Monday, June 26, 2017

Roast garlic chicken chez Huang

Feeding a picky Chinese guy like mine means that you don’t get to serve foods that fail to appeal. Granted, he doesn’t say anything if dinner doesn’t meet his expectations, but there’s a silence and a pronounced pushing of things around on the plate that tells me he is feeling hungry and anxious.

Lucky for me, he’s an easy read. He likes to separate all the things in front of him so that he has separate piles of veggies, meats, whatever. Then, if he discovers a favorite – or if he knows that a beloved dish is in front of him – he will save that for last. Inevitably.

Eggs are always on that list, as well as most other proteins. Unless I’m serving sticky rice, and then all bets are off. He will scrupulously clean every last bit of dinner off the grains and then sigh happily as he dives into the rice.

However much he adores sticky rice, though, he would be hard pressed to keep this chicken until the end of his meal. And I can’t blame him. In fact, I’m one of those people who likes to eat an alternating bite of each thing as I progress through the meal, and I usually succumb to diving face first into the chicken.

This starts with the carving, which really is more about simply pulling the meat off the bones. It’s that tender. You’ll discover this when you tug on a drumstick, preparing as usual to open up the thigh so that you can slice through the hip joint. But that won’t happen if you roast the bird this way. Instead, the leg bone pops out in your hand, and then when you try to maneuver the thigh, out comes that bone, too. I will "tidy up" the bird as I go, as of course I don't want to serve anything that's messy. At least, that's my excuse.

Perfection achieved
Usually when a chicken is this done, the breast meat will be dried out, too. And yet here the breast is perfectly succulent. And flavorful. And covered with crispy skin.

This alchemy is the result of a few things that I will now lay out for you, because I’ve worked on this dish for decades, I tell you, and it’s finally ready to go public.

First, use lots of slightly smacked garlic under the skin. This not only perfumes the flesh, but it also props up the skin, allowing it to turn crunchy.

Second, don’t tie up the legs, but rather let them sprawl open. That way the hot air of the oven can easily circulate around the thighs, which are always the last bits to get done. Usually, if you wait until the thighs are done, the breast will be toast. But not this way.

Third, start this off in a hot oven – 425°F (220°C) – and then lower the heat to 375°F (190°C) to finish it off. This hot blast dries out the skin, but it’s done for only around 10 minutes, so that the meat doesn’t have a chance to dry off.

Fourth, if you have a convection oven, now is the time to use it. The circulating air that a convection oven uses to cook things is exactly what you want here. It’s like a desert wind blowing around the bird, parching the surface and giving you crispy skin and luscious meat. If you are using a traditional gas or electric oven, try increasing it by 25°F (15°C) to get it hot enough.

Fifth, cook the bird without any sauce for the first half hour and only then pour on the sauce. After that, baste that bird every 5 minutes or so to build up a nice shellac. Don't use a whole lot of sauce – you don’t want to braise it – but enough that the back area soaks up the moisture.

Sixth, use a thick sauce. It should be about the consistency of molasses. Remember that the bird will be giving off lots of juices as it cooks, which will dilute whatever you are using.

Seventh, remember to let the bird rest out of the oven for around 30 minutes. It needs to cool down a bit, and it will keep on cooking while it is still hot, but this rest will also allow the heat to even out throughout the chicken. Also, it will just be too hot to cut up and serve and eat before that. Don’t cover the bird, as that will soften the skin.

And finally, as always, use a good quality chicken. Organic and free range or kosher is best, in my opinion. There are different producers out there, so find one you like. I’ve been really impressed with Trader Joe’s whole birds, both the free range and kosher.

Lotsa, lotsa garlic

This sauce is simply sweet soy sauce, but you can use any thickened red-cooked sauce you like, or even something completely different.

What makes my sauce truly different is that I reuse it. The natural flavors of garlic and chicken seep into it, making it more and more of a master sauce as time goes on. You can keep this up as long as you like, adding more soy sauce or wine or sugar or seasonings as you go and as needed. It should be thick and molasses-y, so it will keep well if refrigerated in a closed jar.

And you can use this sauce as you like. It goes great when brushed on grilled salmon, say, or tossed into some stir-fried cabbage at the last minute. Just be sure to keep at least ½ cup (120 ml) set aside for your next roast chicken foray. And if you’re anything like me, this will probably turn into a weekly affair.

Garlic roast chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā suànzi kăojī 黃家蒜子烤雞
Serves 4 to 6

1 whole free range, organic, or kosher chicken (about 5 pounds or 2.25 kgs)
1 whole head garlic
½ cup (120 ml) sweet soy sauce (page 439 in All Under Heaven), or whatever sauce you like, as long as it is as thick as warmed molasses

1. Place one oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and another one just below that. Set an empty pan on the bottom rack and cover it with foil to catch any drippings. Heat the oven to 425°F (220°C) while you prepare the bird.

Tuck in the cloves
2. Break the garlic up into separate cloves, trim off the hard bases, lightly smack them with the side of a heavy knife, and peel off the skins. You should have about 12 to 16 garlic cloves.

3. Wipe the bird dry inside and out with paper towels. Fold the wings under themselves. Use your fingers to carefully separate the skin on the breast and thighs from the meat. Slide a third of the garlic cloves onto the right breast and thigh, another third on the left, and the rest should get tossed into the cavity. Don't truss the legs, but rather leave them sprawling open. Place the bird in an ovenproof pan that is at least 2 inches (5 cm) deep, so that the juices don’t spill out.

4. Set the bird on the uppermost of the racks in the center of the oven with the breast toward the back, if you are using a convection oven, as this way the hot air will directly hit this area. Roast for about 15 minutes and then turn down the heat to 375°F (190°C), but don’t open up the oven door. After a total of 30 minutes, pour the sauce over the chicken. Every 5 or so minutes after this, baste the chicken, being sure to coat the breast area thoroughly. The chicken will be done when the thigh reads 165°F (75°C). Remove the bird from the oven and let it rest uncovered for at least 30 minutes, then pull it apart and serve. Some of the roasting juices can be poured over the chicken, but again, save some for next time you roast a bird.