Monday, April 23, 2007

Spring chicken with tarragon

My kitchen would be a sad place indeed without fresh herbs. In summer it's big bunches of basil and mint, while in winter I make up for their absence with bushels of Italian parsley. Thyme, rosemary and bay leaves come in a pretty, paper-wrapped bundle, their leaves nearly dry from the arid climate in the mountains behind Nice. Thyme sprigs and bay leaf go into nearly all my stewed dishes, either tied together in a bouquet garni or more lazily strewn across the other ingredients, to be removed later.
Tarragon is another story. This herb is not native to southern France and only very rarely do I see it at the Cours Saleya market. When I spotted generous bunches of it at my favorite organic stall on Saturday, I pounced. Nothing could be more springlike than these long, slender leaves with their anisy scent, and right away I started thinking about chicken and green beans, tarragon's natural partners. It's too early for local green beans, so I turned my attention to chicken.
My inspiration for tarragon chicken has always come from my battered copy of the British food writer Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, which my mother gave me when I was 12. I've previously finished the dish off with cream, as she suggests, sometimes using chicken breasts or legs instead of a whole bird (in fact I had forgotten that the original recipe called for a whole chicken). With a hankering for a whole chicken this time, I headed to my favorite Old Town butcher, Boucherie Viale. It's one of the smallest butchers in Nice, with just a few chickens, rabbits and guinea hens displayed outside while deep red aged beef hangs above the wooden butcher block.
As is usual, the poultry is displayed with the head and feet still on - not because French people like to cook with these parts (the butcher always throws them in the bin), but to show what breed of chicken you are buying. Mine was a monster of a corn-fed chicken from southwest France, with a label assuring me of its healthy grain-based diet and active lifestyle. Its 81-day life was about twice as long as that of the average battery-raised chicken. At a hefty five pounds - heavier than some French turkeys I've seen - it cost €18.91, which might seem a lot to pay for a chicken. But what a chicken this was.
Back home, I turned to Elizabeth David's recipe for the first time in years and realized that it involves flaming the chicken with brandy, a detail I had somehow overlooked. I didn't have any brandy, but I did have marc, a throat-ripping Provençal eau-de-vie that's similar to grappa. Pleased with my regional variation on the dish, I also made a few other changes, stuffing the chicken under the skin with a mixture of butter and chopped tarragon and putting two lemon halves in its cavity, along with some tarragon sprigs for good measure. As always when I'm roasting chicken, I laid it on one side for a third of the cooking time, flipped it over onto the other side for the second third and placed it breast-side up to finish it off. I normally truss the chicken, but Sam had apparently found more creative uses for the kitchen string and it went into the oven untrussed.
After half an hour the kitchen started to fill with the most delicious buttery, tarragony, chickeny smell. The chicken wasn't fully cooked for another hour and a quarter, it was so big. But, as the butcher told me so truthfully, "the bigger the chicken, the better it tastes."
I don't normally indulge in show-off tricks like flambéeing but I have to admit that the sight of flames licking the golden skin was gratifying, as was the rich taste of the cream-free sauce. Eat your heart out, L'Ami Louis.

Spring chicken with tarragon
Serves 4-6

1 healthy, free-range chicken, the bigger the better
1 untreated (or scrubbed) lemon
3-4 big sprigs tarragon
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp chopped tarragon (chop the herbs at the last moment)
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup brandy or marc
About 1/4 cup water, if necessary

Preheat the oven to 375 F (180 C).

Salt and pepper the cavity of the chicken and place the lemon halves inside, along with the tarragon sprigs. With a fork, cream together the butter, 1 tbsp chopped tarragon, salt (I used 1/2 tsp) and pepper. Gently lift up the skin of the breast and rub the chicken with this mixture, distributing it as best you can (remember that it will melt anyway). If you're in a hurry, there is nothing to stop you from rubbing the chicken on top of the skin instead of underneath it.

Place the chicken on its side in an ovenproof dish that can also go on the stove and top with the remaining 1 tbsp butter, broken into small pieces. Place in the oven and set the timer for 20-30 mins, depending on the size of your chicken. When the timer goes off, turn the chicken onto its other side and baste with the melted butter and fat that has collected in the pan. After another 20-30 mins, flip the chicken onto its back, with the breast side up, and baste again (there will be more fat this time). After 20-30 more minutes the chicken will soon look appetizingly brown and crisp, but be sure to poke the leg at the joint with a sharp knife to see whether it's really cooked. If the juice runs clear rather than pink, remove it from the oven. Transfer the chicken to a plate and place the roasting tin on the stove over medium heat. The brown caramelized bits (known as sucs) will stick to the pan while the fat will float on top and start to spit. Discard the fat and place the chicken back in the roasting tin.

Now comes the fun part. Heat the brandy or marc in a small saucepan and light with a match. Pour the flaming liquid over the chicken. It should continue to burn for about a minute. Then return the chicken to the oven for about 5-10 mins, to get rid of the raw alcohol taste.

Remove the chicken from the oven and again transfer the chicken to a plate. Place the roasting tin on the stove and stir the juices around. If there isn't much liquid, add some water and let it bubble. Add 1 tbsp chopped tarragon and stir.

When the chicken has rested for 10-15 mins, serve it with the simple jus. You don't need much accompaniment for such a perfect chicken, but I happened to have some fava beans so asked Philippe very politely to peel each one - NOW, and FAST, please. I cooked them in another spring vegetable stew with tiny white turnips, carrots and spring onion. Even Philippe admitted it was worth the effort.

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