Chicken Oil Painting, by Vanilla Beer.
Recipe below: Chicken Roasted With Cognac, Quatre Epices, and Strong Herbs
So here’s a fine restaurant technique I learned many moons ago while working at a French bistro. It produces roast chicken without your having to actually roast a whole chicken. It’s much quicker than cooking a chicken whole, and it also gives you more surface area for crisp skin, which for me is about 75 percent of the joy of eating roast chicken.
At the bistro we’d marinate chicken pieces in a moss of chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, a bit of sage), garlic, olive oil, and black pepper, all of which had been thrown into a food processor. When an order came in we’d pull a breast, thigh, and drumstick from the green mush and place it in a small, searing-hot sauté pan, skin side down, browning it fast. We’d turn the sputtering pieces, and then stick the pan in an eyelash-singeing hot oven for about 15 minutes. It came to the customer hot, brown, juicy, and beautifully seasoned, with a side of frites. A great little dinner. I was fascinated by the method back then. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me to do anything as simple as that at home, but I guess cooking better is one of the things restaurant work will teach you. So now I do my at-home version, marinating chicken pieces for about half an hour and then spreading them out on a sheet pan and heat-blasting them until they’re sizzling good. It takes maybe 20 minutes. I skip the sauté step, a better shortcut for a family meal. And this time, to make it a one-step dinner, I threw a few vegetables into the mix. My only question was what to season everything with.
We’re on the verge of spring, but it’s still chilly and windy in New York. I’m not ready to go all gentle with tarragon and chervil yet. So for this recipe I’ve held with the bistro trio of rosemary, thyme, and sage but added quatre épices, the sweet-and-savory four-spice blend that’s often a signature flavor in patés and other good French food (see the note below for my personal take on it). I’ve also added cognac, which gets under the chicken’s skin, deepening the flavor in a rich and sweetly boozy way. I can smell the alcohol as it’s burning off. In fact, the smell this chicken gives forth while cooking reminds me of many restaurant kitchens from days gone by. That all-enveloping savory steam up my nose brings back the claustrophobic excitement I’d feel when we were just closing in on dinnertime. Intoxicating.
Note: Quatre épices is a warm French spice mix that’s often used to season patés and terrines. Traditionally its made up of the four spices pepper (black or white), cloves, nutmeg, and ginger, but sometimes it will include a few more. The theme is warmth and sweetness, balanced by the bite of the ginger and the pepper. At the moment, mine is an approximately equal mix of allspice, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper. Sometimes I leave out the cinnamon and add nutmeg or a tiny amount of clove. All these spices are traditional, but the mix varies depending on the cook.
Chicken Roasted with Cognac, Quatre Epices, and Strong Herbs
5 whole chicken legs, cut into thighs and drumsticks
4 shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise
About a dozen very small red-skin potatoes, halved
8 carrots, on the thin side, unskinned, cut into 1-inch or so lengths
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
About ¼ cup cognac
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 1 tablespoon quatre épices (see note above)
About 8 big sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
About 10 big sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
About 6 or 7 sage leaves, chopped
A drizzle of rice wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Put all the ingredients in a big bowl, and toss very well. Make sure you add enough olive oil to coat well.
Spread everything out on a sheet pan, turning the chicken pieces skin side up. The ingredients can be jammed fairly closely, but if it all gets overcrowded, use two pans. Pour any remaining marinade over the top.
Roast, without turning anything, for about 20 to 25 minutes. The chicken should be sizzling and browned and the vegetables caramelized.