spring chicken with crispy leeks

it's spring, here's a chicken, it's a spring chicken

Welcome to A Newsletter #33, the number of times I’ve made this chicken dish in the last 30 days. If you’ve found your way over by some miracle but are not yet subscribed, here, let me help you with that:

I could see how a roasted chicken could be boring time after time (“another basic roasted chicken?”), but if I’m being honest, food has been boring me for weeks! I just simply could not be less enthused to think of it, cook it or eat it (don’t worry about me: Apparently it’s called Pandemic Senioritis, and IT. IS. REAL). But I’m happy to report that some things are still worth getting out of bed for, metaphorically and literally speaking. A spring chicken dinner is one of them. 
For those who want to leave nothing to the imagination, we are going for like a grand aioli meets chicken dinner thing here and I think you’ll like it very much. Things are flexible and nothing is essential (except for uh, the chicken. And I guess the aioli). 
That said if you don’t “have it in you,” the chicken part is excellent in its simplicity. It’s a salt and pepper chicken, which is always great, sure, but leeks are the star that is being born here. Some parts of the leek stay soft, silky, almost braised in chicken fat while others left more exposed become crispy, frizzled, sorta burnt (if parts of your leek aren’t crispy enough to count as a chip, you are cheating yourself of an excellent experience). 

As one might imagine, this dinner starts with the chicken. A chicken can be roasted a number of ways, and believe me, I have (I’ll bet you have, too). That said, I always struggle to enjoy a chicken more than when it’s roasted simply with salt and pepper, so that’s exactly what we are going to do. For this specific adventure, I have found a 425° oven is best for both the chicken and leeks (also along for the ride). 

So, preheat the oven to 425°. Place your (4-ish pound) chicken on a rimmed baking sheet or a large cast-iron skillet. Pat the bird dry with paper towels and season with salt and lots of black pepper. You can stuff the cavity with a halved lemon, a quartered onion, a halved head of garlic, some rogue sprigs of herbs-- but if you don’t have any of those things to spare, I wouldn’t sweat it. 

I have never advocated for binding a chicken with twine and I won’t start today, but I will say that tying this particular bird with twine made me feel sophisticated and special in a way I did not expect. Like a hot but uncomfortable pair of shoes, sometimes it’s not about how practical something is, or if you need to do not. It’s about you feeling like it and because you want to. Anyway, tie or don’t tie your chicken, that’s a personal call. 

Take one large leek and remove the dark leafy part (set aside, we’re going to eat it). Quarter the white/light green part of the leek lengthwise and give it a rinse because it’s probably dirty inside (who among us). If using small/medium leeks, just halve them.

Lay the leeks beside the chicken and drizzle the whole thing (leeks, chicken) with a little olive oil. Season the leeks with some salt and pepper, too. 

Place this into the oven (middle rack, if you can), and don’t look at it for at least 35 minutes. No peeking, no touching, no basting, no turning, no fussing. 

After 35 minutes, you can peek– it should not be “there” yet. You can baste or rotate the sheet pan if you like, but keep roasting another 20–25 minutes. You’re looking for deeply browned chicken skin, and a combination of totally tender, almost silky braised leeks coupled with crispy, dark, frizzled leeks. I like mine almost burnt, zero regrets, and if you are nervous about them getting a little dark before the chicken is ready, well, maybe this is not the chicken dish for you. 

While the chicken is roasting and the leeks are almost burning, make use of the other part of the leek, the part we typically throw away (unless you’re making this soup again). Finely chop the dark green part of the leek and place it in a small bowl. Add some finely chopped chives (which yes do taste different than the tops of leeks!), maybe some parsley. I like to add something briny and/or tangy and/or salty to this as well. A few finely chopped anchovies, maybe some capers or olives. Maybe all of the above, who could say. Season this with salt and pepper, add enough olive oil to make it saucy, then season with a splash of vinegar or fresh lemon juice. This should taste onion-y, briny, bright, and extremely GREEN. Let it sit while your chicken finishes roasting– it gets better with time. 

So, that is the making of the chicken with crispy leeks part of the dish. The main event, if you will. To further the “dinner” part, you’ll need a few more things, all of which are negotiable but really make this a fun experience IMO.

Get a medium pot of water on to boil and salt it well. Use this as your main blanching/boiling hub (you won’t be needing an ice bath for any of these things, so relax). 

Know that these are all suggestions so feel free to just use whatever vegetables you have on hand-- but if you’re shopping for this specific dish, I would suggest small potatoes, asparagus, and maybe something like a green bean or snap pea.

Start by boiling your potatoes until they’re tender and cooked through, 10–12 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Dunk the asparagus for 30–45 seconds depending on how thick they are and how soft you like it (I like my asparagus thin and very very “al dente”). Remove those tongs or a fork. Dunk the beans or snap peas for 30 seconds or so, just to take the edge off. Remove those with whatever. 

If you’ve got some vegetables that want to be raw, like radishes or fennel, thinly slice those. Have some cute springy lettuces? Call them over. Set all your vegetables aside.

Make your aioli which always makes you feel accomplished. Fill a measuring cup with ¾ cup neutral oil and ¼ cup olive oil. Crack an egg yolk into a medium bowl. Add a small spoonful of mustard (dijon, not whole grain). Slowly whisk in a few teaspoons of oil. Start becoming more confident and whisk a little bit more oil, stopping to make sure it’s fully emulsified each time. Thin it out with a little white distilled vinegar if it becomes too thick. Whisk in more oil until it’s all been added. Season with salt, vinegar, and one finely grated clove of garlic. 

When it’s time to eat, place all your vegetables (the blanched the boiled, the raw the sliced) onto a large plate. If you opened a tin of anchovies for the sauce, place the tin on or next to the plate, too.

Carve the chicken (lately I’ve been carving it in the sheet pan or in the dish I roasted it in, to catch all the juices) and transfer it to a large plate. Top with your fantastic leeks, then spoon any chicken drippings/juice over the whole thing (don’t worry about de-crisping the chicken skin, it wasn’t that crispy to begin with).

Serve your chicken with your leek salsa verde (let’s call it that), aioli, and that celebration of spring (your vegetables). Make sure the anchovies are there, too. Dip the chicken into both sauces, followed by a perfect little boiled potato. Place an anchovy on a radish, dip that in the aioli. Snack on a lettuce. Drag a slice of chicken through the juices that have pooled on the bottom of the plate. Have a sip of wine, wish you had an artichoke, feel full and happy and grateful for all the things you have, but today, especially for spring and for that chicken. 

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