There is a recipe in an Italian cooking magazines for a whole chicken baked in a salt crust that I have been looking at for months. It’s pretty straightforward: take a whole chicken, put a garlic clove and some thyme in the cavity, put it in a heavy baking dish, bury it under 6 lbs of kosher salt and bake it in a hot oven.
So on Sunday I decided to try it. But since I already know I don’t have that extra cucina X gene the Italians have, I decided to look the recipe up on the internet just to make sure there were no other instructions for the recipe that had inadvertently been somehow passed over. Who was it that said, “trust but verify?”
The recipes I found on the internet were not the same as the Italian recipe. Some called for the addition of flour and water to the salt, which I think is the recipe to make paper mache’. Others called for flour, water and eggs to be added to the salt, which I think is a recipe to make a big mess. So I decided to go with the Italian version. Just salt.
After washing and drying the chicken I put a couple of peeled garlic cloves and about a teaspoon of fennel seeds in the cavity. The recipe calls for fresh thyme, not fennel, but it’s January and I don’t have any fresh thyme, so I went with what I had. Then I opened all the boxes of salt.
The first pan I used was too small and every time I tried to heap the salt around and on top of the chicken the salt would spill out of the pan. So I got a bigger pan. That worked a little better but the salt wasn’t doing what I thought it was suppose to do, so I decided to add a little water.
With the salt now the consistency of mushy snow, I could mold it around the chicken. It actually worked pretty well. So I piled it up, put it in a very hot oven, (200° C/400°F) poured myself a glass of wine and went in the other room to watch the news on CNN. Cooking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes for a 2lb chicken.
I bought my chicken at Valter’s Pollame, Saronno’s specialty poultry store. It’s just a tiny little hole in the wall shop and Valter, the owner, keeps busy selling chickens, turkey, game hens, Guina hens, ducks, rabbits, eggs. Chickens come in different categories: a pollo novella is a spring chicken, a pollastrella is a young chicken that hasn’t started to lay eggs, a gallina is an egg-laying chicken, a galletto is a young rooster and a pollo ruspante is a free-range chicken. During the holidays he also sells capons, which are to Christmas Day in Italy what turkeys are to Thanksgiving in the States.
You can buy your poultry whole, or in pieces, except for turkeys, they are sold cut up. If you want a whole turkey, although the Italians can’t imagine why anyone would want something that big, you have to special order it. Valter is very accommodating. Everything is sold fresh and if you buy your bird whole, it will still have its head and feet so there is no doubt as to what it is.
What you don’t get are livers, gizzards or hearts. They are sold separately, even in the supermarket. But you can buy one chicken liver if you want, or two hearts and one gizzard. No questions asked. And many of the Italian mammas do buy just one to use in different recipes.
When the chicken was cooked, I took it out of the oven and let it sit while I cooked some carrots and potatoes. I had new potatoes so I boiled them up and I steamed a few carrots. So far so good.
Then I tried to break the crust. Hmmmmm. That turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I pounded it with a wooden spoon a few times and didn’t make a dent, so I got a sharp knife and jabbed a hole in it. I have to say the most delicious odor came floating out from under that crust, the garlic and fennel worked really well. After peeling away the crust I transferred the chicken to a serving plate, wiped off last few bits of salt and sliced it up.
Photo: (1) A poultry market in Europe; (2) a Bresse chicken; (3) a proud poultry farmer