The Sunday Before Thanksgiving Chicken

We have friends who own a Ronco meat rotisserie they affectionately call the “Set It and Forget It” after the infomercial’s indelible catchphrase.  Maybe once a year for a party Dick will roast a prime rib on the rotisserie, in fact setting the timer and leaving the meat to do its thing until the bell dings.  If you’re getting ready to entertain, that’s a pretty efficient way to cook.  Once you walk away from the meat doing its turn in the kitchen-sized spit roaster, you’re free to clean the house or prepare the side dishes.  Or more likely pour yourself a drink and relax, finding some calm before the storm.

Right about now, the start of Thanksgiving week, I like the idea of a set-it-and-forget-it meal.  I don’t know about you, but by the time Sunday rolls around, I’m so focused on Thursday’s big meal that I can’t even comprehend that I still have to get four dinners on the table before then, never mind eat them.  I’d almost rather not and, truth be told, if it were just me, I probably wouldn’t.  I’d happily subsist on nuts and apples and toast, and reserve my cooking and eating energy for turkey and trimmings.

Others here don’t share my squirrel-like tastes for nuts and berries – alas – and haven’t quite come around to the idea of not eating anything substantial for the better part of a week, so I cook.  And because I don’t own the Ronco apparatus, I have to use the oven in a smart way.

Nigella Lawson, in her Forever Summer cookbook, has several chicken recipes that are more or less set it and forget it, as in throw a chicken in a roasting pan with delicious fresh seasonings and either give it a short burst of high temperature cooking followed by a longer, lower, slower roast, or the exact opposite (meaning low and slow followed by high heat).  Either way, you take one chicken and cook it over a two-hour period and end up with a wonderful dinner.  I’ve tried out many of her recipes when I have needed to put a good meal on the table without spending a ton of time at the stove, and each one has been delicious.

For dinner today, I combined the favorite flavor elements of two of Lawson’s long-cooking chicken preparations – za’atar chicken and slow-roasted garlic and lemon chicken – and went with the roasting directions that made the most sense, considering the Indian Pudding I was baking alongside the chicken for dessert.

Za’atar is a ground sumac-based spice blend that adds a really nice sour flavor, almost like citrus, to chicken, fish, or even the tops of flatbreads like pita or focaccia.  I liked the idea of using this rub to make a nice tart crust on chicken that had been slow roasting with lemon chunks and garlic, a comfortable merging of two lemony based chicken preparations.

You can buy the za’atar blend or make your own using ground sumac, dried thyme, salt, and sesame seeds, which is what I did.

There’s no need to be fussy about proportions.  For the 2 tablespoons of za’atar to top the chicken, I used about 5 teaspoons of sumac, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. dried thyme, and a teaspoon of white sesame seeds.

For the chicken itself, you can use one whole (approximately 4 pounds) roasting bird that you butterfly and then cut up into 4 or 8 pieces, or up to 4 pounds of assorted chicken pieces if you don’t care to do the chicken butchery yourself at home.

But in case you want to give the breaking down of a whole bird a try, here’s what you do.

This is the bird right side, or breast side, up.

To get started on the butterflying, turn the bird back side up on a cutting board or mat.  Using a sturdy and sharp pair of boning shears, cut down along the outside of the back bone on the right or left hand side.

Turn the bird and finish the job by cutting along the outside of the backbone again, until you can remove it from the chicken.

To cut into quarters, place the bird breast side up again on the cutting mat.  Using the heel of your hand, press down on the breast bone until you hear some cracking noises (sorry, bird lovers), breaking the breast bone to flatten the bird.

Again with the shears, or a cleaver or large chef’s knife, cut the bird in half along the breast bone.

Cut each half in half again, dividing between breast and thigh.  You’ll end up with two large white meat sections and two large dark meat sections.  If you have a good cleaver or heavy knife, you can divide these four pieces in half again to end up with eight.  I stopped at quarters.

Now that you have the chicken and the sumac spice rub out of the way, the roasting is a set it and forget it dream of a dish.  At the end of about three hours you have chicken falling off the bone, sweet and succulent shallots, practically spreadable cloves of garlic, and your sanity intact before one of the busiest weeks of the year.

We enjoyed this exotically spiced chicken with Lebanese couscous tossed with pine nuts, parsley, and pomegranate seeds.

Slow-Roasted Chicken with Lemon and Za’atar

  • 1 4-pound chicken cut up, or 4 pounds of bone-in assorted chicken pieces
  • 1 head garlic, separated into cloves and left unpeeled
  • 4 shallots, peeled and separated into cloves
  • 2 lemons, washed, cut into eighths
  • 2 Tbsp. za’atar
  • few srpigs fresh thyme
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. white wine
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • pomegranate seeds, optional

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Prepare the chicken as described above and place the pieces in a large roasting pan.  Add to the pan the garlic, shallots, and lemon chunks.

Toss all the ingredients in the roasting pan with the olive oil to coat, and place chicken skin side up.  Sprinkle the skin sides of the chicken pieces with 1/2 Tbsp. za’atar on each.  Strip the leaves from the thyme sprigs and sprinkle these on top of everything in the pan.

Add white wine to the roasting pan, grind some black pepper over everything, cover the pan with foil, and place the pan in the preheated oven.  Bake, covered, for 2 hours.

After 2 hours, raise the heat to 400 degrees and remove the foil from the roasting pan.  Roast the chicken for another 45 minutes at the higher temperature, until the lemon chunks are nicely golden and caramelized around the edges, and the chicken is cooked through, tender, and crispy on top.

Serve immediately, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds if desired.

©2011  Jane A. Ward