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How Can I Make Roast Chicken the Star of Thanksgiving Dinner This Year?

“The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” offers a recipe for one of the world’s great roast chickens

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Smiling man with beard wearing white collared shirt.

Welcome to Ask Elazar, a column in which Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag answers your highly specific and pressing cooking questions.

Because of COVID-19 and the risk of travel, Thanksgiving dinner this year is just going to be my immediate family. Usually we’d cook a turkey, but there’s no way we’re going to make a 15-pound bird for three people. If I wanted to roast a chicken instead, how can I gussy one up to make it feel more holiday special?

To avoid six months of leftovers, I’m also going to be passing on the turkey and making a chicken this year. 2020 has been heavy-handed with chaos, disruption, and anxiety, and I’m thinking an extraordinary preparation of an ordinary bird is just the thing to achieve a sense of celebration without committing to a full day of cooking or a kitchen covered in turkey juice. But a lot of us eat chicken all the time, so I know it might not feel quite as special.

Done right though, a chicken can be pretty damn impressive. My go-to recipe, the one I’ll be following on Thanksgiving, is a pared-down New York Times rendition of an iconic roast chicken served at the San Francisco institution Zuni Cafe, which has been on the restaurant’s menu since before I was born; it was immortalized by its creator Judy Rogers in 2002’s The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. After Rogers’s passing in 2013, the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote, “I have probably been to Zuni at least 25 or 30 times since Rodgers took over… and I have failed to order the chicken only twice.” The chicken lives up to the hype: It’s also a favorite of nearly every person I’ve crossed paths with in California.

Cut-up pieces of roasted chicken with arugula on top.
The Zuni Cafe chicken, on the counter at the storied San Francisco restaurant
Bill Addison/Eater

When I first picked up The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I was taken aback by how many pages the roast chicken recipe spanned. But working carefully through each instruction, there were no hidden steps or unexpected obstacles. It’s a simple dish, but one that requires care and patience and a very generous pinch of salt.

To make this chicken, you’ll set the process in motion the day before, liberally salting the bird, and leaving it uncovered in the fridge to dry out. Before putting the salted chicken in the oven, slip leaves of sage, thyme, and rosemary gently underneath the skin, and while the oven is preheating, place the bird in a searing-hot pan on the stove, where the cooking process begins. In the 500-degree oven, as the bird crisps, the herbs shine through the translucent skin. Your job is to watch lovingly over the chicken as it roasts, flipping it every 15 minutes or so.

When done, there is no prettier piece of meat. The skin is crisp, the flesh is juicy, and the flavors of sage and rosemary have seeped into the meat. The drippings are as good a sauce as any, and a perfect base for gravy. At Zuni, the chicken is served with an impressive warm bread salad. In my house, it’s served as-is: I eat this chicken year-round, making it whenever I have the chance, but it really is a perfect holiday dish.

There are so many reasons to roast a chicken instead of a full turkey this year. You can eat a breast and a thigh for dinner, and put the rest away for a chicken, stuffing, and cranberry sauce sandwich tomorrow. You’ll still get the experience of carving a bird, setting it ceremoniously at the center of the table, and then pushing it to the side as you fill your plate with mountains of candied yams, green beans, and mashed potatoes. And you won’t have to worry about defrosting an enormous frozen bird, or preparing for the inevitable bursting of the brine bag.

The tradition and nostalgia of turkey on Thanksgiving can’t be replicated. But the Zuni Cafe chicken is as good as the very best turkey: So good that this time next year, you might even find yourself craving it.

Zuni Cafe Chicken [NYT]