I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. The irony is that I'm a cookbook editor, so not only do I develop, edit, and insist on changes and re-writes from my authors, but I have my own cache of personal recipes that I've tweaked and toiled over.
The fact that I cannot follow a recipe is nothing against the recipes themselves--you'll often find me devouring a cookbook, pouring over a magazine article, or scrolling through a culinary website. It's just that I can't be bothered to measure much of anything and I'm generally not only willing but wholeheartedly in favor of substitutions (based upon what I've already got in my pantry). Well, and frankly, oftentimes I just don't agree with the way the recipe was written.
Occasionally I like to amuse myself, put on a look of furrowed concentration, and hunker down and attempt to follow a recipe. So you can imagine what it meant when I decided to make the Zuni roast chicken and bread salad from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. Now, this happens to be one of my favorite cookbooks and it's not because I cook from it on a regular basis (although if I had loads of time, I would). I love it because it's a damn good read. Rogers' culinary sensibility and the level of detail with which she writes is both enticing and challenging. If I follow each detailed step, will I be assured success? How will I measure that success--against the chicken I've eaten at Zuni countless times? (Here I should insert yet another caveat: The chicken at Zuni is nearly always consistently fantastic--crispy, salty, juicy and set atop a bed of chewy toasted bread hunks with bitter greens and tangy vinaigrette. However, I have sampled versions where the bread is just a bit too stale, the hunks are just a tad too large, and the greens are too few.)
All that being said, on Thursday evening I set out to find two small 3-lb birds. After visiting a few higher-end markets, I gave up and decided to pursue it on Friday (she does, after all, suggest that you can salt the birds for 1 to 3 days, so I still had a day). Thwarted again on Friday. Every market had only 5-lb + sized birds! Saturday morning, knowing I would just have to give in, I visited one of my favorite butchers, Ver Brugge, in Rockridge. Score! They had a pile of Rocky Jr. fryers that were indeed junior sized. I purchased my two 3-pounders and headed home to salt away. So this is where I first veered from the recipe. I didn't measure the salt. I rinsed and dried the birds as instructed, and even used kosher salt as Rodgers suggests (although that's what I always use so if she had called for something else I still would have used kosher), but I just took a handful and rubbed it over the chickens (and a bit under the skin, again veering from the recipe) until they had an even coating.
Later that afternoon, I started on the bread salad. As instructed, I trimmed the bottom crust and most of the top crust from the loaf of rustic Italian bread that I was planning to use. But, rather than cut the bread into great hunks, I ripped it into smaller pieces. One of the issues I've had with the dish at the restaurant was that the bread pieces were a bit too large and I wished they were slightly more toasted. So I took it upon myself to change that. Since I need to purchase a new pastry brush, I couldn't brush the oil on each side of the bread chunks, so I tossed them into a bowl with a drizzle of oil. Anyway, back to the recipe. I did broil the bread, which worked beautifully, although I think I probably went a bit longer than I was instructed to, meaning I ended up with crispier croutons rather than chewy chunks with burnished edges.