Spring chicken. A fitting dish for the first post of March, the month where I stop hiding under a blanket and eating hearty comfort food and get excited about the days drawing out, milder weather, blue skies and all the glorious seasonal vegetables that are just around the corner.
This little chicken could serve as the centre piece to a Sunday lunch (think roasted stuffed peppers as the accompaniment rather than mashed potatoes and carrots), but today we decided instead to eat the tender, buttery chicken on top of toasted walnut bread with a few leaves, crisp Parma ham, home dried tomatoes and the slinky cheese, Cambazola - which melts delightfully over the top of the chicken and makes you wish a daily dose of it wouldn't lead to ruin.
Cambazola (a cheese I always think of as being a hybrid, part gorgonzola and part camembert- no idea if this is accurate however so don't quote me) is rather moreish and therefore dangerous. As well as the magic that happens when it hits the hot chicken, I find it partners pastrami and cornichon on toasted onion bagels very well indeed - give it a go if you've not tried it already.
The verdant and fragrant herb butter that gives the chicken its Italian slant is placed under the skin, it keeps the flesh moist and deliciously scents and flavours the chicken at the same time helping the skin crisp perfectly.
I make it using unsalted butter, crunchy sea salt flakes, a little anchovy, garlic and a variety of fresh herbs. This time I chose lemon balm, basil, thyme and parsley. If you can't get hold of any lemon balm (quite an old fashioned herb really and a bit tricky to find in the shops usually but I got mine at Aldi) simply use the grated rind of one unwaxed lemon instead.
For 4 - 6 servings, or less with lots of meat leftover for other meals
1 chicken, this free range beauty weighs 1.6kg
A large handful each of fresh basil, mint, parsley, lemon balm
A few sprigs of thyme, rubbed off their stalks
3 anchovy fillets or a tablespoon of anchovy paste
3 cloves of garlic
Half a pack of unsalted butter, at room temperature and cubed
Several scrunches of salt and black pepper
1 lemon, pierced
1 red onion, peeled and halved
- After buying your chicken, take it out of its wrappings and pop it on a plate in the fridge, under a loose foil blanket. Before you need to use it take it out an hour before and pat it dry with kitchen paper
- Preheat your oven to 190 degrees, and if you haven't got an oven thermometer, this is the time you need one
- Using your fingers you need to create pockets beneath the skin of the chicken for you to push the butter into, looks a bit like you're giving the chicken a massage but hey, just go with it. Gently push your fingers under its skin and wiggle them down as far as they'll go over the breasts, the legs are a bit more tricky as there's no easy in, but where the cavity of the chicken is there'll be a fair amount of skin, go in there and almost underneath over the legs, wiggling your fingers carefully so that you break the connection between the skin and the meat, but dont pierce the skin - do that and all the butter will ooze out
- For the butter then - place all the herbs bar the mint into a food processor with the cubed butter, a couple of scrunches of salt, garlic and the anchovies, and blitz until the herbs are smooth and mixed through the butter
- Breaking the butter into walnut sized pieces begin the process of putting under the skin of the breasts and legs, you'll be left with about a third of the butter that won't fit, and take all of that and smear it around the inside of the chickens rib cage. Once you've done that put the pierced lemon, red onion and mint inside the chicken, and now using some cocktail sticks 'shut' the opening, you do this because the skin will try to shrink back and we want to stop that happening as much as possible so the butter stays trapped and the flesh covered
- Now gently pat the chicken skin again with kitchen paper to take off any moisture, then brush the skin lightly with groundnut oil and season generously with sea salt flakes and ground black peppercorns
- Once this is done, put it into a roasting tin and cover it so the lid (or foil tent) doesn't touch the skin, and bake for 20 minutes per 45og / 1lb in weight
- After the chicken has been in for all that time, remove it from the oven and turn the oven to the highest heat it has - take the cover off the chicken and put back into the oven for a further 10-20 minutes - you'll want a meat thermomitor to tell you which time is right for this last bit of cooking which is designed to not just finish the cooking through of the chicken but to crisp the skin
- Remove from the oven and let it rest for around 20 minutes before serving
- Eat with whatever takes your fancy