An Italian Sunday Supper

Writer
School of Medicine

The dinner table has always played a central role in my life. An evening in my childhood would start with me at the table doing my homework as I watched my father make dinner every night.

Then, in no time at all, I was being yelled at to clear the table of all my crap and set the table, which happens when you abandon your homework to wrestle the dog.

When the food was ready and the table finally set, we would all eat the deliciously prepared food together while chatting about our days. The dinner table was where we learned about each other lives and stayed close as a family.

This tradition did not start with my generation. My great-grandmother was the cook at our family’s restaurant, which closed long before I was born, but she continued to cook. She passed her love of food and of her family on to my grandmother and father. And they have passed it on to me.

My dinner table is a sacred space for me. It is still where my family comes together and shares in food and each other’s lives, but my family looks a little bit different now. My family includes my partner, our friends and of course our families.

I still do my homework at the table and have to clean it last minute, but now it is because I am trying to wrestle my cat, Buffy. Which doesn’t work as well as it did with my dog.

In an effort to share my love of a family dinner, I have provided a recipe for Sunday supper that reminds me of my childhood. The food is simple, but perfectly prepared with love, and best eaten with your family.

Zuni Café’s Roast Chicken with a Simple Pasta and Herbed Salad

Chicken recipe adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook

  • One small chicken, 3½ pounds (not a Heritage chicken!)
  • Four tender sprigs of fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • A little water
  • One 28-ounce can of whole San Marzano tomatoes
  • One healthy glug of olive oil
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 pound of fresh egg noodle pasta
  • One head of red-leaf lettuce or two heads of butter lettuce
  • Fresh parsley, dill, fennel and chives (choose your own adventure)
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Season the chicken:

As I said in the ingredients list, I emphasized to not get a Heritage chicken. For whatever reason, those birds do not work well with this recipe, and you will be very disappointed by the recipe if you use one.

You should prep the bird one to three days before serving but try to give it at least two days. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken and rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out.

It’s pretty important to dry it out well, because if it is too wet, it will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.

Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making two little pockets. Using the tip of your finger, gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the four pockets.

Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Sprinkle a little salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Roast the chicken:

This is a pretty quick roast, with a total time of 45 minutes to 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Yes, I know that is really hot, but trust me. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken. I use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle.

Preheat the pan over a burner on medium heat for a few minutes. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. The pan should be hot enough that the chicken sizzles.

Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does, but it really should if your oven is at 475°F.

The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over — drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking.

Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, but a 3½ pound bird should be about 10 minutes, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. The chicken should be 170 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh.

Rest the chicken:

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate.

Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken. You can let it rest while you finish your side dishes, as the meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

Simple Tomato Sauce

Start this once the chicken goes into the oven. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a pot until it shimmers. Add salt and black pepper. I generally start with about a quarter teaspoon of pepper and a half-teaspoon of salt.

Sauté for 30 seconds, making sure that the oil does not burn. Add tomatoes to the oil, but remember to do so from a distance, as it will likely splatter.

Bring up to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a blender or food processor and pulse until it is the desired consistency. Transfer back to into pot and simmer until desired flavor, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Keep warm until the chicken is out of the oven. Once the pasta is ready, pour over and serve. A tip for boiling pasta: The water you boil your pasta in should be almost as salty as the ocean, in order to get the best flavor.

Herbed Salad

Start after the first flip of the chicken, but do not dress it until you are ready to eat. This is a very basic salad that emphasizes the freshness of the greens and herbs, so choose a good lettuce like red leaf or butter. Romaine tends to be a bit bitter for this salad.

You can use a variety of herbs, such as parsley, dill, fennel, cilantro, or chives. We use about 1 tablespoon of each herb we are using, but much of this is to taste, so don’t hesitate to experiment.

Toss the lettuce and the herbs in a bowl. Whisk together the olive oil and the lemon juice or vinegar and pour over salad. You may need to adjust the dressing recipe to accommodate the size of your salad.

A tip for dressing the salad: To avoid over-dressing your salad, make sure there is never a pool of dressing in the bottom of the bowl. Salt and pepper salad to taste.