Thursday, 15 September 2011

A roast chicken, French style

As I have previously mentioned, I'm rather fond of a roast but they are not usually a practical option if you live on your tod. As it happens, though, not only is roast chicken in my top 10 favourite meals, it's also the one that's worth making for yourself because the leftovers provide extra meals and you get a carcass to make stock with.

A small chicken weighing about a kilo is about the right size for one. If I can, I'll buy an organic bird, but even a non-organic free range chicken is preferable to a battery one. Most organic chickens tend to be on the large side because they are slaughtered later and thus have had more chance to grow into adulthood. They are undoubtedly the best for flavour so if you can find a smallish one buy it - the extra cost is well worth it for the taste.

I was briefly married to a Parisian many years ago - his mother was a fiercesome woman on first acquaintance but as I got to know her I discovered she was, in fact, a very warm-hearted soul and I became rather fond of her. She was also an absolutely amazing cook. Parisian Boy and I went often to the south suburbs for Sunday lunch with my in-laws, an occasion I always looked forward to knowing that my MiL would dish up some stunning grub - roast capon was a regular on her menu, for example. Once we'd become friends, and I was allowed to say tu to her, she passed on many recipes to me. These she would write down in that standard italic script taught to all French schoolchildren because the recipes were all in her head, passed on by her Auvergne forebears. If I was very lucky (not often), I'd be allowed to watch her in her kitchen.

So, the chicken. The typical British style of preparing a chicken for roasting is to smear it with softened butter and then fill the cavity with seasoning and stuffing. My former MiL's version is rather different and will pack even the blandest of birds with plenty of flavour.

What you need: 
A small chicken, about 1kg
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
A quarter-lemon
1 shallot
2 cloves of garlic
A large bayleaf
Herbes de Provence

What to do:
Heat the oven to 190C. Cut off any trussing string from the chicken and remove any fat from the cavity. Peel the shallot and garlic, then stuff the cavity with these, the lemon quarter and the bayleaf. Oil the chicken outside with the olive oil - be generous with it. Grind some sea salt and black pepper over it then sprinkle liberally with the herbes de Provence. Chicken generally needs about 20 minutes per 500g, plus 20 minutes, but I often give it 30 minutes instead, turning the oven up to 200C for the last stretch as it crisps up the skin nicely. Don't forget to baste regularly.

Stay tuned for ideas for the leftovers and how to make stock.

Cook's tips:
I don't usually bother to make real gravy just for me - it's a lot of faff for one person. If I have a gravy craving I'll cheat with Bisto, making just enough in a coffee mug. Otherwise I'll have a dollop of onion marmalade on the side.

Proper herbes de Provence contain lavender, which is widely eaten in France. The fields of Provence are full of lavender, mainly grown for the perfume industry in Grasse, but much of it finds its way into sweets, ice-cream, chocolate and the herbal blend for which this province is famous. Supermarket blends routinely miss out the lavender. It's worth tracking down a supplier that sells an authentic mix, or to buy the separate ingredients from a herbalist and blend your own. The lavender should be about 10% of the whole.

To serve, I'll either have some greens such as kale or spring greens sautéed over a low heat for an hour, or I'll fill a second roasting tin with some potatoes, onion and peppers, and maybe some parsnip or carrot, toss them in olive oil and put them alongside the chicken for an hour.