Beggar’s Chicken

by Betsy Carnie

Packed in lemon balm or lemon basil, sweet basil, tarragon, thyme, even mint
Beggar’s Chicken

Elizabeth Cecil

The festive and curious Beggar's Chicken cooks slowly, steaming the whole bird— smothered in fresh herbs, wrapped in foil and finally sealed in clay.

I have long wanted to try the legendary Beggar’s Chicken: a whole chicken packed in clay and then roasted. Herbs and edible leaves form a barrier between the chicken and the clay so the meat is steam cooked in aromatics. The clay provides a seal that locks in flavor and juices, producing a moist and tender bird. The celebratory Island-grown whole chicken seemed like an appropriate occasion to give it a try.

Original recipes call for the chicken to be wrapped in lotus leaves to keep the chicken from being in direct contact with the clay. Since lotus leaves are hard to come by here, I packed the chicken with plentiful herbs from the garden (mostly lemon balm, basil, and oregano), wrapped it aluminum foil, and then applied the clay. Once I declared that it was time to open it, the family couldn’t help but gather around and lean in to get a look at the moment of cracking it open like a piñata. After experimenting with many versions that I encourage the curious and adventurous at heart to try too, I offer you the most successful.

Start by making the clay yourself: a kind of playdough which is not meant to be eaten, but serves as the vessel in which to cook the chicken (see below).

Then prepare your chicken how you like: I smeared the inside and outside with minced garlic, salt, and pepper and stuffed it. I made a stuffing with uncased home-made pork sausages, shiitakes from North Tabor Farm, cubed stale bread, and onions and thyme, salt and pepper. I sautéed all of the stuffing ingredients in a skillet and then stuffed my whole chicken. Then I closed the body cavity with a toothpick, laid copious amounts of herbs around it, pressed against the skin, and wrapped the whole bird in heavy-duty aluminum foil, being sure that it was sealed very well. Then I wrapped the bird in my homemade clay, which had been rolled out to about 1/2-inch in thickness. I sealed the seams of the clay package with wet fingers, ensuring that no steam or flavors can escape.

I placed it in a lightly oiled roasting pan and roasted it at 450°F for one hour, then reduced the heat to 325°F and continued to bake for two and half more hours. This bird was so tender, it literally fell off the bone. I actually had to serve it in a bowl.

For the ‘Clay’

4 cups flour
3 1/2 cups table salt
2 cups water

Mix salt and flour together in a bowl. Slowly stir in water. Knead until a stiff dough forms. Add more flour if it seems too wet to work with, because it will be difficult to roll out.