Whether you built your own outdoor, wood-fired oven or purchased one like we did from Forno Bravo, pizzas are just one of the many items that can be made in your oven. From artisanal breads to roasted chicken, with a little practice, your oven can be used for a wide range of dishes. Thanks to the cottage food law in Wisconsin, we’re perfecting our Latvian rye bread. Sometimes recipes can leave your indoor kitchen smoky. So, being able to prepare an oven roasted dish outdoors may make the best sense.
On a recent culinary excursion to Ypsilanti, Michigan, I had a chance to savor a farm-to-table meal at Ollie Food & Spirits where Chef Travis Schuster prepared his mouth-watering Helen’s Chicken, an herbed breadcrumb encrusted, oven roasted chicken. The moist chicken with its unique pesto coating blew me away with its flavor.
As it turns out, Chef Schuster is serious about farm-to-table cuisine at Ollie Food & Spirits, having spent some time in the growing fields as a farmer himself. “The food is important and unbelievably delicious, sure, but the real benefit for me is getting to know these people that I rely on for ingredients,” he explains related to his approach to working with farmers.
“This is how we build strong, lasting communities and foodways,” Schuster says. “I want to get to know a person, their stories, what drives them. I'm way more likely to pay top dollar for a pretty good tomato from someone who is passionate about taking care of the land than for a ‘perfect’ tomato from someone who's just trying to make money. Luckily, the farmers I work with are both passionate about the land and grow mind blowing tomatoes.”
“The stronger the interpersonal relationships within our foodways, the more sustainable and secure they become,” he adds. “This is something that industrialized and commodity farming completely destroyed. If I need something for the kitchen and one farmer doesn't have it, odds are they'll point me to a neighbor. Conversely, if a farmer comes to me with an ingredient I don't have a need for, I can usually find another chef that does. We all want each other to succeed, and success for us means a healthy community with easy access to nutritious and sustainable food.”
Under Schuster’s direction, Ollie Food & Spirits’ menu changes every couple of months and is based on what’s seasonally available and fresh locally. “I came to cooking from farming,” shares Schuster. “I started off interning and volunteering, and eventually met someone like minded and we leased an acre. We sold produce to several restaurants. I'd always had an amateur passion for cooking and it was only a matter of time before I followed the food into the kitchen.”
After some nudging, Chef Schuster shared his amazing chicken recipe below, perfect for those of us with a wood fired outdoor oven, since roasting the chicken at a high temperature can result in some smoke. “This is a recipe from my childhood based on the herbed breadcrumb encrusted chicken breasts that my grandma would feed us whenever we visited her home in Dearborn, Michigan,” explains Schuster. “While I don’t have much of an appetite for boneless skinless chicken breasts coated in canned breadcrumbs these days, I often yearn for the comfort and warmth of my grandma’s kitchen, which I hope you’ll find captured in this dish.”
“The idea behind this method of roasting a chicken which I picked up working at Spencer in Ann Arbor is to dry out the skin while locking in moisture, using salt and exposure to open air,” explains Schuster. “You then roast the chicken at a very high temperature so that the outside crisps up perfectly while the desired internal temperature is hit so quickly that very little moisture has time to escape. The result perfectly crispy skin and juicy, flavorful meat.” He’s not exaggerating on this point one bit.
“To roast the chicken, get the oven very hot,” advises Schuster. “At the restaurant, we roast the chicken at 500-degrees Fahrenheit, which tends to produce quite a bit of smoke, so make sure there is some ventilation.” This is why an outdoor, wood-fired oven makes perfect sense for this recipe. For those who want to give this recipe a try inside with a conventional home oven, prepare yourself for a smoke detector nightmare. Make sure you can vent your kitchen and be able to open the windows, if need be.
“For this method you’ll want a four to four and a half pound bird,” he adds. “And, of course, always try to get a fresh, local, free-range bird. The difference in flavor and texture is between a small farm bird and what you find in the supermarket is monumental.” His last point is nothing new for many of us homesteaders raising our own broilers.
By Chef Travis Schuster, Ollie Food & Spirits
Ingredients for Chicken
• 1 whole chicken (fresh and free-range, if at all possible)
• ¼ cup kosher salt
Ingredients: For the Simple Pesto Rub
• 2 cups basil (try and find some different varieties, we use a blue basil that has wildly unique flavor)
• 1 cup greens (we use our leftover turnip and radish greens, but pretty much anything you have about will do: spinach, arugula, chard, etc.)
• ½ cup extra virgin olive oil (or whatever oil you prefer to cook with)
• juice of half a lemon
• 1½ tsp. salt
• 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, toasted to a light gold
1. The day before you want to roast the chicken, remove it from its packaging and pat it dry with paper towels. Set it on a roasting rack over a cookie sheet and rub all over, inside and out, with salt. “It will seem like too much, but it’s not, trust me,” says Schuster. Once nicely covered with salt, put in the bottom of your fridge (not in a drawer) UNCOVERED, and let rest overnight.
2. To roast the chicken, get the oven very hot. At the restaurant, the chicken is roasted at 500-degrees Fahrenheit, which tends to produce quite a bit of smoke. Make sure there is some ventilation. An hour before you’re ready to roast the chicken, pull it out of the fridge and let it sit out to take the chill off of it. Just before roasting, truss the chicken and place it on a roasting rack. Roast the chicken until the internal temperature hits 155-degrees Fahrenheit, rotating once.
3. While the chicken roasts, make the Simple Pesto Rub. Combine everything in a food processor or blender and process until smooth, scraping down the sides once or twice. If you don’t have either of those appliances, simply mince the greens and basil up and stir everything together in a bowl.
4. Once the chicken is out, lower the oven temperature to 450-degrees Fahrenheit. Now apply the pesto and breadcrumbs to the chicken. The easiest way to do this is to put on a pair of latex or vinyl gloves to protect your hands from the hot bird, and rub the pesto all over it. If you don’t have gloves on hand, try using a silicone brush or wait until the bird cools enough to apply it by hand without gloves.
5. Once coated in pesto, sprinkle all over with a hefty layer of toasted breadcrumbs, using your hands to press some onto the sides and legs. Place the bird back in the oven (careful, the pan is likely still hot!) and roast another ten to fifteen minutes, until the internal temperature hits 165-degrees Fahrenheit. Let the chicken rest for ten minutes before carving.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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