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As someone interested in the history of things—art, cities, household objects, wine—it’s not surprising that one of the most rewarding things I’ve found about working in food is learning about the field’s legends, the people who have influenced a way of cooking, developed a new style, created a signature recipe. Their cuisines span the globe and they differ in many ways, but what they do have in common is making the simplest techniques seem profound.
Such is the case with the late Judy Rodgers and Zuni Café, the beloved San Francisco restaurant she cooked at the helm of for over 20 years. Her dry-brined roast chicken is just about as famous as she, with it’s crisp, somehow-not-fried skin and tender meat.
For a roast chicken to be à la Zuni, there must be three things at play: a smallish bird, high heat, and a good salting 24 hours in advance of cooking. With salt, a few sprigs of herbs, and nothing more, you will eat well; your roast chicken will stand tall, proud in its own crackly skin.
But, if you'd like some variation (you'll want to make this over and over again), you can also dry-brine with different spices, tailored to where your mind is wandering. All you have to do is mix the spices with the salt that you're brining your chicken with. Try Cajun spices, as we've done with this version, or one of these other 4 mixes, the next time you roast a bird:
For when you want something that transports you to Mexico (and maybe the next day, too, during a #notsaddesklunch):
If you want your guests to feel like they just arrived at a Moroccan market:
For a meal that brings to mind southeast Asia:
Adapted slightly from The Zuni Café Cookbook
Serves 2 to 4
For the Cajun spice mix:
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
For the dry-brined roast chicken:
One small chicken, 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 pounds
Cajun spice mix
Photos by James Ransom