In this post Julia Child era of cookbooks penned by celebrity chefs or celebrities posing as chefs, it’s heartening to return to books researched and written by cooks whom I regard as culinary scholars–writers who took up the gauntlet from Julia, writers like Paula Wolfert, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Fred Plotkin, and Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the source for today’s recipe. If you’re thinking that “scholarly” means “dry and dull,” just pick up one of these authors’ books and you’ll find just the opposite.
Their scholarship, as was Julia’s, is driven by passion for their subject; an informed enthusiasm pervades their texts. Read, for example, Kasper’s depiction of being served a balsamic drizzled roast chicken like the one in today’s post: “. . .in the Modena and Reggio countryside, when the chicken is presented, and you, the honored guest, are helped to the best pieces, someone always leans over with a little decanter of old balsamico — thick, lustrous and fragrant. Politely they’ll ask, ‘May I?’ as though you’d ever say no. With no stinting, they pour their pride and joy, the result of decades of nurturing, over the chicken and potatoes. Few things in the world ever get to be this good.”
Kasper’s first book, The Splendid Table, explored the cooking of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the country’s culinary capital and source of products like Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and balsamic vinegar. In fact, the book may be responsible for the popularity of balsamico in this country. Her second book, the source of today’s recipe, was The Italian Country Table, which is a culinary tour of Italy’s farmhouse kitchens. Despite the critical acclaim and awards Kasper has received for her writing, she may perhaps be even better known for her long running talk show on NPR, eponymously named for her first book.
Kasper’s recipe yields one of the best roast chickens I’ve ever prepared. With bronze crisp skin, perfectly moist meat, and a panoply of flavors from the stuffing and balsamic, it’s a spectacular dish that captures the essence of its region of origin, Emilia-Romagna. From its flavor and appearance, few would guess this dish to be one of the one sheet-pan suppers so popular today.
I followed the recipe pretty closely, but, as might be expected, I had to modify the cooking time based on the size of my chicken. After, the initial 20 minutes, my 3 ½ pound bird required only 50 minutes additional roasting time. While it rested, I put the potatoes under the broiler for a few minutes more to brown. In addition, to avoid losing oven heat, I only basted the chicken and turned the potatoes three times. Finally, as you can see in one of the photos, I skipped garnishing the serving platter; the chicken and potatoes looked good enough on their own.
Balsamico Roast Chicken and Potatoes (from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper)
Serves 4 to 5
1/4 medium onion
3 large cloves garlic
1/4 tightly packed cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon each dried oregano and marjoram
4 slices (1 1/2 to 2 ounces) pancetta, chopped
5 tablespoons high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken (if possible, hormone- and antibiotic-free)
6 medium Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, or red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 to 1 cup dry white wine
Parsley or fresh thyme for garnish
1. If time allows, season the chicken ahead and refrigerate it several hours or overnight. Preheat the oven to 400°F when ready to cook the chicken. Mince together, by hand or in a food processor, the onion, garlic, herbs (dried ones could be in here too), and pancetta. Then blend in 2 teaspoons of the balsamico, the oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
2. Cut out the chicken’s backbone and open the chicken out flat, skin side up. With your palm, firmly press down the breast area to flatten. Stuff most of the herb mixture under the skin of the thigh, leg, and breast areas. Rub the rest all over the chicken. Place the bird skin side up on a large shallow pan (a broiler pan or half-sheet pan). Scatter the potatoes around it and sprinkle everything with salt and pepper. (To reduce sticking, I lightly oiled my sheet pan.)
3. Roast 20 minutes, then pour in 1/2 cup wine. Roast another 70 minutes, or until the thigh reaches about 175°F on an instant-read thermometer. Baste the potatoes and chicken frequently with the pan juices, turning the potatoes often to brown evenly and prevent them from sticking. Add more wine if pan is dry. Turn over the chicken two thirds of the way through cooking for even browning. If after an hour of roasting, the chicken isn’t browning, raise the heat to 500°F to finish cooking. (Or wait until it is done and run it under the broiler 5 minutes to crisp the skin.) (Depending on the size of your chicken and your oven’s temperature, you may, as did I, need to adjust the cooking times.)
4. Let the chicken rest 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature, then present on a warmed platter along with the potatoes, sprinkling everything with the rest of the balsamic. Garnish with bouquets of parsley or fresh thyme.
Wine Pairing: Dolcetto d’Alba