Recipe: Oven-Blasted Herb Chicken on a Watercress and Budding Chive Salad
If you want to wreck the hell out of your arms, neck, and possibly face with little blistering grease burns, get a job sautéing chicken in a restaurant. Centuries ago, when I was cooking at Restaurant Florent in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, when they still packed meat there, I recall two chicken preparations that I dreaded doing. One was sautéing huge rondeau pans of grease-splattering chicken for couscous, the other was making an herb-marinated, hacked-up half chicken that began life in a sizzling sauté pan and then got “finished” in the oven. This method produced the most deliciously moist, crusty chicken and was perfect for a restaurant, since the high oven heat blasted the pieces to tender perfection in about 15 minutes, so we could cook them to order. The problem arose when I’d have to prepare four or five orders at the same time, all in different skillets. That was when the grease would really fly.
I loved this chicken, and now I make it at home, where it’s a lot less treacherous, thanks to slightly lower heat and less volume (it’s best made for two). The chicken gets a brief bath in oil, herbs, and lemon zest, before the sear (still be mindful of grease splatter) and roast. The result is lovely, almost like grilling, the way the texture comes out bouncy and juicy under a crisp skin. At Florent we used a whole half chicken; for my home version I prefer to use only dark meat, since it stays moister.
This week I collected a few big handfuls of young, beautiful watercress from a semi-secret little patch I know about up in Big Indian, New York, where I often go for weekends. Watercress starts shooting up from shallow little streams around March, and by May it’s dark green and delicately flavored and hasn’t yet sprouted its white mini flowers, after which some people think it has passed its prime. (I eat it into the fall, but it does tend to get more bitter as the months go by.) I’ve found a few prolific watercress patches over the past few years, and I’m really grateful for them. There’s nothing like the tender, spring stuff I pick myself, which usually takes a little slopping through mud, ticks, and poison ivy to get to but is worth it. I brought my stash back to the rainy city, along with a handful of purple-topped budding chives, which are delicious, and I used the two special spring ingredients as a cool bed for my hot and crusty chicken.
Oven-Blasted Herb Chicken on a Watercress and Budding Chive Salad
3 chicken legs, separated into thighs and drumsticks
1 branch rosemary, stemmed, the leaves chopped
A few large thyme branches, stemmed, the leaves chopped
The grated zest from 1 lemon, plus a large squeeze of lemon juice
Extra-virgin olive oil
A generous pinch of sugar (about ½ teaspoon)
Freshly ground black pepper
5 allspice, ground to a powder (about ½ teaspoon)
3 fresh spring garlic cloves, thinly sliced and tossed in a drizzle of olive oil (to prevent them from burning)
For the salad:
2 handfuls spring watercress, stemmed
A handful of budding or blossoming chives, chopped, the buds or blossoms left whole
For the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Put the chicken parts in a big bowl. Add the herbs, lemon zest, about 4 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, sugar, black pepper, and ground allspice, and toss everything around until the chicken is all well coated. Let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before you’re going to cook it.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Choose a large skillet (cast iron is good), one that can go into the oven, and get it hot over high heat. Add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and brown them well, about 4 minutes or so. Turn them, and brown and other side, about another 3 minutes. Now stick the skillet in the oven, and cook until the chicken is just tender, about 20 minutes. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, scatter on the garlic. Take the chicken from the oven, and squeeze on the lemon juice.
Whisk all the ingredients for the vinaigrette together in a small bowl.
Spread the watercress out on a serving platter. Scatter on the chives. Drizzle on all but about a tablespoon of the vinaigrette. Top with the chicken pieces, drizzling them with the remaining vinaigrette. Serve right away.