A roasted chicken is one of the most homey and childhood-memory rich dishes you can prepare. For me, it calls back long Sunday afternoons of family gatherings, fun times, tears before bedtime, too much wine (not me, I was too young) and eventually, burnt gravy.
You can easily replicate these memories (hopefully without the tears and burnt gravy) by cooking your own roast chicken at home. It is simple to prepare, extremely satisfying and makes you feel incredibly grown up that you aren't eating take away Chinese food in between rounds of counterstrike.
I was at first hesitant to include this recipe, thinking that it was way too simple and you most likely have a one stashed aside anyway. I read a few lines today however, that changed my mind. They were in a book outlining the correct procedure for writing recipes. The chapter was entitled "Never overestimate your audience" and somewhat derogatorily referred to some recipe readers as "culinary illiterates". The book was referring to mostly younger people, in the 18-35 demographic, that never had the pleasure of standing by in the kitchen during their formative years watching meals being prepared. They could be called the "Take Out" generation. Well, I sincerely hope this was not your case, but if so, cook this recipe and memorize it. Then one day, in the distant future, cook it with your kids. I can assure you they will appreciate it more than you would imagine.
There are a few simple things to remember when roasting a chicken to make sure you open the oven door to success. First and foremost is the bird itself. You may at some stage have heard your grandparents mention that chicken doesn't taste like it used to. Well they aren't simply getting doddery, they have a valid point. Once chicken was considered a very rare treat. It was way too expensive to eat on a regular basis, because rearing chicken for the table properly was an expensive business. Mass produced table chicken is now readily available and cheap, but it has its downsides. I don't really need to expand on the cruelties of battery farming, but from a flavour point of view these birds just aren't the same. The meat you eat is muscle and for muscle to gain flavour requires two important things. Activity and diet. If a chicken is caged up, unable to roam and fed ghastly chemical laden pellets, then you can guess the flavour outcome. Sure they are cheap, but I think I would rather be vegetarian, thank you.
What you need to buy is free range or open range chicken. It is worth the extra expense. Beware of some Corn fed chickens. They are often fed with beta-carotene supplements, or even worse, simply dyed yellow before sale and end up looking like some sort of Big Bird parody. In Australia, the chickens to look for are sold as Barossa Valley Chooks, Thirlmere Poultry or any birds from Glenloth Farms.
Here are some other points to keep in mind. Always fully pre-heat your oven before roasting. If your chicken is frozen, defrost it fully and properly before cooking - that is, in the refrigerator on a kitchen towel lined plate for 24-36 hours. Remove your chicken from the refrigerator for a few hours before cooking and keep it well covered. Roasting the bird from room temperature ensures even cooking. Chickens in Australia are sold by number sizes. A size 15 chicken weighs 1.5 kg (3 lb) a size 20 chicken weigh 2.0 kg, and so it goes. I will give instructions for a size 18, 1.8 kg chicken, as that is a fairly common size these days. It will feed 4-6 with accoutrements.
Pre-heat your oven to 220 C (440 F). Choose a good size roasting pan that will comfortably fit the chicken. Find a cake rack, or similar cooking rack that will fit inside the roasting pan. Rub the chicken all over with the oil (don't get too excited while you do this). Season well with salt and pepper, on the outside of the chicken, along with inside the cavity. Place the garlic cloves inside the cavity, along with any or all of the optional flavourings. Place the chicken sitting on its side, on top of the rack. To the base of the pan add 2 cups (500 ml) water and the onion.
Place in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, turn on its other side, with the aid of tongs and replace in the oven, turning down the temperature to 200 C (390 F). Roast for another 30 minutes and remove from the oven. The skin should have browned nicely and there should be wonderful smells of herbs and garlic. Test to see if the chicken is cooked. Insert a skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. It is the meaty part just above the leg (drumstick). This is the part of the chicken that always takes the longest to cook. Once the skewer is removed, bubbling juices will come out of the entry mark. If the are clear, the chicken is cooked. If they run a little pink, place back in the oven for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Once the bird is cooked, remove from the oven, cover with aluminium foil and set aside for 30 minutes. This is called resting and helps to relax the meat of any roasted dish, so it ends up really juicy. It also gives you time to prepare any accompaniments. Have a look here for some ideas.
When ready to serve, you can try to carve the bird ceremoniously, like in the olden days, but it tastes just as good if you just joint the chicken with kitchen scissors, or a large, sharp cook's knife.
If you are a sucker for roasted vegetables; potato, pumpkin and the like, just cut them into large chunks, no need to peel, toss into a separate roasting pan with olive oil, unpeeled garlic cloves, herbs, sea salt and pepper and start roasting 10 minutes before you cook the chicken. They should be nicely roasted by the time you are ready to serve.