Culinary pleasure without a lot of fuss; Entertaining: Italian-style roast chicken with potatoes and balsamic vinegar is easy to prepare, and the results are delicious.; SUNDAY GOURMET


Ten years ago my husband and I along with friends rented a house in the Italian countryside for a week. During our stay we enjoyed visiting the surrounding villages, sight- seeing and sampling the foods of the region. Half the time we ate out and the remainder we cooked in.

One day, as we were making lunch, an older woman, who was a part-time housekeeper for our place, noticed several of our group getting ready to cook a chicken. Out of the blue, she offered to prepare, right there in our kitchen, an Italian-style roasted chicken with herbs.

Before putting the bird in the oven, she piled it high with sage and other herbs and drizzled it with olive oil. After tasting the finished product, we all marveled at how such a simple dish could be so delicious. We implored her to make yet another so we could learn the secret. And, although Louisa prepared several more chickens for us, when I returned to the States, my versions never tasted the same as hers.

That is, until recently, when I discovered Balsamico Roast Chicken and Potatoes in Lynne Rosetto Kasper's new book, "The Italian Country Table" (Scribner, 1999). After following the author's clear directions, I was delighted that my results resembled the delectable poultry I remembered from a decade ago.

Balsamico Roast Chicken and Potatoes

Serves 4 to 5

1/4 medium onion

3 large garlic cloves

1/4 tightly packed cup fresh basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram

4 slices (1 1/2 to 2 ounces) pancetta, chopped

5 tablespoons high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 (3 1/2 - to 4-pound) chicken (if possible, hormone-and antibiotic-free) (see note)

6 medium Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold or red-skinned potatoes (do not peel), scrubbed and cut into 2-inch chunks

1/2 to 1 cup dry white wine

parsley or fresh thyme, for garnish

By hand or in food processor, mince together onion, garlic, fresh basil, dried basil, oregano, marjoram and pancetta. Blend in 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Cut out chicken's backbone and open chicken out flat, skin side up. With palm, firmly press down breast areas to flatten. Stuff most of herb mixture under skin of thigh, leg and breast areas. Rub rest all over chicken. Place bird, skin side up, in large shallow pan (broiler pan, jelly-roll pan or half-sheet pan). Scatter potatoes around it and sprinkle everything with salt and pepper.

Roast at 400 degrees 20 minutes. Pour in 1/2 cup wine. Roast another 70 minutes until thigh reaches about 175 degrees on instant-read thermometer. Baste potatoes and chicken frequently with pan juices, turning potatoes often to brown evenly and prevent them from sticking. Add more wine if pan is dry. Turn over chicken two-thirds way through cooking for even browning.

If after 1 hour of roasting, chicken isn't browning, increase heat to 500 degrees to finish. (Or wait until done, and run chicken under broiler 5 minutes to crisp skin.) Let chicken rest 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature. Present on warmed platter along with potatoes, sprinkling everything with rest of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with bouquets of parsley.

Note: If time allows, season chicken ahead and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

-- Adapted from "The Italian Country Table" by Lynne Rosetto Kasper (Scribner, 1999)

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