A couple of decades ago, I found myself in dire straits.
Newly single. Leveraged to the hilt. Living in the “bohemian” (read, low-rent) part of town. I had an apartment that was crawling with termites, a downstairs neighbor who screamed every time I walked across my living room, and a landlord who didn’t think a severely backed-up kitchen sink should be his problem. (“That’s what God made bathtubs for,” he said. “The dishes.”)
I was broke, grossed out and — considering I never knew when “Miss Rogers” downstairs was going to start banging on my ceiling — more than a little high-strung. So I did what any maxed-out, newly single, tenement-dwelling girl would do.
I threw a party.
I called my best friend and defrosted a whole chicken. I found some wrinkled oranges and lemons lolling in my fridge. A few wilted onion slices and a couple of shriveled garlic cloves. I stuffed the sad, sad savories into my bird and roasted it at 375 degrees for a couple of hours.
It was delicious!
Thus was born “Poverty Chicken.”
“Poverty Chicken” is a staple at our house now, but the years have been very, very good to it (and to me). I never stray far from the citrus/poultry combination, and I certainly never go shopping for ingredients. The beauty of this dish is its simple use of whatever fruits or vegetables I have on hand to flavor it.
Nowadays, I like to spatchcock the bird for even cooking and browning. Spatchcocking is a fancy-schmancy term for an easy-as-pie technique. Turn your chicken onto its tummy (the legs should be resting against your cutting surface). Using an extremely sharp boning knife or poultry shears, cut out the chicken’s backbone. (You can feel where this is; you can also use the chicken’s “tail” — that little flap of gristle and fat at its rear-end — to guide you). After the backbone is removed, open the bird like a book. Turn it over and press firmly to flatten. (You’ll hear a dull crack as the breast bone gives way.)
Today I like to put a dry rub on the spatchcocked chicken so it marinates in a spice bath. My favorite comes from the late, great Gourmet magazine (we mourn thee every day): Combine 1 tablespoon ground allspice, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in a bowl. Slather the spice mixture all over the flattened chicken.
Then, instead of citrus from the fruit bin, I slide thin slices of preserved lemon underneath the skin. As the chicken roasts (400 degrees for 90 minutes, but check after 60. You don’t want the internal temperature to rise above 165 degrees), the lemon crisps in the oven, giving me a wonderfully tart, salty “chip” with my chicken.
That’s how “Poverty Chicken” has morphed in our house, but it may not be to your liking. And that’s fine! This is a dish you can put your own stamp on. Squeeze citrus juice and drizzle olive oil over the skin before roasting. Marinate the entire bird in a mustard-rosemary-olive oil bath for two to four hours before putting it in the oven. Use lemons only; or limes if that’s all you have. This dish is infinitely adaptable to whatever you do — or don’t — have on hand (which is what made it so perfect when I had no money).
“Poverty chicken.” It generously fed those gathered ’round my table in my newly single squat. It continues to feed my family and friends today.
I hope it does yours, too.