The Zuni Cafe chicken takes a vacation to Jamaica
I drove up to Lake Tahoe last fall with plastic bins of marinating jerk chicken in my car at the request of my host. We were both excited to make a particular recipe, but the spices were going to be a chore to procure up in the mountains, so I took care of it at home.
In all our spice-related texting we forgot to plan what we’d eat the chicken with. I figured there’d be rice, and there wasn’t, so we sliced up the bread we had, grilled it and served the chicken on top of toast, its juices soaking the crackling slabs.
It reminded me of the late Judy Rodgers’ famous chicken and bread salad still served at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. So I set about making a simple, jerk-informed version of that dish and tried to strip it down from two days — required if you’re going Full Zuni — to two hours.
In lieu of an overnight stint in the fridge under a hearty showering of salt, I marinate chicken parts in jerk-spiced oil — lots of ground allspice, fresh thyme and Scotch bonnet chiles — for just 20 minutes.
And whereas Rodgers’ called for toasted bread chunks to be tossed with greens and a dressing made from the chicken drippings, I roast my chicken directly on thick slices of sourdough. It comes out soaked in chicken juices on one side and fried to a burnished crisp on the other.
I chop the soaked toasts into croutons and toss them with Boston bibb lettuce in a garlic-scallion-soy dressing that, in harmony with the chicken marinade spices, completes the classic jerk flavor profile.
Jerk-ish Chicken and Bread Salad
1 ½ hours. Makes 4 to 6.
Search out real sourdough bread; if you use packaged grocery store or pre-sliced bread, it won’t have the strength to support the chicken and will burn in the pan. Don’t be tempted to omit the chile seeds here — the chiles are barely noticeable without them. If you use a bigger 5- to 6-pound chicken, it will take 1 hour for all the parts to cook. And if you want to use only parts, use 6 bone-in skin-on thighs or 4 breasts instead of breaking down a whole chicken.
- 1 to 2 Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles, stemmed
- ½ cup loosely-packed fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more
- ½ cup everyday olive oil
- 1 whole chicken (3 ½ to 4 pounds)
- Kosher salt
- 4 thin or 2 large scallions, thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 pound slightly stale sourdough bread (about three 1 ½-inch-thick slices)
- 2 heads Boston bibb or other butter lettuce, leaves trimmed, washed and dried
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Finely chop the chile(s) with at least half their seeds (keep all the seeds in if you want the chicken spicy). Scrape the chiles into a large bowl and stir in the thyme, allspice, pepper and ¼ cup olive oil to make a marinade.
- Cut the chicken into 6 pieces: 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs and 2 breasts with the wings still attached; discard or save the bones for making stock. Season the chicken all over liberally with salt, then place the pieces in the bowl with the marinade and toss until evenly coated. Let the chicken sit in the marinade for at least 20 minutes at room temperature or in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
- Meanwhile, mix the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, the scallions and garlic in a small, cold skillet. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the aromatics soften and flavor the oil but don’t brown at all, about 10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and soy sauce and season the vinaigrette with pepper to taste. You can make the vinaigrette and store it in the refrigerator up to 3 days in advance; let come to room temperature again before using.
- Arrange the bread on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or similarly-sized roasting pan. Lay the chicken pieces, skin side up, over the bread, then season again liberally with salt. Bake until golden brown all over and the juices run clear when each piece is pierced, 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how large the chicken pieces are (see note above).
- Remove the dish from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate and tent with foil to keep warm. Using a metal spatula or tongs, lift the bread from the dish and transfer it to a cutting board. Chop the bread into 1 to 1 ½-inch chunks.
- Transfer the bread chunks to a large bowl, then add the lettuce to the bowl by tearing the leaves in half as you add them. Drizzle over three-quarters of the vinaigrette and toss quickly to combine. Transfer the bread salad to a large serving platter, then arrange the chicken pieces over the salad, pouring any juices on the plate over the salad too. Drizzle everything with the rest of the dressing and serve while warm.
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