In coastal Delaware, chicken is a signature dish

Intro by Pam George  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the June 2018 issue

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Sussex County native Juan Hernandez knows a thing or two about poultry, one of the state’s most lucrative industries. His father has long worked in a chicken plant, and his mother worked at Georgia House in Millsboro, a down-home restaurant that serves buttermilk-fried chicken and chicken basted with barbecue sauce.

Hernandez grew up in the Long Neck area, and on Sundays the family often gathered for backyard barbecues. While the adults preferred grilled seafood, young Juan gravitated toward chicken and steak. “It’s one of the best memories that I have,” he says of those get-togethers. He couldn’t wait to grow up and be in charge of cooking the meat.

He’s achieved that goal many times over. Hernandez, who was 14 when he started washing dishes at Georgia House, has worked at the Summer House, Bethany Blues and The Pickled Pig Pub.

Currently, he’s the executive chef at Salt Air Restaurant & Bar in Rehoboth Beach. “We have a beach picnic theme,” he says. “It’s farm to table.”
Roast chicken, which you can eat hot or cold, has been a Salt Air staple since Jonathan Spivak opened the restaurant in 2009. That remained true after the Big Fish Restaurant Group purchased the business in 2012.

Hernandez brines the bird for 24 hours, a technique that makes the meat tender.

Salt Air serves this dish with grits. Follow the grits recipe of your choice, or serve the chicken with potatoes or fresh corn on the cob.

BRINED CHICKEN WITH SHALLOT PAN JUS and ROASTED ASPARAGUS

(serves 2)

For the chicken:
1   gallon of water
1   tablespoon of peppercorns
½   cup of kosher salt
1   whole chicken (with any giblets removed), about 3 1⁄2 pounds, washed and patted dry
2   rosemary twigs
2   thyme twigs
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Combine the water, one rosemary twig, one thyme twig, salt and peppercorns in a pot. Bring to a boil on the stove, stirring to dissolve the salt.

Once the water reaches a boil, turn off the burner. After the brine is completely cool, add the chicken. If the chicken isn’t completely submerged, add more water. Place the bird and brine in the fridge for 24 hours.

Take the chicken out of the brine. Pat dry and set aside. Discard the brine water. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Chop the remaining rosemary and thyme leaves. Discard the stems. Generously sprinkle the herbs over the bird. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Place the bird on a roasting pan rack and place that in the preheated oven for 18 minutes. When the timer goes off, rotate the roasting pan 180 degrees. Cook for another 18 minutes. Repeat this process to ensure that the bird cooks evenly. To check for doneness, place a meat thermometer in the thigh. Once the chicken reaches
160 degrees — after about an hour and
12 minutes, depending on the size of the bird and your oven — remove it from the oven and let it rest for about 15 minutes.

Place the chicken breast-side-down with the cavity facing away from you. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut along the spine on both the left and the right. Remove
the spine and set it aside to use for the pan jus sauce.

With a knife, cut through the bird so that you have two halves. (You can also carve the chicken as you would a turkey.)

For the shallot pan jus:
1   shallot, peeled
    Half of a white onion, peeled
    Vegetable oil
½  cup of red wine of your choice
   Chicken spine and any juices from the roasting pan
2   cups of water
   Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the shallot and onion into strips. Coat a saucepan with a drizzle of the oil. Cook the shallot and onions until they’re golden brown and caramelized. Add red wine, and let the mixture reduce by half. Add the chicken spine, juices and the water. Simmer and reduce by two-thirds. Remove the spine. Season the jus with salt and pepper to taste.

For the asparagus:
1   bunch of asparagus, washed with tough stems removed
    Garlic, 2 to 3 cloves, chopped
    Salt and pepper to taste
    Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the asparagus with garlic, salt and pepper. Toss with a drizzle of the olive oil — enough to coat the spears. Roast for
12 minutes.

To serve:

Place your starch of choice on the plate. Place your asparagus across the starch. Put the chicken on the edge. Ladle about 2 ounces of the pan jus on the chicken.