The best of these recipes for many people is a simple roast chicken. No stuffing. No bed of roasted root veggies. No fancy sauces. | Andrew Valente


The great Auguste Escoffier, the father of modern French cooking, invented more than 5,000 recipes, wrote gastronomic encyclopedias, and also created the five French mother sauces that are the starting point for most other sauces: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and tomato. But for many cooks and food writers, Escoffier (1846-1935) needed only two French words to sum up his philosophy on good cooking: ‘faites simples’. Translated into idiomatic English, those two words become three: ‘keep it simple’.

If you apply that advice to your everyday dishes for your family and friends, you will become a better cook from one recipe to the next. That’s what top cooks on the five continents have been doing since Escoffier first said ‘faites simples’, and if they consider this assertion to be words of wisdom, so should we. The older I get the more I try to ‘keep it simple’, and not just in cooking but in everything I do. If you get rid of the fancy frills in your cooking and in your general lifestyle, you’ll end up being a happier person.

Here’s one way I ‘keep it simple’ when making a pasta dish. There are more than 400 shapes of pasta and even more recipes for recognised sauces. Multiply those two numbers and you have more than 400 years of eating pasta every day without repeating one of the combos. I am keeping it simple by making only five dishes of long pasta: with butter and herbs, virgen extra olive oil and herbs, virgen extra olive oil plus chopped garlic and chilli flakes, a fresh tomato sauce without herbs or any other addition except salt, and imported Italian pesto sauce from a jar.

In recent years I have been eating other combinations of pasta and sauce, but if I had access to only these five for the rest of my life I wouldn’t complain. Chicken is one of the great meats and it’s so versatile some food writers have published books based on nothing but the various chicken joints.
If you take all the countries in the world and multiply that number by their chicken recipes, it also adds up to thousands of meals.

The best of these recipes for many people is a simple roast chicken. No stuffing. No bed of roasted root veggies. No fancy sauces. When properly done to a delicious golden colour, this French classic served with a mound of chips and a green salad is one of the world’s great dishes. But how frequently do we see a juicy roast chicken served in this way? There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be every time if we buy a fine free range one of 1.5-2 kilos and roast it in a high heat for a short time, thus ensuring its total succulence.

When you have such a chicken ready for roasting, stuff the cavity with an unpeeled lemon and a mandarin cut into four wedges, a parsnip, any fresh herbs of your choice, a handful of crushed unpeeled garlic cloves, a tablespoon of whole coriander seeds, a few black peppercorns and a nice piece of thinly peeled fresh ginger. Sew up the cavity with needle and thread to hold on to the aromas and flavours for as long as possible.

If you know how to truss the chicken do so and then tie round the breast as many slices of fresh belly of pork (panceta fresca) as it will hold. The fat in the panceta will slowly melt and help to keep the breast meat well lubricated. Put a trestle of some kind in the roasting tin, add three glasses of dry sherry, any fresh herbs you have (with stalks), a few crushed unpeeled garlic cloves, four wedges of unpeeled lemon and any spring onions or a piece of leek you may have in the fridge.

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Set the oven at 200C for 15 minutes and put the chicken on the uppermost grid. You can baste if you want to, but there’s no real need to do so. You’ll be roasting the chicken for about 60 minutes, removing the panceta after some 40 minutes so the breast area can take on a nice golden colour.
Leave the panceta in the roasting tin to become nicely tender. It can be sliced up and served with the chicken or it can be used as a nibble (with glass of dry sherry) for the cook and anyone giving a hand in the kitchen. Little perks like that should be standard practice for those doing the work even a simple meal always entails.

You can carve the chicken as you usually do or you can try the quick method a French friend uses. She always roasts two good-sized chickens when her extended family is on a visit, and as soon as the roasting tin comes out of the oven she pours off the juicy content into a small saucepan and brings it, uncovered, to a gentle boil.

She has considerable skills with her set of heavy Sabatier knives, and first takes off the wings and divides them into their component parts, putting aside the crunchy tips, which she munches while doing the rest of the carving — another little perk for the cook. The severed wings go into the centre of a large very hot serving dish followed by the drumsticks on one side. A few slashes of a smallish very sharp knife are enough to free the chunky meat from the thighs and it is added to the drumsticks.

She then takes off the pieces of breast (complete with golden crisp skin) and cuts them into vertical slices of about a centimetre thick. They go on the other side of the wings. By this time the roasting pan juices have reduced to a silky thickness and some of it is used to moisten the breast and thigh meats. One of her daughters has been doing chips in the electric deep fryer and another has prepared two bowls of salad greens. And lunch for 12 is ready.

I was thinking about roast chicken this week because my great niece Natalie was doing lunch for her extended family and did two roast chickens with a stuffing, and also a more ambitious set of trimmings. These included superb roasties, a contribution by her husband, Dave. He used maris piper, an English white hard potato ideal for chips and roasties.

I’ve seen them on sale at El Corte Inglés on three occasions I’ve tried them as roasties and chips six times and on each occasion they were perfect. If they don’t have any, ask at the veggie and fruit counter if they can order them for you. Any roast with ‘all the trimmings’ is always going to be more labour intensive and complicated especially with 10-12 guests at table. That’s when it’s not a bad idea to accept Escoffier’s advice to ‘keep it simple’.

And any French housewife would approve if you used the carcass and the contents of the cavity to make a flavoursome stock for a soup.