So mindful of exact temperatures, realizing that as it rests, the chicken will increase about five degrees.
This is the chicken I have made for years, Simon and Garfunkel ringing in my head every time. It is comfort food times 10, even for the vegetarian who prepares it. There’s all sort of things tied up in this dish for me—friendship, college, feeding my family and watching them smile, my grandma at my table. Says Thanksgiving to me. I hope it makes some memories for you, too.