You can separate some people by their politics, their sports team allegiances, their taste in music or even their drink of choice.
I’m a chicken person. I ask people what their favorite type of chicken is.
Fried chicken? If you’ve had the best, such as a crackling bird from Tommy Moore’s or Mr. and Mrs. G’s, that’s practically greaseless yet loaded with flavor from first bite, then I know I can respect your opinion when it comes to most food. I’ll also start to drift off on memories of some crunchy thigh or drumstick that had just the right blend of salt and pepper in the flour mix and seasoned each mouthful. If fast food is all you have time for, and Popeye’s is near the top of the list, I’ll nod in agreement.
Although I grew up in Kentucky, I hate to admit it, but I can’t find much to agree with when people start singing the praises of KFC. Soggy, supermarket fried chicken is even more of a let-down, even when served cold, picnic style.
Things get a little rockier when rotissere chicken comes up. Are these people talking about those all-too-often mealy creatures you grab at the supermarket when you just don’t have time to cook that night? Those are more an act of desperation than a real delicacy, and my opinion has slid just a touch.
If someone mentions boneless, skinless chicken breast by itself, I generally stop listening. It’s like listening to someone praise store-bought white bread, although I think the bread often has more flavor. Chicken breast is what I gladly give to others or what I save for chicken salad, when mayonnaise, sour cream and a few more seasonings are there to add flavor.
Mention roast chicken, however, and I definitely see friend material. It means you know the joys of tearing off a piece of glistening skin and having it crackle in your mouth. Suddenly, your senses take over as you take in the texture and the sound as well as the aroma and the flavor. There is a reason this succulent taste of heaven is an international classic.
But getting that perfect bird isn’t always easy. I’ve tried numerous recipes in the past. I even bought a wonderful cookbook called “Roast Chicken and Other Stories,” though I have to admit that the chicken recipe may be my least favorite of all that I’ve tried. I even bought a special chicken roaster. And I’ve loved experimenting with the various cooking techniques people swear by, from cooking the bird at a low temperature for a long time or starting the temperature really hot to get the skin crispy and then lowering it while the rest of the bird cooks.
What is driving me is a taste memory of the best roast chicken I’ve ever had, which was about 13 years ago at the Old Chatham Shepherding Farm in upstate New York. Chef Melissa Kelly stuffed slivers of truffle under the skin and used just enough butter to get practically lacquer the skin. The meat underneath was moist, as if the butter basted the meat while the truffle perfumed it. Never again, however. I haven’t seen the likes of it on her menu at her subsequent restaurant, Primo in upstate Maine.
My desire to find the best roast chicken recipe led me to two area chefs, Chris Cook from Oro in the Emily Morgan Hotel and Zach Lutton from Zedric’s Healthy Gourmet to Go. Both started from the same point: Use a really good chicken, preferably one raised responsibly in the area from a ranch such as Peeler Farms or Vital Farms. Then they went off in opposite directions, yet both produced the crispy skin and juicy meat I crave. (If you’re wondering about my obsession with the skin, then you don’t get roast chicken at all. Let me just say that I’ll roast an entire chicken for dinner. Then I’ll sit down and eat the skin. If I’m still hungry after that, I’ll have a thigh.)
Cook prepares his confit style in duck fat the day before serving. Then he roasts it the last step of the way in an oven that allows the skin to reach that perfect crackling stage. The end result is dizzying with the achiote carrots and the rest of the vegetables you can serve with it. It does take a good deal of preparation, so you might want to leave the cooking up to Cook and enjoy this dish at Oro in the Emily Morgan, 705 E. Houston St., where locals can enjoy 20 percent off their meal.
Lutton’s recipe starts out on a high temperature and stays there, which made me slightly nervous. He uses olive oil under the skin instead of butter, though a combination of the two might also work. My fears were groundless. The skin came out a rich brown that bypassed the usual golden color and yet carried a load of flavor. It was also so easy that I’ve made it twice, just to be sure — and to get a little more of that skin.
I realize my roast chicken fixation is arbitrary, but I can’t help. I can only feed the addiction. Now, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite way to prepare chicken? Or what’s the best chicken you’ve ever had?
In the meantime, try Cook’s and Lutton’s recipes. Both are excellent methods of preparing this classic dish.