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Spring chicken

A lightened-up, but still hearty feast for warmer days

  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
  • This March 3, 2014 photo shows simple roasted chicken with fresh herb sauce in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Our spring feasts – often centered around Passover and Easter – typically call for a center-of-the-plate star, like brisket or lamb. Of course they’re delicious, but both can seriously ramp up the fat and calories in a meal that tends to put the groan into groaning board even before the main course is served.

So how about roasted chicken instead? Wait a minute, you say. If you eat the bird with its skin on, you might as well be eating lamb. And yet there’s no way to cook a chicken properly without the skin.

Looks like a problem, but here’s a solution: roast the chicken with the skin on, then remove the skin after the chicken is cooked. And, if you roast the chicken my no-fuss way, you’ll find yourself with ample time to devote to the rest of the meal.

I learned the best way to roast a chicken during my restaurant days. Every evening just before service began, the whole staff would sit down for “family meal.” If chicken was on the menu, we’d simply throw several 31/2-pounders into the oven – which was always cranked to 500 degrees — and blast away.

Given that we were cooking only for ourselves, there was nothing fancy about how we prepped those birds. Everything we’d learned in cooking school about the need to truss, turn and baste a roasting chicken turned out to be unnecessary. All we did was sprinkle them with salt and pepper, rub them with a little oil, and roast them at high heat.

Forty minutes later they were done. We let them rest for 15 minutes, then carved them and moistened the pieces with the juices that had pooled on the platter. It was almost too simple – and it certainly was not traditional – but the result was delicious.

There is, however, one serious caveat when it comes to cooking a chicken at a temperature this high: your oven must be clean. A dirty oven blazing away at 450 degrees (which is what I call for here) will smoke up the whole house. Also, be sure to place the bird in a heavy roasting pan with sides so the chicken juices don’t splatter over the sides and burn on the bottom of the oven.

Finally, the resting time is key. After you pull the bird out of the oven, its juices need time to redistribute. If you don’t let it rest, but carve it right away, all the juices will come streaming out and you’ll end up with dry meat. Happily, some of those juices pool on the platter during the resting period anyway, and they add a ton of flavor to the sauce.

And these chickens – minus their skin – cry out for a sauce. For that, I took my inspiration from the Italians and their bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is grilled steak finished with extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. I added some fresh herbs and those juices from the bottom of the platter and – Glory be! – The Husband just about forgot to complain about the lack of skin. It was a small but welcome miracle in a season of miracles.

SIMPLE ROAST CHICKEN WITH FRESH HERB SAUCE

2 31/2-pound chickens, trimmed of excess fat

olive oil cooking spray

salt and ground black pepper

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Spray the chickens all over with the cooking spray, then season them with salt and pepper. In a large roasting pan, place the chickens, breast side up, side by side. Roast, uncovered, until a meat thermometer inserted into the leg-thigh joint registers 165 degrees, about 55 minutes.

While the chickens are roasting, in a small bowl whisk the lemon juice with salt and pepper to taste, whisking until the salt is dissolved. Whisk in the olive oil, thyme, and oregano, then set aside.

When the chickens are done, transfer them to a large platter and cover them loosely with foil. Let them rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, pour any drippings from the roasting pan into a fat separator. Add the chicken juices from the fat separator to the herb mixture and discard the fat.

After the chicken has rested, remove and discard the skin and cut up the chicken. Whisk the juices from the platter into the herb mixture. Divide the chicken between serving plates and spoon some of the herb mixture over each portion of chicken.

Serves 8.

(Sara Moulton was executive chef at “Gourmet” magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”)

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