Poulet en Cachette

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This is by far the most dramatic chicken dish you could possible make. The secret is that it's actually really easy. Building the shell of salt around the chicken is both fun and practical; it seals in the bird, helping it to cook quickly and evenly. The flavor and scent of the herb paste intensifies beneath the shell, strongly perfuming the chicken, so make sure it's a combination of flavors that you love. You can serve this as simply or theatrically as you like. Once you remove the salt dome you can continue to excavate the chicken and then carve it. Alternatively, take the un-domed chicken to the table and let diners pull away the salt, extricating their desired pieces of chicken with their hands. Served with dips and spreads, you can turn a dinner party into an event. Either way, be sure to remove the skin before eating — it will be totally inedible. Yields 4 servings.

Herb Paste:

  • 1 lemon
  • 2 stalks rosemary
  • 2 stalks oregano
  • Big pinch red pepper flakes
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

Chicken:

  • 3 to 3½ pound chicken, best quality

Salt Crust:

Tools:

  • Butcher's twine
  • Aluminum foil
  • Sheet pan

Instructions:

  1. Preheat an oven to 425°F. Remove the top rack and move the bottom rack to the lower third position.
  2. Cut the lemon into quarters or sixths. Strip the leaves from the rosemary and oregano. Crumble the bay. quarter the garlic. Combine the lemon, rosemary, oregano, red pepper, bay leaves, and garlic in a food processor and blitz until all the garlic and lemon are broken down.
  3. With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil, using just enough to make a thick paste; it must not be runny.
  4. Truss the chicken any way you like. Just be sure it's well tied so the wings and thighs are tucked in close to the body.
  5. In a large bowl, measure out 4 pounds of salt. While stirring with one hand, slowly drizzle in the egg white. After a bit, start scrunching the salt together with your hand to thoroughly incorporate the egg white. After ¾ cup has been added, check for cohesion: scrunch a handful in the palm of your hand and release. It should hold its shape completely but not weep liquid. If more egg white is needed, first mix thoroughly for a minute, then drizzle a little more in. If more salt is needed, pour in slowly while mixing.
  6. Cover the sheet pan with foil to protect it, shiny side up. Using about a quarter of the salt mixture, make an oblong base even in thickness and an inch wider than the chicken all around.
  7. Cover the breast side of the chicken with the herb paste then quickly flip it over and onto the center of the salt base in one smooth motion. Spread the rest of the herb paste onto the back of the chicken, pushing it down off the backbone and around the thighs.
  8. A handful at a time, pack the salt mixture around the chicken. I find it easiest to place it on top then push it down around the sides. You want to create a dome shape that is fairly even in thickness all the way around. Rotate the pan frequently so you don't fixate on one spot. If you can see the pink of the chicken through the salt, you need to add more. Any exposed areas will leak during roasting and compromise the structure. Should you run out of salt mixture, make up some more.
  9. You will need to take the temperature of the thigh so take a mental note of where it is within the shell. Carefully insert into the oven and roast for 35 to 45 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads at least 155°F. 
  10. Remove from the oven and let it cool for least 20 minutes. The chicken will stay hot for at least an hour.
  11. When you're ready, use your knife like an axe to break the shell about a third of the way up from the bottom, all the way around. Be careful not to hit it so hard you whack the chicken. Start slowly and shallowly and the structure should give way eventually. Remove the dome in one piece to reveal the perfectly cooked chicken inside. Serve as desired (see headnote).