As I was leafing through Food and Wine Magazine from October 2018, I stopped at an article focused on Richard Olney. In the words of Wikipedia, “Richard Olney (April 12, 1927 – August 3, 1999) was an American painter, cook, food writer, editor, and memoirist best known for his books of French country cooking.” What stopped me in my tracks was the fact that the article, which focused as much attention on Olney as it did Frank Stitt, a Birmingham, Alabama Chef and restaurant owner, was that accompanying the article was an Olney recipe for Roast Chicken. Mr. Olney had once provided me with a recipe for chicken that lingers in memory four years after I made it. (The link follows today’s recipe.)
Stitt, who spent a month working in the kitchen at Olney’s house in the south of France in 1978, chose it out of all Olney’s considerable recipe collections. The man published two phenomenally successful cookbooks. “The French Menu Cookbook” (1970) was followed by the even more successful “Simple French Food” in 1974. By then Olney was a major culinary figure who had a sizeable impact on both “nouvelle cuisine” and California cuisine. The latter was largely because the Doyenne of California cuisine was Alice Waters and Alice Waters could not get enough of Richard Olney. Cooking in her “Chez Panisse” kitchen was none other than Jonathan Tower who would go on to become Richard Olney’s lover.
Olney lived an enviable life. Somehow, the boy from Marathon Iowa made his way to New York’s Brooklyn Museum Art School as he was determined to become a painter. He waited table in Greenwich Village and at age 24, he set off for Paris. He immediately fell in with the American Ex-Pat community, becoming friends with James Baldwin, Kenneth Anger and Ned Rorem among others. His paintings were no match for his kitchen skills and he soon became an authority on food and wine. He was particularly noted for his skill in wine pairings. For this recipe he recommended serving with a great Bordeaux. In the early sixties he re-built a shepherd’s cottage in Solliès-Toucas in Provence. He lived there the rest of his life and he died there in 1999.
Olney also taught cooking classes and the recipe for Zucchini-and-Herb Stuffed Roast Chicken was a particular favorite. It then ended up in “Simple French Food”. Its name neglects several key ingredients that go into its stuffing. Ricotta and parmesan cheeses give it enormous flavor and creaminess to say nothing of keeping the bird beautifully moist. The stuffing rests under wonderfully crisp skin. It relies on spathcocking the bird—that is the process of removing the backbone and flattening the chicken. This makes the chicken cook more evenly and cuts down the cooking time too. I decided to follow a bit of recipe advice which was to prep the dish the day before I was going to serve it. It sat in the fridge overnight absorbing the flavors of the stuffing. The prep the day before makes this a really great dinner party dish as all you have to do is pop it in the oven for about 50 minutes, then let it rest, then carve and serve. You will note that the recipe makes no mention of the overnight technique because it is entirely possible to do this all the same day you will serve it.
Richard Olney's Zucchini-and-Herb Stuffed Roast Chicken
A roast chicken recipe with a surprise under the skin--Zucchini, Herbs and two Cheeses make for a wonderfully moist bird filled with flavor
- 2 pounds zucchini, grated
- 5 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 1 (3 1/2-pound) whole chicken, giblets removed
- 3/4 cup ricotta cheese
- 3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, coarsely grated (about 1/2 cup)
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 2 tablespoons herbes de Provence
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Step 1 Toss together zucchini and 2 teaspoons salt in a colander set over a large bowl. Let stand until liquid is released, about 20 minutes. Transfer zucchini to a clean kitchen towel. Squeeze as much liquid from zucchini as possible.
- Step 2 While zucchini stands, pat chicken dry. Place chicken, breast side down, on a cutting board. Using poultry shears, cut along both sides of backbone, remove and discard backbone.
- Step 3 Turn chicken breast side up. Place a heavy skillet on chicken breast, and press firmly against breastbone until it cracks and breast meat is an even 1-inch thickness. Transfer chicken to a wire rack in a large baking pan. Cut off wing tips at second joint and discard wing tips.
- Step 4 Using your fingertips, gently loosen and lift skin from flesh of breasts, thighs, and drumsticks, being careful not to tear or detach skin. Set spatchcocked and prepped chicken aside.
- Step 5 Preheat oven to 425°F. Stir together ricotta, breadcrumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, softened butter, marjoram, egg yolk, drained zucchini, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper until combined. Stuff zucchini mixture under skin of chicken breast, thighs, and drumsticks
- Step 6 Mold and evenly distribute stuffing, shaping and patting skin on outside of chicken.
- Step 7 Stir together herbes de Provence, remaining 2 teaspoons salt, and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper in a small bowl. Drizzle oil over chicken, and sprinkle with herb mixture.
- Step 8 Bake chicken in preheated oven until skin is lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Bake, basting after 30 minutes, until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest portion of thigh registers 155°F, about 50 minutes.
- Step 9 Remove chicken from oven, and let rest until thermometer registers 165°F, about 20 more minutes. Carve chicken into 8 pieces and serve.
- Step 10 If you’re serving it with this menu of asparagus and fingerling potatoes like I did, one chicken will feed 4 to 6. Double the recipe to feed a crowd.