My mother, bless her, was always slightly cautious about cooking expensive cuts of meat in case she ruined them, which is something that she passed on to me. It’s made me thrifty – a blessing, I suppose – but also filled with panic, especially given that an ‘expensive’ cut of meat is anything that costs over about four pounds. A decent chicken costs a whole six pounds, and despite being reassured that it’s virtually impossible to get them wrong, I’ve always shied away just in case. We ate cheese on toast for Sunday lunch for eighteen years, and now that I’m married, I still do the same (lucky Mel).
For the past two years we’ve also had ovens with doors that don’t shut properly, which has also made it virtually impossible to cook anything where crisp skins are important. In the end, it kind of seemed like too much hassle. But then I finished reading Andy Miller’s great book The Year of Reading Dangerously, where he ruefully reflects on having reached the threshold of middle age without even knowing how to cook a chicken, reflecting:
I had heard that other people dealt with [reaching middle age] by having ill-advised affairs with schoolgirls, or dyeing their hair a ‘fun’ colour, or plunging into a gruelling round of charity marathon running, ‘to put something back’… my sadness for things undone was smaller and duller, yet maybe more undignified. It seemed to fix itself on minor letdowns, everyday stuff I had been meaning to do but somehow, in half a lifetime, had not got round to. I was still unable to play the guitar. I had never been to New York. I did not know how to drive a car or roast a chicken. Roasting a chicken – the impossible dream! Even my mid-life crisis was a disappointment.
I did not want to be that man in a decade or so, and so just like the book drove me to put down my Stephen King novel and pick up The Master and Margarita, so it would also encourage me to pick up a roast chicken.
(When I did finally roast a chicken, it turned out to be virtually identical to a recipe I’d cooked twice before, which Jamie Oliver calls Beer Butt Chicken and the Spanish call something unprintable, where you stick a beer bottle into the centre of your chicken carcass and the steam from the beer cooks it from the inside. But that’s another story.)
Roast chicken is incredibly easy. We got a 1.45kg free-range bird for two, which was far too much. Leith’s says, get 15g of butter and smear it on the outside with some salt and pepper. Put it in the oven for an hour and a half, baste it a couple of times with a little butter and then take it out. 15g of butter seemed too little for me, so we basically slathered it with ‘some butter’, shoved half a lemon (microwaved for 10 seconds, trust me on this) into the centre and sprinkled over some thyme and basil.
Roast potatoes weren’t in the recipe, but they are elsewhere in the book. I have all kinds of superstitions about roast potatoes, mostly because we never cooked them either (too much oil), and the internet is not much help. Since we got a puppy, Mel occasionally checks if things (ie. strawberries, peanut butter, jumping) are safe for the dog online, and normally the websites say something along the lines of it is IMPERATIVE that you NEVER let your dog jump out of the car or their joints will be RUINED and they will NEVER GROW. The same is true of roast potatoes. Equally, most of the advice is scaremongering. Buy floury potatoes (Maris Pipers work well), get your fat very hot and you’ll get something pretty tasty.
Leith’s said to heat up a tray of sunflower oil at 200 degrees, cook them for five minutes in boiling water, rough them up in a colander or with a fork and then chuck them in the oil. Roast for an hour, turning every twenty minutes, add 30g of butter, cook for another half an hour and then sprinkle with salt and parsley. We perched the chicken on top of ours and only turned them once and they turned out fine.
I didn’t take a photograph of the thing, because it was too delicious and we just ploughed into it, but we’ll be eating it for the next week. Skin was incredibly crisp, meat was wonderfully moist, effort was incredibly low. If you’ve never done it, what’s your excuse?