45. Stuff the Ballot
Fancy/easy roast chicken, (technically) just in time for the holidays
OK, maybe not easy as in, “someone with absolutely no cooking skills at all will be able to make it perfectly every time,” but still pretty easy. Are there a bunch of steps? Definitely. I have shown in the past that my pursuit of great roast chicken will not by impeded by the number of steps it takes. Because, as I see it, more steps does not equal more difficult. It just means more steps, especially when they are all manageable. And I would call a method that only requires three to five cuts entirely manageable.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first talk about what this chicken is and how it came to be. Last month, Beth’s cousin and his partner invited a bunch of their food-centric friends over for a get-together to which we each bring one of our favourite chicken wing recipes. (If you follow me on Instagram, you will have seen photos of this a while ago.) Being kind of1 competitive, I wanted to make sure I would be the one to bring the best wing of all. (I wasn’t. A fried wing will almost always beat a baked one.) As I was researching recipe ideas, the one kind of wing that piqued my interest was stuffed wings, where the bones are removed and replaced with some kind of filling. There were Japanese wings with stuffed with gyoza filling, for instance. And there was a recipe from Hot Thai Kitchen for wings stuffed with a filling very similar to a spring roll.
I ultimately decided to go with a recipe for fish sauce wings from The Woks of Life, who I have written about before. Those wings are such a solid option and I had made them before. I’d rather not have my first time trying a new technique be in front of an audience.
But when I saw that Hot Thai Kitchen also had a recipe for Thai roast chicken and gravy, the wheels started turning.
I had experimented recently with making a chicken ballotine, a bird that has been completely deboned and then covered with a filling, rolled, and roasted. The recipe I had tried used a filling made of spinach, cheese, and bread. It was terrific and, just as importantly, looked like it was a lot harder to make than it actually was.2
“But,” the wheels that were turning asked me, “what if that Thai roast chicken with gravy and stuffed chicken wings could meet somewhere in the middle? What if you stuffed the whole chicken with spring roll filling instead of just a wing? What would that be like?”
“Wheels,” I said, “I have no choice but to find out.”
The first step is to debone the chicken. I watched a lot of videos on YouTube that made it seem like it would be as difficult as defusing a bomb. Until I saw a video of Jacques Pepin deboning a chicken. (Note to self: if there is a Pepin way, it is the way.)
It may take a few viewings to get it down, but if you follow his method, you will be able to remove all of the bones with just a few cuts (to the chicken that is, I make no guarantees about your fingers), and only a little pulling (again, on the chicken). The first time I tried, it probably took me ten minutes. The next it was more like five. Once you know what you’re doing, it’s no more difficult than dicing an onion. The technique also applies to pretty much any bird from a hummingbird to an ostrich.3
From there the chicken spends a night in the marinade from the HTK roast chicken recipe, a mix of white and black peppercorns, garlic, cilantro, salt, palm sugar, fish sauce, dark soy sauce, and water. Just before the chicken is finished marinating, prepare a stuffing that includes reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms, ground pork, glass (or mung bean4) noodles, garlic, carrot, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. (I simply made the filling from the Hot Thai Kitchen stuffed wings recipe.)
When the chicken is finished marinating, spread the stuffing over what will be the inside of your ballotine, making sure to get some down into the now-boneless cavities of the legs.
Probably the most difficult part of making a ballotine, at least at first, is trussing it. If you have previous trussing experience, applying a series of evenly spaced, interlinked half-hitches will not be too much of a challenge. If you haven’t done much trussing before, the easier way is to cut individual pieces of butcher’s twine, line them up evenly spaced under the length of the rolled-up bird, and then tie each one separately, adding one more around the equator to firm up everything on that axis.
As in the original recipe for Thai roast chicken, build a bed of lemongrass, ginger, galangal, shallots, and makrut5 lime leaves in a roasting pan and place the chicken on top. Roast at 425°—that’s in my convection oven, your oven may be/is probably a bit different—until the skin is nicely browned and the thickest part of the roast measures 165° on an instant-read thermometer. That will take the better part of an hour, depending on how big your bird is. (Mine was just over three pounds.)
Once the bird was done, I followed the HTK recipe to make the coconut milk-enriched gravy (using the whole removed carcass to produce a quick stock instead of just the backbone) and served it with steamed jasmine rice and some sautéed Shanghai bok choy and it was very, very good. The bed of aromatics definitely infused the meat with more flavour and the stuffing made for a very pretty but also tasty addition.
If I had one quibble, it would be that I overstuffed it. Especially towards the leg end of the bird, the proportion of stuffing to chicken got out of whack and there was far more stuffing than chicken. I had a bunch ground pork in the freezer that was larger than the HTK stuffing recipe called for so I scaled it up and figured that since I was stuffing a whole bird instead of a few wings, it would be fine. I would definitely make less stuffing next time.
But Thai stuffing or not, I am fully sold on the idea of ballotines. They’re not terribly hard to make and they give you a platform on which to (good god I hate that phrase and the one I’m about to type) surprise and delight your guests when you cut into it. Will there be spring roll filling? Gyoza filling? Cabbage roll filling?6 It looks very fancy and, as a bonus of sorts, gives you a way to serve a whole chicken to friends who have an aversion to eating meat on the bone.7
Much like I am not abandoning Neapolitan and New York-style pizza now that I have come to love Pizza Romana, I will also not be abandoning my absolutely lights-out whole roast chicken recipe that draws equally from Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe recipe and Kenji Lopez-Alt’s recipe for Cook’s Illustrated in 2008. Nor the fantastic recipe from Zingerman’s that spatchcocks a bird over a pan of bread and vegetables to soak up all the chicken juices. In my chicken’s house8 there are many mansions.
What I’m consuming…
The first, unforgettable time I heard Shane MacGowan sing was when I bought the Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace With God in March of 1988. I have no idea how, so close to the end of my first year of university, I managed to have the cash to be buying albums, but I did. And the first time I heard Kirsty MacColl was on the fourth track, “Fairytale of New York.” You’ve heard it. You know what kind of magic it is. In the spring of 19889 I was a dumb 18 year old and it was just a track on an album. But when Christmas rolled around that year, it was everywhere.
I have a friend whose audio company used to throw a Christmas party every year featuring a lineup of some of Toronto’s best singers and musicians performing seasonal songs. I once asked him why they never played “Fairytale” and he told me that every year they tried to work up a version, but that no one could ever make it sound right. I think Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill, singing it at Shane’s funeral earlier this month, absolutely nailed it. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it since I found it a few days ago.10
For all the recipes that claim to be “weeknight” versions of foods like cassoulet that would usually take a long time to make, I feel like there should be a parallel category of recipes that will make it look like you absolutely slaved over it though it proved actually quite manageable.
Breaking down all fish is essentially the same regardless of the species, with a few outliers. I don’t know why I was so surprised when I learned in a butchering class with the chicken-wing gang that the basic muscle structure, and thus the technique for breaking them down, is also the same for most mammals—or at least the ones we eat.
Glass and mung bean noodles are the same thing. I only wanted to point that out.
There’s disagreement about whether the term “kaffir lime” is rooted in a South African racial slur. But whether it is or isn’t, The Plate Cleaner strives not to use words that are homophones of racial slurs. The Plate Cleaner also stands with nurses’ unions. (IYKYK)
Holy shit. I just thought of this as I was typing that sentence. Line the deboned bird with cabbage leaves and then spread on some pork and rice mixture. Add little cubes of gelled chicken stock to make it like a soup dumpling and you would have both a roasted chicken and a cabbage roll. With a tomato-based gravy? Patent pending patent pending patent pending. This is my next ballotine. This is why you read the footnotes. All of the non-footnote readers will never have the chance to steal this recipe from me before I am able to publish it.
Please, no one who works at an ad agency with any hiring power do the math on how old I am.
How do I reconcile my statement that The Plate Cleaner abhors slurs while posting something that straight-up includes a slur? To be honest, I don’t know. It’s part of a beautiful song that kinda sucks in that regard, even if you can explain it away by saying it’s someone singing it in character and context. If someone re-recorded the song (well) with the slur removed that would work for me. Regardless, The Plate Cleaner stands with nurses’ unions.