Monday, December 26, 2011

Eric Ripert's Roasted Chicken with Za'atar Stuffing (20/24)

Stuffing is something reserved for the holidays. Something to pack the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas goose with every year to signify a heavy harvest, happy festivities, and full stomachs. So for something with so many great connotations, why should the most heavy-set pair of poultry get all the glory? Why can't the chicken partake in some of the festivities? And really, why does stuffing have to be reserved for the holidays in the first place?

Enter Eric Ripert, the last person I was planning to look to for a roast chicken recipe. I mean, he's pretty much one of the head honchos of seafood, but not poultry. But look to him I did, and what I found was a surprisingly light, refreshing, and fulfilling rendition of a stuffed chicken with an ever so slight Middle Eastern twist.

The recipe begins with preparing the stuffing, an aromatic mix of olive oil, lemon zest, garlic, parsley, and za'atar, which is a Middle Eastern spice mix featuring sesame seeds and dried herbs.

Za'atar can be a little difficult to find, but if you can Yelp or Google a nearby Middle Eastern grocery store, they'll definitely have an interpretation of za'atar. For fellow Seattle residents, head over to The Souk, a small Middle Eastern goods market tucked away in one of Pike Place Market's several alleyways. If your experience is anything like mine, the owner will look surprised that you're looking for za'atar, ask what you're going to use it for, laugh at the idea of using za'atar with chicken, suggest that you mix za'atar with olive oil and spread it on pita bread and throw it in the oven or use za'atar with olive oil as a bread dip, and send you on your way, still laughing at the fact that you're planning to use za'atar with chicken. Put your pride aside, because he's really an extremely nice guy and, spoiler alert, he's probably right.

Use a carving knife to remove the chicken wings. It looks weird, I know.

Place the chicken wings in the roasting pan to act as a base for the chicken.

Then season the chicken with salt and pepper, stuff the cavity with the stuffing, and tie up the legs with some kitchen string.

And there it is, chicken number twenty, ready to hop into the oven.

After roasting the chicken at 450 for 20 minutes, and at 350 for another 30 minutes, the kitchen smelled like a comforting Italian household. Before jumping in though, I waited for the chicken to rest for 10 minutes.

Just as the aroma suggested, the flavor of the chicken was more Italian than anything else the recipe might have suggested. The parsley, garlic, and lemon invaded my nose with every bite, and the za'atar added more to the suggestion of classic Italian herbs, like oregano and thyme, than to any Middle Eastern references.

The seller of the za'atar was right. Maybe za'atar's place in the culinary world is with olive oil and pita bread. The small dish of olive oil and za'atar with a side of bread at the table dictated the same.

The chicken itself was outrageously juicy, if not a little bit undercooked. The breast meat was as wet as the thigh meat, and the savory yet zesty stuffing was a natural side for the meal. Most of the bits of crusty bread maintained their crunch, while others fell victim to the olive oil and chicken drippings. The stuffing ended up being more of a bread salad than a stuffing. I could easily see this stuffing going extremely well over a bed of mixed greens or baby arugula.

In the end, I wouldn't consider this chicken to be my favorite chicken I've done this year, but I still stuffed myself with plenty of chicken and stuffing. Because at the end of the day, a roast chicken is still a roast chicken. And roast chickens are damn good. And a side of stuffing really puts a cherry on top.

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