The best part of a roast chicken is the sticky savour left in the pan - and these two recipes make the most of it.For a simple gravy I like to dissolve the goodies from the roasting tin in dry Marsala, Madeira or white vermouth. I find these liquids have a sweetness that carries the savour from the pan very well. But every time I use a dry cider or a fruit liqueur mixed with stock I wonder why I don't do it more often. Add to that list the vegetable stocks and homemade broths, the readymade bouillons and even tap water, and you have an endless supply of suitable liquids to turn into a flavoursome gravy. (Beers are best used for slow cooking, as they take a long time to mellow and lose their bitterness. Try them in a slow-cooked casserole with chicken, pearl barley and onions.)
The point of a roast chicken is not only the meat, the golden skin, the roast potatoes that surround it, but also what collects in the pan while it cooks. The sticky goo, the encrusted bits and bobs, the sweet, salty juices and glossy morsels that adhere to the roasting tin. These inspire us and enrich our gravy, be it thickened with flour or - better, I think - simply dissolved in wine, stock or gravy to make a thin but deeply flavoured juice. But we can make use of these good things in other ways, too.
This week I incorporated this intense source of flavour into a couscous accompaniment for the chicken. By tipping the couscous into the sticky roasting tin, mixing it with a stock (I could have used water) then scraping the pan-stickings into the grains (and yes, I know it's not a grain), you end up with the most flavoursome side dish. All the deep, caramelised flavour from the tin gets used. Nothing goes to waste.
Another good way to use all the flavour a chicken can muster is to lock it in. Yesterday I browned some chicken thighs then pot-roasted them in dry sherry (tossing in some tiddly new potatoes and salted Spanish almonds on the way), covered the pot tightly with a lid and let the chicken cook in the juices. Not a scrap of flavour could get away, and all the goodness seeped into the cooking liquid, which we then flavoured with chervil. It's a tricky little herb to use and can easily get lost, but it gave its all to the dry sherry and chicken liquor.
As much as I relish taking a whole butter-burnished bird from the oven, there are joints that will roast in half the time. Legs, thighs and drumsticks can be on the table in half an hour or so, as the heat doesn't have to penetrate deep into the bird.
I spatchcocked a plump free-ranger this week, flattening the bird out just to cut its cooking time down and saved on heat and temper.
Wings are always worth the money, too. The apparent lack of flesh means little once you start chewing them and they crisp up better than any other cut. Toss them in a little oil and chilli sauce before roasting to form a lip-stinging rust-coloured crust. Cheap, too.
Spatchcocked Chicken with Rocket Couscous
Cutting through the chicken requires a good strong knife, but your butcher should be pleased to help if you prefer. The recipe can be used with joints, too. Thighs and whole legs probably work best. Serves 4.
Chicken 1, medium-sized
Olive oil 4 tbsp
Lemon 1, plus a little extra juice
Thyme about 12 slim sprigs
Garlic a whole head
Chicken stock 500ml
Rocket leaves 100g
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Place the chicken on a chopping board and, using a heavy, sharp knife, cut through the backbone and open the chicken out flat. (If you don't fancy doing this yourself, you can ask the butcher to do it.) Place the chicken, skin-side up, in a roasting tin.
In a small bowl or jar, mix the olive oil and the juice from the lemon. Season with salt and pepper, then add the leaves of three or four of the thyme sprigs. Spoon or pour the oil mixture over the chicken, then add the remaining thyme sprigs. Cut the head of garlic in half and tuck them in around the meat, together with the empty lemon shells.
Roast the chicken for no longer than 45 minutes, by which time the skin should be golden brown and the juices should run clear from the thickest part of the flesh when pierced with a skewer.
Remove the roasting tin from the oven, and put the chicken on a warm plate, covered with foil, to rest. Tip the stock into the roasting tin and gently scrape at the roasting sediment left in the tin, letting it dissolve in the stock, then tip in the couscous, spread fairly evenly, cover the tin tightly with foil or a cloth and leave to swell for 10 minutes.
Wash the rocket then mix it into the couscous with a fork, loosening the grain as you fold the leaves in. Add salt and pepper as you think fit and perhaps a little lemon juice to taste. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve with the rocket couscous.
Chicken, Sherry and Almond Pot Roast
I use the plump, slightly rounded Marcona almonds for this. Rich and sweet, they contribute so much flavour. Whichever type you use, toast them until they are deep gold in colour before adding the liquid. Serves 2.
Chicken 4 large thighs
New potatoes 200g
Salted almonds 80g
Fino sherry 100ml
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Season the chicken thighs, then brown them as evenly as you can in a little oil over a moderate heat. Slice the potatoes into thick coins and add them to the pan, letting them colour lightly. Drop in the almonds, allow to brown a little, then pour in the fino. Leave to bubble for a few seconds to burn off the alcohol, then add 100ml of water, cover with a lid and roast for 25 minutes.
Remove the lid, add a small handful of chervil and serve.
Email Nigel at email@example.com
In Picture: Birds of paradise: spatchcocked chicken with rocket couscous. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer