Viking Five: Chicken

On account that I find it fun and easy to compile lists of things, I am starting a new feature on my blog: Viking Five. These will be lists of what I consider to be exemplars of any given category. In most cases, I don’t have the experience or knowledge to create what might be called definitive “top five” lists, so these are simply five personal recommendations. Please add to the lists by leaving comments!

I’m starting the feature with a food that is often overlooked – but when it’s good, damn is it good. Chicken is so frequently bland and dry, a rather pointless thing to eat when prepared or processed witlessly, but if it’s prepared well, then there is almost no meat I’d rather eat.

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Zankou Chicken
Los Angeles, California

Taco trucks aside, there may be no LA food institution so cherished as Zankou Chicken. The darling of streetsmart food critics like Jonathan Gold, Zankou is beloved among all strata of Los Angeles society, including the loyal Armenians that invented it. It’s so good that Beck name checks it in a song about having a threesome on Midnite Vultures. I must say, there is something very nearly sexual about the buttery, delicately spiced skin and the voluptuously tender and juicy meat of a spit-roasted Zankou Chicken. And that garlic sauce is a wicked aphrodisiac.

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Yangon Restaurant’s Hot and Sour Deep-Fried Chicken
Bagan, Myanmar

All of the chicken I ate in Burma was really good, which I suspect has a lot to do with the fact that there aren’t any industrial chicken farms there. “Free range” isn’t even a meaningful category there, because the chickens just roam free around people’s houses. Our drivers had to hit the brakes a lot to dodge them – along with cows and lots of dogs. The Burmese chicken that stands out in my memory was a searingly spicy, addictively tangy dish of crispy and succulent fried chicken, perfumed with an immoderate amount of garlic and green onions.

Jitokko Sumibiyaki
Miyazaki, Japan

One thing I miss about Japan is the thrill of discovering new meibutsu. The Japanese present their unique regional cuisines to the rest of the nation with an enthusiastic pride, and the rest of the nation eats it up. Food and drink, along with flowers, temples, and hot springs, really seem to be what drives domestic tourism in Japan. For salmon, go to Hokkaido; for soba, go to Nagano; and for chicken, go to Miyazaki. There are at least two very famous Japanese chicken dishes originating in Miyazaki: the tartar saucy chicken nanban, and my favorite, jitokko sumibiyaki: literally, charcoal-grilled local chicken. It’s as simple as it sounds, and so very good. Miyazaki chicken has a firm texture and a fantastically buttery quality that sings beautifully with the smoky, blackened flavor of charcoal grilling.

Chicken Truck
Kitakyushu, Japan

One more for Japan – they do chicken right. At one of the schools where I taught, I used to walk to a nearby supermarket pretty much every day for lunch. I usually got some fruit and onigiri, maybe a pastry. But on certain days, there was this truck there. I think the truck was an outpost of a local restaurant, but I can’t remember the name of it. At any rate, this truck sold chicken – really good chicken. You could get the chicken wraps, or you could just go for a huge chunk of chicken, simply grilled with salt and pepper and probably MSG. I think it was the back quarter of the bird, neatly boned and flattened, full of fatty skin, just about as juicy and flavorful as chicken gets. It never failed to brighten my boring days as a human tape recorder.

Homemade Roast Chicken with Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing
Wherever you live

There’s nothin’ like a chicken you roast yourself – expecially when you rub it up with butter and herbs and serve it with a rich, moist sausage and chestnut stuffing. I’m not really much of a roasting guy (I’m more of a sautéing guy), so this week I took it upon myself to try something new. The result was a lovely, exceedingly juicy chicken with a delicate skin and deep flavor. Together with the stuffing, it is a rather rich dinner, so I served it with a palate cleansing salad of arugula and pea shoots with a lemon dressing.

The Chicken

1 4.5 pound chicken (get the free range kind, you cheapskate)
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
a few bunches of fresh herbs (try rosemary, lemon thyme, oregano, thyme, and flat leaf parsley)
3 bay leaves
1 onion
1 lemon or orange
paprika
salt
pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (205ºC).
  2. Clean the giblets out of the chicken, if they’re in there.
  3. Rinse the chicken inside and out with cold water, then dry thoroughly with paper towel. The bird should be very, very dry on the outside especially to help crisp the skin.
  4. Finely mince the herbs and mash them together with the butter and a pinch of salt.
  5. Quarter the onion and lemon or orange and stuff them into the cavity, along with the bay leaves and anything else you have to flavor the chicken: celery greens, additional herbs, apple peels, and garlic cloves work well. Pin the skin together to close the cavity with a toothpick.
  6. Rub the herb butter all over the bird, then season well with salt, pepper, and paprika.
  7. Put the bird on a rack and place in the oven. Roast for 10-15 minutes at 400º, then decrease heat to 375º (190ºC) and roast for another hour and a half (basically, you should cook the bird for 20 minutes per pound, plus the initial 10-15 minutes at a higher heat to crisp the skin).
  8. Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.
  9. Thicken the drippings and add a spritz of lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce to make a gravy. Add a bit of chicken stock and/or cider or beer if there aren’t enough drippings.

The Stuffing

500 grams sausage meat
250 grams cooked, peeled chestnuts, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 apple, cored, peeled, and chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/2 pound (about six cups) stale bread, lightly toasted and cubed
about 1 1/2 cups medium-dry cider and/or chicken stock
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
about 1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
olive oil
salt
pepper

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

  1. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook until browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain the grease.
  2. Add the butter to the pan. Sauté the onion, celery, and fennel seeds along with salt and pepper until the onions are translucent.
  3. Add the chestnuts, apple, and sage and sauté for another few minutes.
  4. Add the bread cubes and sauté until they have absorbed almost all the butter.
  5. Add the cooked sausage, then the cider or stock a bit at a time, until the bread is quite soft but not mushy.
  6. Scoop the stuffing into a buttered baking dish and bake for about 20 minutes, or until top has browned. Serve with gravy.
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