I feel it is no coincidence that Passover, the holiday celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery under Pharaoh, falls around the same time as spring's arrival. After all, Passover observes a miracle of renewal -- the triumph of hope and freedom over despair and tyranny -- just as the earth all around us starts to wake up and grow again after winter's cold and darkness. (Of course, the same seasonal connection holds true for another holiday coming a week from Sunday: Easter. And, as you no doubt know, the Last Supper itself was the ritual Passover Seder meal held by Jesus and his disciples.)
With those kinds of parallels in mind, it sometimes surprises me that when you ask people what their main course will be at the Passover Seder, the answer is almost always beef -- usually braised brisket -- or some other hearty cut of red meat. To me, those are more winter than springtime dishes, though I know, of course, they also represent the central and eastern European heritage of so many Jewish Americans.
This recipe features my favorite way to cook whole chickens. It begins with butterflying the bird -- a butcher's term for cutting out the backbone and then flattening the chicken, to give it a shape fancifully reminiscent of a butterfly. Prepped in this way, the chicken cooks quickly and evenly, with perfectly browned, crispy skin and succulent meat. Ask most butchers to butterfly the chicken for you and they'll know what you want. Or you can do the job yourself: Working deliberately, use poultry shears to cut along each side of the backbone from neck to tail, removing it. Turn the bird breast-up, spread it open on a sturdy, clean work surface, and flatten it with a firm blow from the heel of your hand.
Now, I know that the advantage those old-fashioned, red meat main courses have is that they cook slowly in the oven, while the Seder -- a recounting of the Passover story -- proceeds. But many families today opt for briefer Seders that dovetail perfectly with this quicker recipe; and you could also brown the chicken, or several of them, in advance, and then complete the cooking in the oven while you conduct your home service.
And, unlike a hearty braise, you'll feel like eating this particular chicken dish, or variations with other seasonings of your choice, over and over again once springtime officially arrives.
Have a meaningful Passover -- and a happy spring!
PAN-ROASTED CHICKEN WITH LEMON AND WHOLE-GRAIN MUSTARD
1 whole frying chicken, about 4 pounds, butterflied (see instructions above)
1 sprig fresh Italian parsley, 2 fresh basil leaves, or 1 small sprig fresh rosemary
Freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup organic chicken broth
Juice of 2 large lemons (6 to 8 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into several pieces
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley or finely shredded fresh basil
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Meanwhile, prepare the chicken. From the neck opening, gently ease your fingertips between the skin and the meat to loosen the skin all over the breast, taking care not to tear the skin. Insert the parsley sprig, basil leaves, or rosemary sprig under the skin. Season the chicken generously all over with salt and pepper.
Heat an ovenproof skillet large enough to hold the chicken over high heat. Add the olive oil and swirl it in the skillet. As soon as you begin to see slight wisps of smoke, carefully place the chicken skin side down in the skillet. Sear the chicken, undisturbed, while reducing the heat, little by little, to medium, until the skin has turned golden brown and crisp, about 5 to 7 minutes. With tongs, carefully turn the chicken skin side up.
Carefully transfer the skillet to the preheated oven. Roast until the chicken is deep golden brown and the juices run clear when the thickest part of the thigh meat is pierced with a thin skewer, about 15 minutes longer.
When the chicken is done, remove it from the skillet with tongs and transfer it to a cutting board. Cover loosely with heavy-duty aluminum foil and leave it to rest while you make the sauce.
Pour off all but a thin glaze of fat from the skillet. Return the skillet to high heat, add the chicken broth and lemon juice, stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits, and boil the liquid until it has reduced by half its volume, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn down the heat and whisk in the mustard and butter, stirring briskly with a wire whisk. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper and stir in half of the parsley or basil.
To serve, spoon the sauce into the centers of 4 heated serving plates.
With a large, sharp knife, cut the chicken into four equal pieces. Place the chicken on the plates, sprinkle with the remaining parsley or basil, and serve immediately.