A Million Ways to Roast a Chicken

Last week I spoke on a panel with my friend Melissa Clark at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in New York. The topic was recipe voice. As I was considering what I might say, I asked myself what it is that I hear when I read a recipe and what I want my readers to hear when I write one. I immediately thought about Judy Rodgers' book, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and how it was her recipe voice that first caught my attention as something unique: it was playful, breezy, sometimes annoyingly lengthy, and full of wit and memorable lessons, particularly her five-page recipe for roast chicken. On the morning of the panel as I was about to run out of the apartment on my way to the conference, I realized that I had invited a few extra people to my dinner party that night and I should probably prep some extra protein. This was an emergency of sorts, so I grabbed two fresh chickens and looked at the clock. A copy of the Zuni recipe peeked out of a file in my bag. It's chicken, I told myself, there are a million ways to do this. Use what you have.

I scanned the kitchen and found two Ziploc bags. I dumped in some salt, brown sugar, my favorite ground chili pepper flakes and some grated zest from a dried out old lemon on the counter. In went the two birds. I shook the bags then plunked them down on the refrigerator shelf. On the train uptown I tweeted the "recipe."

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Of course there was no way to communicate the entire Zuni chicken method in one tweet; it was more about the flavors. The assumption in the tweet is that a cook would use their own method. But it begs the question about recipe voice and how important is it to a home cook these days. What is a recipe? Does it need ingredients and a blow-by-blow method? Or do 140 characters suffice? I wonder how many people used my tweet to inspire their dinner, combining it with the knowledge they already had about how to actually roast the chicken once the flavors are set.
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At the panel, Melissa and I talked about this idea of long versus short form recipes and how do people really learn to cook. Is it changing? Have the internet and social media changed recipe voice? Both of us agreed that the future of the recipe is not threatened. I reminded the audience that the first recipes were in the oral tradition. How many of us learned to cook something by watching, not reading or listening to a recipe? The question is, how do we pass on these recipes?

That afternoon I went home, removed those birds from their zipped bag bath, and roasted them. About thirty people came through the apartment that night, many of them plunging their bare fingers into the quartered chickens I set out on a big wood board. There was buzz — why was this chicken so good? — and I tried to answer. I use the Zuni method, I said, except this one had a bunch of lemon zest, brown sugar and Espelette Pepper Powder. Shake it all up in a bag with the chickens, let them sit, then roast like Judy Rodgers. An oral recipe. Arguably shorter than the Twitter version above, and certainly shorter than Judy's five-pager.

Being comfortable in the kitchen is about knowing your methods and understanding how from that skill you can do something a million different ways. For my part, to this day the method Rodgers describes in her recipe is still the method I use when I roast a chicken — the overnight salting if possible, the high heat cast iron skillet sear of the back, the flip and then the final flip with fingers crossed that the skin doesn't split — and after doing it hundreds of times, it is mostly by heart though I have a Post-It note-sized version of it stuck to the inside of my spice cabinet that works as a short reminder if I forget the timing or the temperatures.

That's the freedom in cooking. Know your method and you are free.

Reading the long form from the masters teaches us something invaluable. But I am also grateful for formats like Twitter that offer the opportunity to get an idea out in an instant and possibly inspire something in someone that will get them to make a recipe their own, be creative, use what they have on hand and make dinner at home.

It's the book with the splattered pages and wine-glass stains. It's the book I will pass down to my daughter, yet she will already know the method from watching and hearing it from me all her life. She'll learn that cooking is about using a million senses at once.

More Thoughts on and Recipes for Roast Chicken

How to Roast a Chicken, Zuni-Style
The Naughty Way to Roast a Chicken (Barely suitable for work!)
Sunday Dinner: 7 Takes on the Roast Chicken
Lemon Roasted Chicken: Lemon Inside or Out?
How to Carve a Roast Chicken (video)
Spatchcoked Ricotta Chicken

Related:
Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Roasted Chicken with Gremolata from Melissa Clark

(images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)

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