The Cook, by Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575).
Recipe: Roast Chicken with Leeks, Thyme, and Black Olives
I never had roast chicken when I was a kid. We had chicken alla cacciatora, chicken with lemon and garlic, or we barbecued chicken, lots of it, all summer. The idea of the perfect still-life whole roast chicken came later for me, when I started reading French cookbooks. Jacques Pépin’s cookbooks introduced me to roast chicken, and I love him for it. I love him for a lot of things. His big technique books were the guidance I turned to first when I decided to get serious about cooking. I also love the fact that he slaughters and sautés frogs he catches in a pond on his Connecticut property. I somehow find that incredibly alluring.
From Mr. Pépin I learned to roast chicken on high heat, but he also always recommended turning the thing around a bunch of times during the cooking. I used to do that, and the results were very good. I don’t know what happened, but somewhere along the way I completely lost patience with the technique and just stopped doing it. But then a curious thing occurred. I started producing really good roast chicken by just sticking the thing in the oven and letting it sit there. Sorry Jacques. I still love you.
What I do now is put the chicken in legs first, so the dark meat, which cooks slowest, is in the hottest part of the oven. That gives me tender dark meat and moist breast meat without having to keep moving the bird. And I’ve found that an even 400 degrees is a good roasting temperature for the entire stint. A 3½-pound chicken takes about 1 hour and 20 to 25 minutes at this temperature (with a read of about 165 degrees at the upper thigh joint, next to the bone, when perfectly cooked). I start the chicken on convection, which helps boost browning, but then I turn it off after about a half hour so the skin doesn’t get too dark too early.
A roast chicken is something you can really play around with. I’ve done the million-cloves-of garlic thing, I’ve gone Sicilian with anchovies and orange, I’ve tried the tarragon-and-vinegar approach. Oh, I’ve been all around Europe with my roast chickens. I love the flavor combo of fresh thyme with black olives, and I reach for it when I want something easy but lush. So this time I started with those flavors and then added leeks and Marsala to the roasting pan. They become central components of a rich pan sauce that basically made itself. I hope you like it.
Roast Chicken with Leeks, Thyme, and Black Olives
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons melted butter, slightly cooled
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon sugar
An approximately 3½-pound free-range chicken
A small bunch of fresh thyme branches
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 large leeks, trimmed, split lengthwise, and cleaned
4 carrots, peeled and cut lengthwise in two
A big wine glass of dry Marsala
2 cups chicken broth
A tiny splash of Spanish sherry vinegar
A handful of black olives, such as Niçoise
A tiny splash of Spanish sherry vinegar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a small bowl, mix the butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season well with salt, black pepper, the nutmeg, and the sugar. Rub the chicken all over with this seasoned oil. Shove the garlic cloves and the thyme in the chicken’s cavity. I don’t bother to truss the thing, but I do fold the wings under so they’re neatly tucked in.
Choose a roasting pan that will hold the chicken with a little room to breathe. Place the leeks and carrots in the pan, making a flat bed. Place the chicken on the vegetable bed, breast side up. Pour the Marsala and about ½ cup of the chicken broth into the pan. Give the chicken an extra little sprinkle of salt, and put it in the oven, legs toward the back.
Roast for about 1 hour and 20 to 25 minutes, adding more chicken broth from time to time when the liquid gets low. I use convection for the first half hour, which cuts the cooking time by about 5 minutes or so. You can test the upper thigh joint with a thermometer. It should be perfectly done when it reads between 160 and 170.
When the chicken is done, take it from the oven. Pour any juices that run from the cavity into the roasting pan. Place the chicken on a serving platter. Take the garlic and the thyme out, and add them to the pan juices. Take out the leeks and carrots. Place the carrots around the chicken, and cover everything lightly with aluminum foil.
Skim off as much fat from the pan juices as you can. Chop the leeks into small dice, and return them to the roasting pan. Heat the pan juices over a medium flame until bubbling. Add the olives. Add enough chicken broth or water to create a thin sauce. Boil for about a minute or so. Remove the thyme. Add a tiny splash of Spanish sherry vinegar, just to bring up the flavor. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or black pepper if needed. Pour the sauce into a gravy bowl.
Cut the chicken into pieces ,and pour a generous amount of the sauce onto each serving.