El pollo greco

Pub date April 18, 2007

Herbs tell stories, and the association of certain herbs with certain experiences can be specific and powerful. Basil, for instance, is summer and tomatoes, while sage is Thanksgiving and bread stuffing. Oregano? Its strong perfume is the smell of pizza — but it’s also Greek. It is, in particular, the herb that gives Athenian or Greek chicken its bewitching character.

For years I tried without much success to create at home a plausible version of the Athenian chicken that we found so irresistible in Greek restaurants. The restaurant chickens often seemed to have been roasted on rotisseries, and while I couldn’t match that, I did have my trusty vertical roasters, which produced (with day-before rubbing of kosher salt and Herbes de Provence) wonderful Zuni-style roast chickens. My basic theory was to substitute oregano for the Herbes; this worked, but the results were underwhelming, certainly no match for their Zuniesque brethren. Smashed garlic and lemon slices under the skin? These helped a little, but the birds still seemed to lack the sought-after verve.

Of course, there is more than one way to roast a chicken. Roasting says oven the way oregano says pizza, but it need not be so. Let us not forget pan roasting, a near relation to braising, in which the item in question is cooked on the stove top in a small amount of fat or other liquid. I had a time-tested recipe for pan-roasted lemon-rosemary chicken; what if I dropped the rosemary in favor of (dried) oregano? I did: eureka!

Start with an oregano-and-salt-rubbed chicken, cut into pieces. Put the pieces in a large nonstick skillet over lively heat for a minute or two, turning occasionally until they’re lightly seared. Add a couple of tablespoons each of sweet butter and olive oil to the pan, along with a good pinch of salt, a heaping tablespoon of dried oregano, and three cloves of smashed, peeled garlic. Cook for a few minutes more, shaking the pan and turning the pieces. Add a cup of dry white wine, and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered, for 30 to 40 minutes, turning the pieces now and then. When the chicken is golden brown, remove from the pan and deglaze with the juice of one lemon. I use a gravy separator for the pan juices, but you don’t have to. Serve the jus on the side and say oompah!

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com