Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A salt-baked bird

Vic ran across a recipe for baked chicken this week in Chocolate & Zucchini that was worth trying, and as it turned out, called for an encore very, very soon.

Salt-crusted chicken, a misnomer of sorts when the final succulent product is on your plate, turned out beautifully for a first attempt at using this technique of allowing an organic chicken to cook in its own juices.

Salt-Crusted Chicken

• one chicken, organic and/or from a source you trust, about 2 kilos (4.4 pounds)
• 1 medium bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
• 3 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife blade
• 500 grams (17 2/3 ounces, about 3 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
• 300 grams (10 1/2 ounces, about 1 1/3 cups) coarse salt
• 3 tablespoons thyme, fresh if available, dried otherwise (other dried herbs may be substituted, such as rosemary or oregano)
• 6 tablespoons ground flax seeds, or 160 grams (5 2/3 ounces) egg whites (from 4 to 5 large eggs)

Lightly oil a baking dish big enough to hold the chicken comfortably. Set aside.
If you're using flax seeds rather than egg whites, place them in a bowl with 100 ml (6 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) fresh water, and set aside for about 15 minutes, until the water is completely absorbed and the mixture is gelled.

Place the chicken on a work surface, on its back, with the neck side facing you. Slip your hand under the skin, starting at the base of the neck, and work gently to get your hand further in, lifting the skin from the flesh over each breast, and down over each thigh, without tearing the skin. Once the skin is loosened, slip in the chopped parsley, pushing it underneath the skin to cover the breasts and the thighs as evenly as you can.

Sprinkle a few pinches of salt inside the cavity of the chicken, and add in the garlic. Using a piece of chicken string, truss the chicken as demonstrated in Peter Hertzmann's Preparing for roasting video at minute 2:30. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour with the salt and thyme. Add the soaked ground flax seeds or the egg whites, and 160 ml (2/3 cup) fresh water, and stir with a wooden spoon or a dough whisk until the liquids are absorbed. Turn out onto a clean work surface, and knead briefly until the dough comes together; it should be supple and pleasant to work with, not sticky or crumbly. Add a little water or flour as needed to adjust the consistency.

Flour your work surface well, and roll out the salt dough into a circle large enough to wrap the chicken in it (I shoot for a diameter of about 50 cm or 20").

Place the chicken in the middle of the circle and fold opposite flaps of the dough over the chicken to wrap it entirely. Press gently to seal; if it looks like the dough might not stay put, brush the seams with a pastry brush dipped lightly in water.

Lift the whole thing carefully but with determination, and transfer it to the prepared baking dish. Place in the fridge until ready to bake -- you can leave it in for a few hours or overnight. If the salt crust cracks slightly here or there, don't worry about it; it doesn't need to be 100% airtight.

Remove the chicken from the fridge and preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Insert the dish in the oven and leave it in for 1 1/2 hours (a little more won't hurt if the guests are late; just turn off the oven and leave the chicken inside).

Remove the dish from the oven, and break the salt crust open with a meat mallet or the handle of a chef knife. Once fractured, the crust can be simply pulled open with your oven-mitt-clad hands (it's fun).

Lift the chicken from the open crust, transfer it to a cutting board, and carve it. Discard the crust. Serve the chicken with the cooking juices, perfect roasted potatoes.


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