Enough of the pies and pastries – bring on the poulet.
When I was a graduate student at La Sorbonne in Paris, I spent much of my time in food-related pursuits. Quelle surprise. I relied on Patricia Wells’ Food Lover’s Guide to Paris (I think I had purchased the first edition before leaving for France). When I was in Paris, Ms. Wells was the food writer for the International Herald-Tribune, published in Paris. It was a great resource for me, in exploring the city’s markets, restaurants, and, of course, bakeries – so here we come back to patisseries again…no escaping this recurring theme for long.
My favourite pastries in Paris were:
Tarte aux framboises – the classic raspberry tart,
Tarte au citron (the more puckery, the better for the true Parisian lemon tart),
Religieuses au chocolat or au café, (a variant on the éclair with a small ball of pate au choux on top of a larger one – to resemble some sort of religious figure – these delights represented my religious experience in Paris), and
Macarons – 20 years or so before they became a global food
fetish trend, I was chasing down the best across the City of Light.
Ms. Wells’ book helped me to find the best things to eat, while discovering some more obscure parts of the city. I compared and contrasted the best examples, with the rigour a French literature student applies to l’analyse du texte. Besides, the best pastries were much tastier than the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance I was studying.
Since then, Ms. Wells has garnered a justifiably international reputation for her knowledge and expertise in French cuisine. I have purchased some of her later editions of “food lover’s guides” and cookbooks. Her cookbooks are always engaging with the backgrounds and context of recipes, consistently well-written, and precise in the directions for all recipes, which always turn out well for me.
More on The Paris Cookbook and the Poulet au citron recipe
Of all her recipes, the one I prepare the most is her superb take on roasted chicken. It is from The Paris Cookbook. The roasted bird is so memorable that this is the Eiffel Tower of chicken recipes. OK, this metaphor is as over the top as the lights shining brightly on the apex of the tower at night (the illustration on the cookbook’s cover, after all, is Gustave’s most famous erection). This preparation of chicken is truly iconic and towers above all others, so my metaphor is not completely ridiculous….
The story Ms. Wells described is the lemon in the interior, which she and her husband “accidentally” discovered and found comparable to a “confit” after roasting. Rather than just tossing the lemons from the cavity, they found that the roasted and, hence, concentrated lemon juice was delicious squeezed on the white and dark meat upon serving.
There are two aspects which stand out in this recipe:
1. The chicken has four 90-degree turns, to ensure even roasting, juiciness throughout, and a beautiful golden skin.
2. The lemons in the cavity ensure both a subtle citrus flavour in the chicken, as well as a marvelous sassy counterpoint to the richness of the chicken, when squeezed over the carved poultry.
Having done many versions of roast chicken in my day, I find this is the best. I rarely contemplate even trying another recipe for a whole chicken. It is one which I have given to friends on the island – even those who are completely culinarily-challenged – and they have had great success with it. I have not included the gravy recipe, as I only used it the first time – although it was very good and rich, gravy is totally unnecessary with the lemon. My major adaptation is to include a bed of new potatoes under the chicken, to prop it up at 90, 180, 270, and 360 angles during the rotation, and to luxuriate in the butter, olive oil (another addition of mine, to get the potatoes going immediately), and chicken fat.
It makes a perfect Sunday night dinner or even a meal for entertaining close friends. For me, even if I never ate this recipe in Paris, its lemony essence reminds me of tartes au citron, macarons au citron, and many other tart and sweet memories of ma vie parisienne.
Poulet au citron or Lemon Chicken
Adapted from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells.
· One 3 1/2-pound organic, free-range chicken
· Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
· 2 small lemon, preferably organic, quartered length-wise
· 1 lb. new potatoes, preferably organic
· 8 thyme sprigs
· 5 tablespoons butter
· olive oil for coating potatoes and the bottom of the roasting pan
1. Preheat the oven to 425º. Generously season the cavity of the chicken with salt and pepper. Add the quartered lemon and the thyme sprigs to the cavity. Season the outside of the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Melt butter.
2. In a large roasting pan, arrange the potatoes in a single layer and season with salt and pepper. Set the chicken on the potatoes on one side. Brush with melted butter.
3. Roast for 20 minutes.
4. Place the chicken on its other side, baste, and roast for another 20 minutes
5. Turn chicken right side up, baste, and roast for yet another 20 minutes.
6. Turn heat down to 375º.
7. Place the chicken upside down, baste, with breast end elevated to retain more moisture.
8. Roast the chicken for another 15 minutes, or until the chicken juices run clear from the cavity and the potatoes are tender.
9. Transfer the chicken to a carving board, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 10 minutes. Arrange the chicken and potatoes on a platter. Remove the lemon quarters from the cavity and squeeze the juice all over the chicken.