Zuni Roast Chicken With Bread Salad

This post is as much about the recipe and the cookbook it came from as it is about the meal we enjoyed.

Some sort of red meat like lamb, filet mignon, or osso buco seems to embody Valentine's Day. Is it the red color, the glamour of it? I don't know, but I'm always drawn to making meat for this romantic occasion. But not this year.

This year I made a recipe I have been eyeing since my old roommate first gave me The Zuni Cafe Cookbook two Christmases ago. Triumphant in her quest to find me a cookbook I didn't already have -- not an easy feat -- my old roommate also succeeded in finding one I instantly fell in love with. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which contains recipes from Judy Rodgers' and Gilbert Pilgram's Zuni Cafe in San Francisco is beautifully written by Judy Rodgers.

Rodgers' writing is such that it almost makes you look up, quizzically, to see if she's there in the room with you. It's shocking to find that she isn't but rather that you've just gotten so absorbed in her words and stories.

This cookbook is one that you take to bed with you, leaning over the pages, propping your head on your wrist so long that the ache in your arm finally tears you away. But that won't keep you from doing the same thing the next night and the next night. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook can be read and reread, new information gleaned with each reading.

From the moment I found it in my possession, I read it from cover to cover. Over time, my initial curiosity sated, I've flipped through it again and again, focusing on a recipe for fried figs one day; one for mixed lettuces with roasted cherries, hazelnuts, and warm Saint-Marcellin another day; or one for espresso granita yet another day.

The one recipe I've pored over the most, flipping back and forth between its instructions and its mouthwatering photograph is the Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad recipe.

Once I decided I was actually going to attempt to make the roast chicken and bread salad, I read and read and reread so much that you'd think I would have worn away the ink on those pages. I followed prompts to check out the sections on roasting and on salting early. I wanted to make the most perfect roast chicken I could, so I let Rodgers hold my hand through each paragraph.

I studied intently each step. I weighed out the differences in the various salts she explained. Before reading this book, I hadn't even thought about how my use of kosher salt might compare with the use of medium grade fine sea salt (which Rodgers uses). I could have severely undersalted my chicken if I hadn't spent time checking each step and each nuance of each step. I can't say it enough: read, read, and reread. It's easier to execute a recipe well when you're completely prepared to tackle it.

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is not for those who look to Rachael Ray for advice on 30-minute meals (which is totally fine); it's for those who want to get into the kitchen and spend all of their time there. It's for those who truly love cookbooks, who enjoy the stories and hints rampant through their pages. It's for those who crack a small smile when Rodgers says to stop and taste what you're making. It's for those who already taste every step along the way. It's for those who are like me.

I wish I could write the way she does, a way that makes you stop and think as you're reading about making something, a way that makes you stop and think when you're in the midst making something. If you're someone who can stay focused and follow a recipe verbatim, you can't go wrong with a recipe from this book. Rodgers even tells you how to correct something if it seems like it's going wrong.

But I'll stop fawning over and professing my love for this cookbook and tell you about the roast chicken and bread salad.

Does bread salad entice you? Maybe... maybe not? Just the word bread draws me in... and when I find that the bread is dressed with chicken drippings, well then I'm just done for. I think the main reason I wanted to make this dish was not for the chicken (though it is a famous dish I recommend everyone try at some point) but for the bread salad, with its chicken drippings, plump currants, toasted pine nuts, and sauteed garlic and scallions.

This recipe is close to four pages long. There's no way I could recreate it here... nor would I want to. I think part of why this recipe works so well is the way it is written. There's a pared down version on Smitten Kitchen if you just really want to know how to make it, but I recommend at least grabbing a copy of the cookbook from the library if not just purchasing it. Any offshoot of this recipe is just not going to cut it. I wouldn't have achieved the same results or felt quite so inspired had I not followed Rodgers' recipe word for word, detail for detail... or almost. I used the whole loaf of bread in my excitement, when I really should have just used half. Ah well -- what's a little more bread? There are worse mistakes.

Here's the dish... in pictures.

The salad ingredients

Chewy peasant-style bread with big and little holes

Bread, quartered, brushed with olive oil, and thrown under the broiler for a few minutes

Bread torn into random chunks

Chicken, salted 24 hours in advance, with thyme sprigs under the skin, ready for roasting

Scallions and slivered garlic, sauteed until softened

Bread chunks tossed with garlic, scallions, and Champagne vinegar

Red wine vinegar-plumped currants and toasted pine nuts added to bread salad

Perfectly roasted chicken and its tasty drippings

Bread salad, warm and steamy, just out of the oven

Chicken, cut into parts (thanks to the boyfriend) and mingling with the bread salad, now tossed with drippings and greens 

Dinner, all ready for eating

A plateful of roast chicken and bread salad

I ended up enjoying the chicken as much as the bread salad. I always have trouble cooking chicken, but this time, I managed to roast it perfectly -- the skin was crispy and golden and the meat was incredibly moist.  I owe that to Rodgers' explicit instructions.

At first, my boyfriend looked hesitantly at the bread and, carefully treading on my feelings, told me not to be upset if he didn't like it because he doesn't like soggy bread. Well, I don't like soggy bread either, and I knew this bread wouldn't be soggy. It would be moist from steam and drippings, but soggy would not be a word to describe it... and we both loved it. Though I might even toss the bread back under the broiler for a couple minutes after adding the drippings in next time... for a little extra crunch.

I even took pieces of the bread and wiped more drippings out of the pan I roasted the chicken in. That might sound gross, sopping up fat and grease, but it was far from disgusting. The drippings packed so much flavor. Uncharacteristically, my favorite part of the chicken was the small wing -- because it had the crunchiest skin, packed with the most juices.

This whole meal was just unbelievable, and if you have a few hours, you really must make it. I never realized something as simple as chicken and bread could be so incredible. So it wasn't a juicy red hunk of meat, but, really, what's more romantic than splitting a chicken?