Saffron and Meyer Lemon Roast Chicken & a Challenge to Source Better Birds
Roast chicken is probably the easiest thing to make and yet it rewards the cook with the most deliciously comforting meal. All it takes is sourcing excellent ingredients and a little bit of patience. Why source a better bird? Does a humanely-raised, antibiotic-free chicken actually taste all that much better? Is it actually worth the cost/time/effort to find one? Yes, and YES. A stress-free, antibiotic-free bird that is raised cage-free is going to taste wildly more better than a factory-farmed bird, but more importantly, there’s a reason why around 80% of the antibiotics administered in the United States are given to animals: because of the terrible conditions most of the animals are raised in foster disease and giving them antibiotics makes this less likely. (Thank you, Mark Bittman for explaining why this matters and why even recent changes in FDA requirements are really only “requests”.)
We steer-clear of antibiotics at all cost unless absolutely necessary to prevent over-use, but it does us little good when we’re scarfing down antibiotic-stuffed meat. That’s just the reality of it. You can find better chicken, but it’s not always easy and it’s not always as cheap. Thus we march up on the FDA’s doorstep and bang loudly at their doors until they make the changes necessary for EVERYONE to afford a tasty, healthy bird. If you’d like to read more about this, please check out Mark Bittman’s recent article on “The F.D.A.’s Not-Really-Such-Good-News”.
Because I love roast chicken, I make it a lot, so I’m always on the lookout for interesting riffs on the traditional roast to keep things interesting. When I happened along a recipe for a saffron and Meyer lemon roast chicken, I snapped it up sure as you were born in the mornin’.
I managed to discover a little farmer’s market while on the road several weeks ago. It’s cold in my neck of the woods (desert southwest) but these folks are managing to keep their stands open, even in 35-degree weather! My first priority is always Meyer Lemons. Even though I live in a relatively warm climate, I’m located in the northern reaches of it, so Meyer Lemons can be hard for me to come by. If you’ve never had one and you come across some, put them in your basket pronto. A cross between a lemon and a tangerine, these deeper-yellow citruses are more mellow in their lemony-ness than regular lemons. It’s like a lemon and an orange had a baby and suddenly there was peace throughout the land. They are delicious. If I’m ever just using the juice of the lemons, I’ll grind up the rinds in my garbage disposal and my kitchen will smell fantastic for hours.
In addition to the lovely little lemons I snagged, I found some colorful cauliflower as well. There was a peachy-orange head as well as a deep-purple, but I just couldn’t help hefting this lime-green cauliflower home with me. Instead of roasting potatoes beneath the chicken (which is awesome as well and you should totally do that at least once in your life), which is what the original recipe calls for, I decided to forgo the extra starch and use the cauliflower instead. I love roasted cauliflower and the lime-green contrasted beautifully with the saffron-lacquered bird.
I am relatively new to saffron, but the uniqueness it passed on to the roasted bird was enjoyable and I’d do it again. This recipe calls for a small quantity of saffron – it can actually be quite potent from what I understand. Grinding it together with the Meyer lemon salt really stretched that small quantity of saffron a long way. Stuffing the cavity with additional halved lemons kept the bird moist and really super-charged the lemony-flavor of the meat. I normally roast my chickens hot and fast, but this recipe called for low and slow and I followed it accordingly – I almost always do when I’m working on a recipe for the first time.
To make sure your veggies (whether you go with cauliflower or the recommended potatoes) get really crispy, I recommend roasting everything in a large cast-iron skillet. Leave the roaster in the cupboard this time. With Thanksgiving in our back-pocket and Christmas right around the corner, it could use a well-deserved respite from the action.
Saffron & Meyer Lemon Roasted Chicken
This recipe is my adaptation of the original found on the Local Kitchen Blog
- 1 roaster chicken, about 4 lbs (it should go without saying that the better quality bird you source, the better your meal is going to be)
- 2 tsp Meyer lemon salt (or 1 ½ tsp flaky sea salt + ½ tsp dried grated Meyer lemon zest)
- ¼ tsp ground cayenne pepper
- 1 large pinch saffron threads (about ¼ gram)
- 1 fresh lemon (Meyer or regular but if you can find the Meyers, use them!)
- 2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, cut to 2-inch dice (optional – I used one head of cauliflower, cut into small florets)
- If so inclined, rinse your chicken inside & out. Either way, dry the skin thoroughly and transfer to a clean plate.
- In a small bowl, combine Meyer salt, cayenne pepper and saffron threads: crunch thoroughly with your fingers to infuse salt with saffron flavor (or, give a quick grind in a spice grinder or mortar & pestle). Sprinkle liberally over the outside of the chicken, tossing a bit into the cavity as well. If time allows, let chicken rest in the refrigerator, uncovered, anywhere from 2 to 24 hours, to air-dry the skin and allow flavors to penetrate. Taking the time to dry-brine your chicken will reward you in a better-flavored bird, I promise!
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (350 degrees F convection). Slice the fresh lemon in half, squeeze a bit of juice into the cavity of the bird, and tuck both halves of the lemon in there. Tuck the wingtips under and truss the legs. Allow the bird to come to room temperature prior to roasting.
- In a large cast-iron skillet, toss your chopped potatoes or cauliflower in a small amount of olive oil (just to prevent initial sticking, before the roasting bird produces fat), salt & pepper. Spread evenly over the pan, then position the chicken on top. Roast in the preheated oven, basting both chicken and potatoes occasionally until the chicken is done, about 1 to 1 ½ hours, depending on the size of your bird (internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast or thigh is at least 165 degrees F). Remove from the oven; transfer the chicken to a clean cutting board and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, drain off excess schmaltz (chicken fat) from the skillet (save for another recipe) and crisp up the potatoes/cauliflower a bit over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes.