I spilled a drink to Alice Waters.
As was to be expected, she was kind to it. The chef, restaurant owner and slow food pioneer who teaches public school children to grow their own food is a forgiving person.
We went to Zuni Cafe on Market Street in San Francisco a few years ago and it was bullied. Husband Eric and I couldn’t make a reservation and took our risk and showed up. Luck was with us: if we were willing to wait a bit, they could sit us down. I moved away from the bar, drinking in each hand as the crowd moved – and so did Eric’s martini. I apologized profusely. We both went on.
“Do you know who that was?” asked a passing server. Oops. But points out to Alice that she is nice to it.
Eric and I were there for Zuni Chicken and Bread Salad, an incomparable meal for two. A small bird is roasted over very high heat in the massive stone oven in the middle of the dining room. You have to wait; Your chicken is cooked to order. But you don’t care. It’s one of those things that can’t be improved and that you can’t find anywhere else.
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, written by Judy Rodgers and published by Norton, appeared under the Christmas tree after that visit, and I flipped directly to page 342, where the recipe for the famous dish begins and continues over the next four pages.
I found notes from a visit on the back of a Crocker Street bank ATM slip tucked into the cookbook: “Friday at 5:30 am, every table full. Yellow walls and ceiling, wooden tables and chairs. “
It explains that Zuni fried chicken depends on three things, most importantly the small size of the bird. They recommend a 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pound bird that was formerly known as a deep fryer. This is not easy to find these days as most birds of this size are intended for rotisserie and are sold cooked. Second, it has to roast on a very high heat. At home that would be at least 450 degrees. Lastly, the bird needs to be salted at least 24 hours in advance to improve the taste and keep it moist and tender.
The chicken pieces are then embedded in a warm baby greens salad with pieces of rustic bread, garlic, spring onions, currants and pine nuts with vinaigrette and chicken drops. You can’t replicate the San Francisco bread, but the book recommends a “tough, peasant bread” that’s at least a day old.
Here are the instructions in broad terms:
Wash and pat the chicken dry, shove twigs under the skin with fresh herbs. Season with plenty of sea salt (kosher would do.)
Remove the crust and break the bread into large pieces, brush everything with olive oil and roast, turn crispy and color all surfaces. Tear the pieces into irregular pieces large and small and get dressed. Try – and try not to eat everything.
Preheat a shallow skillet or ovenproof pan over the stove over medium heat. Pat the chicken dry and place in the hot pan, raise the breast and place in the preheated oven.
The chicken needs to sizzle and if 450 degrees doesn’t, turn the oven over to 500. The skin should blister. Turn it over in half. The total cooking time should be 45 minutes to an hour.
In the meantime, fry the garlic and shallots in olive oil and roast the pine nuts. Mix with vegetables, bread and currants. Adjust seasonings and spices.
Combine the chicken and serve on a platter over the salad. Sky.
I’ve done it with Murray’s wonderful free range chickens and got pretty good results. I don’t have a brick oven or San Francisco yeast bread.
It’s harder than it sounds and the oven made a mess. But it was delicious, if not exactly authentic, and it brought back memories of the packed bar on a busy Friday night and spilled a drink on the famous chef.
Caroline Lee is a freelance writer living in Troy. Reach them at [email protected]
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Categories: -The daily newspaper, food