America's love affair with chicken gets more ardent every year. Per capita consumption now tips the scales at more than 90 pounds annually. But why is this bland-tasting bird so popular? For many reasons: It's got a meaty flavor that just needs salt and pepper or virtually any kind of spice or herb to enliven it; it's relatively inexpensive; it comes in so many forms - whole, parts, tenders, nuggets; and, perhaps most important of all, it appeals to both kids and adults.
Chicken parts cook relatively quickly, so they're excellent choices for a weekday dinner. And for the green-conscious shopper, supermarkets and mass-market stores now offer organically raised chickens in addition to those raised conventionally.
Roasting a whole chicken usually takes upward of an hour, so on most nights that's not practical. One way to cut the cooking time in half is to butterfly the chicken. This simple procedure involves removing the backbone and flattening the bird to decrease its overall thickness, thereby lessening the time in the oven.
I also like to season the chicken with a garlic, mustard and tarragon paste by applying it between the skin and the flesh. But you can flavor the chicken any way you like and make a paste of your own choosing or simply salt and pepper the chicken before roasting.
For a butterflied chicken to roast quickly, the bird should weigh about 3 1/2 pounds without neck and giblets. A chicken this size can be hard to find because most chickens today are bred for dressed weights that are closer to 5 pounds. I've found 3 1/2-pound chickens in Missoula at the Orange Street Food Farm. The brand is Gold'n Plump, and the packaging says "all natural" and "no added hormones, no preservatives, and no artificial ingredients." Albertsons also carries a natural chicken weighing in at about 3 3/4 pounds.
The butterflied chicken in the photograph, with a uniformly crisp, dark brown skin, roasted in 30 minutes at 500 degrees. Let me warn you that at this temperature there will be a lot of oven smoke and spattering fat. If you have a self-cleaning oven, that may not be a problem. To avoid the smoke and spatters, set your oven to 350 degrees and allow 40 to 45 minutes for the bird to cook through. You can brown the skin under the broiler-watching constantly-for about 2 minutes. Test for doneness by pricking the flesh in the thickest part of the thigh. The juices should run clear yellow.
Serve with parslied boiled new potatoes and a green vegetable or a tossed salad.
Roasted Butterflied Chicken
To butterfly a chicken, you'll need sturdy kitchen shears to remove the backbone. After that, it's a simple process to flatten the bird and loosen the skin so that you can flavor the flesh with the tarragon, garlic and mustard paste. A modest-sized chicken will cook in 30 minutes at 500 degrees or in 40 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
2 small garlic cloves, peeled
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoons olive oil
1 whole chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), at room temperature
Chop the garlic and mash it with a fork and 1/2 teaspoon salt to make a paste, or crush the garlic and salt in a mortar with a pestle. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon pepper, the mustard, tarragon, and olive oil.
Put the chicken breast side down on your work surface. With kitchen shears, cut along one side of the neck or tail down the entire length of the chicken. Repeat on the other side of the backbone and remove it. Save to make chicken broth. Rinse chicken and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels.
Turn the chicken breast up and set a couple of clean paper towels on the breast skin. Press down firmly-use your full weight-to open the chicken up and flatten the breast so that the chicken lies flat. Use the flat side of a meat pounder or an empty wine bottle to flatten the breast a bit more.
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 500 degrees or 350 degrees. Line a shallow roasting pan with aluminum foil.
Trim long fingernails before you begin. With your fingers, pull the skin adhering to the flesh on both thighs and the breast to separate the skin from the flesh without tearing (see video). Insert your fingertips under the skin and tease skin away from the meat gently. Pick up a dab of the paste (about one-fourth) with a teaspoon and insert it under one side of the breast about halfway along its length. Repeat on the other side of the breast. Press on the skin to spread the paste on the chicken flesh. Do the same with both thighs. Salt and pepper the chicken all over.
Set the chicken skin side up in the pan and place in the oven. Roast 30 minutes at 500 degrees or 40 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Test for doneness by pricking the thickest part of the thigh. Juices should run clear yellow. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
To serve, use kitchen shears to divide chicken in half and to cut leg-thigh portions off the breast.
• Makes 4 servings.
Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and missoula.com magazine. Visit Greg's Web site at www.gregpatent.com and his blog at www.gregpatentgetsyoucooking.blogspot.com. You can write him at email@example.com.