It certainly was a strange Seder when friends and family gathered around our laptops Wednesday night from wherever we happened to be sheltering in place.
The 20 of us connected by Zoom, and it was great to see everyone on video and share Passover traditions like dipping parsley in saltwater and blessing multiple glasses of wine. It was a modest substitute for the potluck festive dinner we typically host.
Normally I cook a giant brisket that can feed a small army, but there was no need for that this year as we scaled down dinner for myself, my wife and my older son. We all agreed that this was a year for roast chicken — comfort food that would be easy to obtain and prepare, even in the remote Washington state location where we are living.
Fortunately I had a new recipe to try. I just finished reading Fanny Singer’s recipe-filled memoir, “Always Home,” her story of growing up with her celebrity chef mother, Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley’s landmark Chez Panisse restaurant. (Singer and Waters will join the virtual Los Angeles Times Book Club on April 21 to talk about the book and their approach to food.)
The book included an easy recipe for roast chicken, so I started by dutifully following Singer’s advice and asking the grocery clerk at the nearest supermarket if the store carried any organic, free-range chickens. “Sorry, I’m just an economist trying to help out the community,” he said as he stocked the cooler. “Let me know if you ever need a stockbroker.” A “fresh, natural” bird would have to be good enough.
First, I sprinkled the bird with flaky salt a few hours before I planned to cook it and then laid it down on a bed of leeks in a cast iron pan. I made sure to take it out of the fridge about an hour before cooking time and sprinkled it with lemon juice, pepper and more spices. I stuffed the cavity with halved lemons and fresh herbs.
Now came the moment of truth. Singer recommends starting the oven at 500 degrees — there’s a reason it’s known as Fire Alarm Chicken. But my oven runs hot, and my fire alarm is a bully. So I chickened out with my chicken and set the oven to a mere 475. After 20 minutes, I turned it down to 375, again a bit cooler than what Singer suggests.
No matter. The chicken was perfect by the time we finished our Zoom Seder with a final glass of wine and a communal shout of “Next year in person!”
Now all that’s left is a withered carcass, perfect for the matzo ball soup coming soon.
Book excerpt: How to do it
Here’s the passage from “Always Home,” where Fanny Singer shares her Roast Chicken:
My advice first off is to buy the very best organic and free-range chicken you can afford. There really is a substantive difference in the flavor of the outcome here. Plus, I rarely buy whole chickens just for the sake of making a stock, unless I need a lot of stock for a big meal like Thanksgiving. Usually I’ll roast the chicken first and eat that for dinner, reserving all the bones in the refrigerator until the next morning, when I’ll have time to make the stock.
Which brings us to the tried and true roasted chicken recipe. Once I learned to roast chicken at high temperatures, I never looked back. While it’s one of the simplest things I make, it’s also one of the dishes my friends request the most. Start by overgenerously salting a chicken (ideally the day before, but at least a few hours before you plan to cook it) and pulling out the fatty deposits from just inside the cavity. If it’s been in the refrigerator, take it out and allow it to temper until ready to roast. Turn the oven up to 500°F, or as hot as it will go short of switching it to broil. Take two leeks, wash them, trim them of the woodier dark green parts and halve them lengthwise, then cut them into 2- to 4- inch pieces. Toss the leeks in a bit of olive oil and thyme — if you have it — and lay them down in a tight little bed in a roasting pan (preferably a cast-iron pan just large enough to accommodate your chicken). Shower your chicken in black pepper, fill its cavity with a halved lemon, a couple of unpeeled cloves of garlic, and some sprigs of thyme, and place it on top of your leeks. Over the course of the roasting, the leeks melt — almost confit — in the chicken juices and become the sweetest, most flavorful accompaniment. I first tried this by chance more than ten years ago, and I love the way the leeks taste so much that I rarely roast a chicken without them now.
Place your chicken on a rack in the center of the preheated oven. To seal the skin and lock in the moisture, keep the oven temperature at 500°F for at least 15 to 20 minutes, even if the oven is smoking a bit. This is, needless to say, how I have set off numerous fire alarms in my day — to the extent that this dish is referred to by some of my friends as fire Alarm Chicken. There was even a time in college when, in the midst of preparing a birthday dinner for a friend, I couldn’t get my smoke detector to shut off in time. Two new Haven firemen promptly arrived at my apartment looking for the blaze, wielding axes and hoses and other firefighting paraphernalia. Fortunately, they were also very good-natured and reset the alarm without reprisal — they even posed for a photo with the birthday cake, playfully hovering their axes just above it, as if about to slice it up.
Anyway, turn the oven down to 400–450°F after the initial blast, cooking for a total of 45 to 60 minutes (45 for small chickens, up to 1 1⁄2 hours for large ones). After the first 20 minutes, you can turn the chicken upside down for another 20 to brown the bottom before righting it again for the final stretch. If my bird is on the larger side, I’ll do this, but I generally don’t find this rotating to be essential. The chicken is ready when a sharp knife pierced down low into the thickest part of the upper thigh yields clear juices (if they look a bit bloody, keep the bird in) and the joints feel a little wobbly and loose when you take hold of the end of a leg and give it a shake. Let the bird rest for 10 to 20 minutes, carve it, and serve with the leeks.
Excerpted from Always Home by Fanny Singer. Copyright © 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.