Sometimes the things we love horrify our children. As a new, make-it-from-scratch mama living in a town full of apple orchards, I made my babies homemade applesauce as their first foods. They spit it out then, are still equally mystified at its appeal today. Fruit puree notwithstanding, at 25 and 23, they are discerning foodies, great cooks, and sophisticated restaurant critics. Most of the time, they love what I love!
While both of them share my interest in food and cooking, Megan is the one who inherited my interest in food writing. I don’t remember who gave me my dog-eared copy of Judy Rodger’s Zuni Café Cookbook, but for many years it lived on my daughter’s bedside table. When Meg got her first apartment, I gifted her a copy.
Judy Rodgers changed the way I thought about food. She taught me about pre-seasoning meat, and encouraged me to try new combinations of flavors that have become part of my every day kitchen experience. A trip to Zuni has been on my bucket list for more than a decade, and I’m still sad that I didn’t get there while Judy was alive.
Bob and I finally got to San Francisco en route to Kauai in June. I checked the menu weeks earlier and selected: “Chicken for two roasted in the wood-fired brick oven; warm bread salad with scallions, garlic, mustard greens, dried currants, and pine nuts”. It’s a simple dish, and I worried it couldn’t possible live up to the hype. I shouldn’t have been concerned. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. And it was super fun texting the kids to tell them about it afterwards.
So after we got home, I started doing my research. I reread Judy’s original recipe, Deb Perelman’s (Smitten Kitchen) version, the New York Time’s rendition, and adaptations from Food and Wine, Saveur Magazine, The Kitchen, and Serious Eats. And then I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I’d had things pretty well figured out by the time Meg came home to cook with me.
OK, so what distinguishes my recipe? Well, everybody else seems to ignore the fact that Zuni has a wood burning oven. And that the chicken is perfumed by the smoke. I get it, it’s not easy to get that flavor in a regular oven. And this dish is decidedly roasted, not grilled or barbecued. But, since I’ve been “roasting” chicken in my gas grill for years, it was not a stretch for me to figure out how to add a little smoke and create a wood roasted chicken that way. This chicken is moist and tender inside, with well-seasoned, slightly smoky meat, and a shatteringly crisp skin. The bread salad is a symphony of textures and flavors: crisp and soft, salty, nutty, and sweet, a bite of greens, a hint of chickeny goodness.
It was so fun to make and eat this dish with my daughter. I hope you will follow our lead, grab someone you love, and make it, too. And if you have a sip of delicious wine, drink a toast to Judy Rodgers.
Zuni Inspired Wood Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad
It is important to read through this recipe at least 4 days before you plan to make this dish. You will need time for the chicken to season and to make sure you have a few special (inexpensive) items on hand.
For the Chicken:
1 3-4 lb. organic, free range chicken
2 tablespoons sea salt
2-3 days before you are going to serve the chicken, prep and season the bird. Using a poultry shear, cut the bird up the middle of the backbone. Some people cut out the spine, but I like it so I leave it in; up to you. Lay the chicken on your cutting board and, using a sharp pairing knife, make a small cut at the top of the breast (keel) bone. Now, bend the chicken, use your thumbs to separate the meat, and and pop out the bone, pulling to remove it. Here is a video.
Turn the chicken skin side up and, starting at the neck end, use your fingers carefully to separate the meat from the skin; make sure not to poke through the skin. You should be able to create space all the way across each side from the breast into the leg. Now, use your hands to rub sea salt all over the bird, both over and under the skin and on the bone side, too.
Place the chicken on a rack set over a sheet pan and place it in the fridge, uncovered, for 2-3 days until you are ready to cook. The idea is to dry out the skin (which will help it to crisp) and for the salt to season and tenderize the meat.
For this recipe, I am describing the technique using a gas grill with three burners, front to back. If you are using charcoal, or a different burner configuration, send me a comment, I’ll help you figure out how to adapt my method.
You’ll need a green piece of wood from a maple, apple, or oak tree, or a handful of wood chips soaked for an hour and wrapped in foil.
You’ll need a disposable aluminum lasagna pan. Place it under the grate of the grill over the front burner. Pour about ½ inch of water into the pan. Place the wood or packet of chips over the back burner and light the grill.
When the grill is hot and the wood is smoking, clean and oil the grates and place the chicken over the aluminum pan, legs toward the back. Now, turn off the front two burners and close the grill. Remove the wood after ½ hours. Cook for another ½ to 1 hour or until the chicken is well browned and you can see the juices bubbling under the skin. Remove to a platter and let rest for 10 minutes. Carefully retrieve the alum pan, and pour the drippings into a bowl. Degrease if needed.
Carve into serving pieces, making sure to save any additional juices and add them to the drippings.
Serve with bread salad.
For the Bread Salad:
You may toast the bread up to 24 hours in advance of serving unless it’s super humid out, in which case, you’ll want to recrisp.
1 small loaf rustic bread (sourdough is terrific), day old is fine
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ cup dried currants
big handful mustard greens, lettuces, arugula, and/or baby kale
3 tbs. red wine vinegar
2 tbs. good extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
Optional: fresh herbs
Preheat oven to 325°. Tear bread into bit sized pieces, place on a baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the bread is toasty and crisp, but not totally dry.
Place croutons in a shallow serving bowl and season with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Toss well. Add remaining ingredients. Toss again. Taste for seasoning. Top with chicken and serve.
Blog note: I unloaded my kiln, Big Bertha, last week. Last weekend’s wood firing at Canton Clayworks was a great success, and we’ll be unloading this weekend. So, there will be lots of new pots in the Etsy Shop soon!!