Zuni Chicken! It’s an iconic San Francisco recipe, so it seems fitting to be the center of a short story – What Could Go Wrong?  In the story, a Moroccan chef in San Francisco gets anxious about meeting his Hindu-Indian girlfriend’s parents for the first time. As you know, a Hindu and Muslim relationship is quite extraordinary. The two cultures have very different customs, and a Hindu marriage is not even recognized under Islamic laws. It seems that everything goes wrong for the poor guy in his effort to make a beautiful dinner for his, hopefully, future in-laws. But, in the end, he gets the most important part of the evening right.

One of my favorite meals in the world is Zuni chicken. Many of you remember the talented Judy Rodgers from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. The restaurant was always one of my favorites and this particular dish has always held a special place in my heart and stomach! In Judy’s cookbook, she implores three important aspects of the dish: 1) using a small chicken, 2) cooking at a very high heat, and 3) salting the chicken at least 24 hours in advance. Finding small chickens under 3.5 pounds is difficult, but it is essential to the recipe. Judy also says, “But if the chicken is about the method, the bread salad is more about the recipe. Sort of a scrappy extramural stuffing, it is a warm mix of crispy, tender, and chewy chunks of bread, a little slivered garlic and scallion, a scatter of currants and pine nuts, and a handful of greens, all moistened with vinaigrette and chicken drippings.” Doesn’t that sound amazing? If you think it sounds good, wait until you taste it!

 

Using high-quality bread is as important as the chicken, so dust off those COVID-induced bread making skills! It needs to be open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread, and if it is one day old, even better. I have trouble finding currants where I live, but I have successfully substituted white raisins. I have also substituted Frisée for other greens when I can’t find it.

This recipe lends itself well to entertaining, as many steps can be done in advance. Enjoy Zuni Chicken!

Chicken Ingredients

1 (2.75-3.5 poundsfree-range whole chicken
4 (4-inch) thyme sprigs
4 small garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped
3 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Bread Salad Ingredients

1 tablespoon warm water (90°F to 110°F)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried currants
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces day-old, open-crumb, chewy, rustic bread loaf (not sourdough), cut into large (2-inch) chunks (about 2 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup, trimmed and thinly sliced crosswise
2-3 garlic cloves, slivered
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
4 ounces lightly packed greens (preferably frisée, arugula or mustard greens)

Directions

  1. Gently loosen the skin from the chicken breasts and thighs using your fingers. Stuff thyme and garlic under the skin, spreading them in an even layer. Sprinkle salt and pepper evenly over the chicken. Place the chicken on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 24 hours or up to 48 hours.

  2. Make the bread salad: Preheat the oven to 450°F. In a small bowl, stir together 1 tablespoon warm water and red wine vinegar. Add the currants and soak until plumped, about 10 minutes. Drain the currants and set aside.

  3. Whisk together 1/2 cup olive oil and Champagne vinegar in a small bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper.

  4. Toss together bread and 2 tablespoons olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet until well combined. Bake in preheated oven until lightly toasted, 8 to 12 minutes, flipping bread once halfway through baking time. Let stand on baking sheet until cool enough to handle, 5 to 10 minutes; tear bread into smaller, bite-size (1- to 1 1/2-inch) pieces. Toss bread with three-quarters of dressing (about 1/2 cup) in a large bowl, and let stand until bread absorbs liquid, about 15 minutes.

  5. Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-low. Add scallions and garlic; cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in toasted pine nuts. Transfer to bowl with bread. Add currants and toss until well combined.

  6. Spoon bread salad into a shallow 8-inch square baking dish. Cover loosely with aluminum foil; bake in a preheated oven until heated through, about 15 minutes. Uncover and bake until the tops of the bread cubes are dry and the bottoms are lightly browned, 6 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven; set aside.

  7. Increase oven temperature to 500°F. Wipe skillet clean, and transfer to oven to preheat for 8 minutes. Remove the heated skillet from the oven, and add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to the hot skillet, swirling to coat. Pat chicken dry, and carefully place in skillet, breast side up. Roast at 500°F until juices run clear when a thigh is pierced using a knife and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion of the breast and thigh registers at least 160°F to 165°F, 45 to 55 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

  8. Tilt chicken and cutting board over skillet, and drain juices into drippings. Skim fat from juices in skillet, and bring to a simmer over medium-low; stir and scrape the bottom of skillet to soften any hard golden drippings using a wooden spoon, about 1 minute. Return bread salad to a large bowl; drizzle with a spoonful of pan juices, and toss. Add greens and the remaining 3 tablespoons of dressing; fold until well combined.

  9. Cut chicken into pieces. Arrange bread salad mixture and chicken on a platter. Serve immediately.