Adventures with the Zuni Chicken

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This article is more than 9 years old.

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.

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant. Author: Judy RogersOccasionally 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.


Meanwhile, I made a light vinaigrette which I tossed the bread in, and soaked my currants in red wine vinegar and warm water. But I didn't measure.

Finally, the big moment arrived, and I cranked up my oven to 475F (against my better judgement). Rodgers suggests using a shallow roasting pan or skillet that is not much larger than the chicken, so I chose my cast-iron pan and an All-Clad saute pan. I have actually roasted chickens in my cast-iron pan before, so I was all for this method, even though the high heat was a bit worrisome to me. Rather than heat the pans on the stovetop, I put them into the oven for about 5 minutes before tossing in the chickens, breast side up.

Immediately there was a symphony of sizzling and the skin on the chickens began blistering and bubbling away. After about 10 minutes my entire kitchen filled with smoke, and after 20 minutes, the whole house. With opened windows and better circulation, I turned the chickens (and, as Rodgers assured me in the recipe, given the high heat and because I pre-heated the pans, the skin didn't stick!). They were already gorgeous.

While the chicken was searing away, I sauteed the garlic, greens onions, and oops, I couldn't help myself and added a chopped shallot. All of this was added to the bread, which was tossed together with the drained currants and a bit of chicken stock, salt, and pepper. As directed.

The whole mess was piled into a baking dish, covered with foil, and set in the oven to heat during the last 5 minutes of the chicken roast (the final stage of the chicken event is to flip it and crisp the breast once again before removing it and letting it sit for 5 to 10 minutes).

While the bread salad was warming and getting a bit more tender (I think I over-toasted my cubes just a bit), I poured the fat out of the hot hot hot pans and made a quick, flavorful pan sauce with the bits in the bottom and some water (as instructed).

This was tossed in with the bread salad along with handfuls of baby arugula and baby mustard greens, then spread on a large (unwarmed, again not following the recipe) platter. I did however, cut the chicken into pieces and nestle them into the salad. As you can see here.

All in all, I barely followed the recipe. The ingredients and the general idea behind the recipe was kept intact, and the end result was absolutely delicious. Perhaps next time I'll get out the measuring cups and spoons and try it her way. (Here are my friends Chris and Paul, about to enjoy the chicken with a glass of heavenly Navarro Pinot Noir.)