Garlic, thyme for a change

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We all know at least one. A meat-and-potatoes person. You know the type, they cling to food judgments founded in early childhood. "Gimme a good steak and baked potato" is their theme song. They squawk for aew food theme. A comfort food that will fill their stomachs with joy and make their taste buds tango. One that will turn them into roast-chicken folks.

Succulent roast chicken, that is. With plenty of mellow roasted garlic, fresh herbs and delicious croutons made from rustic bread.

One whiff. One bite. That's all it will take.

Judy Rodgers, chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, has created a Roast Chicken with Bread Salad that is sheer perfection. The chicken is stuffed under the skin with fresh thyme and garlic.

Roasted to a golden brown, the chicken is accompanied by a luscious salad made with toasted cubes of rustic bread, arugula, currants (plumped in red-wine vinegar and water) and green onions -- lightly dressed with a vinaigrette made from pan juices, generous slivers of cooked garlic, olive oil and Champagne vinegar.

It is so popular, Ms. Rodgers says, she doesn't dare omit this signature dish from the daily menu.

"We've been serving it since 1987 and a few times I tried substituting roast duck or guinea hen. Customers were really upset. Every single night of the year, about one out of every four people order the chicken. It's a dish that crosses through all seasons; rain, fog or sun -- it works," she says.

At home, you can serve the chicken with a simple green salad or prepare a mouth-watering Rice with Fresh Fennel and Cheese. Fresh fennel gives the dish a subtle licorice taste and the cheeses (Havarti and Parmesan) give it a creamy texture.

For dessert, try some simple store-bought crepes filled with fresh strawberries and a simple, make-ahead fruit sauce.

Zuni Cafe's roast chicken with bread salad

Makes 4 servings

1 (2 1/2 -pound) chicken, giblets removed, washed and patted dry

salt and pepper to taste

4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

SALAD:

1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar

1 tablespoon warm water

1 tablespoon currants

6 cups stale rustic-style bread, most of crust removed, cut into 1-inch cubes

4 1/2 teaspoons olive oil, divided use

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

4 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground pepper to taste

3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into thin strips

4 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced (include some dark green stalks)

3 cups mixed young bitter greens, such as arugula or frisee

garnish: 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, see cook's notes

Fifteen minutes before roasting chicken, heat oven to 425 degrees.

For best results, marinate chicken overnight in the refrigerator. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper in the cavity and on the outside skin. Run your fingers between the skin and flesh -- over the breasts and legs, making small pockets. Place a sprig of fresh thyme and a garlic clove in each pocket. Wrap chicken in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Combine red-wine vinegar and warm water; add currants and soak for 2 hours.

Place bread in a large bowl and toss with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Adjust oven rack about 8 inches below the broiler element. Heat broiler. Place bread on baking sheet or jelly-roll pan. Broil about 6 to 8 inches from broiler element, tossing 1 or 2 times, for about 2 minutes or until nicely toasted.

Place chicken, breast side up, in a shallow roasting pan. Roast at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. Turn chicken over and roast until the juices run clear when pricked in the thickest part of the thigh, about 20 more minutes. Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk mustard, Champagne vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in 2 teaspoons olive oil. Add the bread and toss to coat. Set aside. Heat remaining 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil in a small non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and green onions; cook for 2 minutes. Drain currants and toss with bread mixture. Place bread mixture in a baking dish, such as a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes. Turn oven off and leave in oven for 10 minutes.

Carve chicken into 8 pieces. Toss salad with 2 tablespoons of chicken pan juices and the greens.

Divide salad among 4 plates. Top with 2 pieces of chicken, sprinkle with pine nuts and serve.

Cook's notes: To toast pine nuts, place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in a 350-degree oven for about 3 minutes or until nicely browned. Watch pine nuts carefully because they burn easily.

Garlic-backed chicken with croutons

Makes 4 servings

4 slices sourdough bread (large slices, about 6-by-4-by- 1-inches), cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus olive oil for rubbing on skin

6 sprigs of fresh thyme

1 (2 1/2 -pound) chicken, giblets removed, washed and patted dry

2 heads of garlic, broken into cloves, unpeeled

salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine bread cubes, minced garlic, minced thyme and olive oil; toss. Spread in single layer on a baking sheet and place in middle of a preheated 375-degree oven for about 7 minutes, tossing occasionally. You want them lightly browned, but not dark. Remove bread cubes and increase oven temperature to 450 degrees.

Place thyme sprigs in casserole. Season cavity of chicken with salt and pepper. Loosely stuff chicken with some of the bread cubes, including the bits of minced thyme and garlic. Place breast-side up in casserole and rub some olive oil on top of chicken and season with salt and pepper.

Drop unpeeled cloves of garlic around the chicken, pushing them down if the chicken is a tight fit in the casserole. Surround chicken with remaining bread cubes (if all the bread cubes don't fit, save them and place on serving platter). Cover tightly and roast in a 450-degree oven for 1 hour. If you have a bulb baster, baste the bread cubes and chicken occasionally.

Check the bread cubes 10 minutes before the end of the hour; if they are very brown, remove the cubes on top and place on a serving platter. At the end of 1 hour, check to make sure that the chicken is done. The legs should wiggle easily; the joint should move easily. Remove lid and bake an additional 10 minutes to brown the top of the chicken.

Allow chicken to rest 10 minutes before carving.

Scoop up garlic and bread cubes and place on serving platter. Cut chicken into 8 serving pieces and place on top of bread. If desired, accompany with Rice with Fresh Fennel and Cheese.

Cook's notes: For best results, use a heavy, oven-proof casserole with a tight-fitting lid that is just a little bigger than the chicken. A clay pot will work, but follow the directions that accompany the pot; usually you need to soak the pot in cold water and start the roasting process in a cold oven.

Rice with fresh fennel and cheese

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 quarts water

1 1/2 cup raw short-grain rice

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 small or 1 large fresh fennel bulb, fronds removed and reserved, cored and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup water

salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon butter

4 ounces Havarti cheese, cubed

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

garnish: minced fronds from the fresh fennel

In a large pot or Dutch oven, bring water to a boil. Add rice and salt. Simmer until rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a large, deep skillet. Add onions and fennel; cook about 3 minutes on medium heat. Add parsley and wine; bring to a boil on high heat; boil for 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water and boil for about 5 more minutes or until fennel is tender and liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup.

Stir in rice and 1 tablespoon butter; season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses and toss.

Place on serving platter; garnish with minced fronds of fennel (the top of the fennel is a green featherlike frond).

Fresh strawberry creps

Makes 10 crepes

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons minced fresh orange zest

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 cup sugar

optional: 2 tablespoons orange liqueur

1/2 cup hulled and sliced fresh strawberries

1 package prepared crepes

1 pint hulled and sliced fresh strawberries

1 cup whipped cream or 1 cup sour cream

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup powdered sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine butter, orange peel, juices and sugar. Bring to boil on high, reduce heat and simmer, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves. Add orange liqueur (if using) and 1/2 cup sliced strawberries. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes; cool.

While sauce is cooling, separate crepes. Place 3 tablespoons sauce and about 10 sliced strawberries on each crepe. Sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Roll up and place on individual dessert plates, seam side down.

Garnish with whipped or sour cream; sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Cook's notes: Prepared crepes are generally stocked next to the fresh berries in the supermarket produce section.

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