Roasted chicken is probably the simplest meal there is for impressing guests. It's economical, elegant, delicious, and looks like a lot of work when it isn't. It's also incredibly versatile, whether you want your chicken to be lemony, herbed, spice rubbed, or plain.
The biggest fear when doing a roast like this is that it won't be moist. Although there are a lot of variations on flavor and style, there are really only a few things that matter for ensuring a juicy bird.
Here's what I like to do:
Simple Roast Chicken
Special equipment: butcher's twine or cooking string, for trussing the bird
One 3-4 lb. roaster chicken
1 head garlic
1/2 TBSP Paprika
Oil or butter
Any other veggies, such as potatoes
Fresh herbs (optional)
Let the bird come to room temp for a couple hours before you begin. If you're planning in advance, you can prep. the bird the night before and let it rest in the fridge overnight, then let it come to room temp. before baking.
Preheat the oven to 450f. If your oven heats from the bottom, move the rack to the lower third, otherwise leave it in the middle.
I like to buy my meats from the meat counter rather than pre-packaged, especially when I'm working with poultry. That way I can clear some counter space, unwrap it, and do all the prep work in the wrapping. This makes for easy clean up, which is especially important when it comes to raw chicken.
Rinse the bird, inside and out, and check for any stray feathers or flecks of down (especially if your bird is organic). If it still has innards or giblets, remove them. Then pat the bird dry very thoroughly inside and out with paper towel. Again, be as thorough as you can be - the dryer the skin the better the roast.
In a small bowl combine 1 TBSP kosher salt with 1/2 TBSP cracked black pepper. Put half of this mix in the palm of one hand, and insert the hand, palm up, into the chicken. Rub the seasoning all over the top half interior of the bird, then refill your hand, turn the bird over, and season the other inner half. Be sure the salt is evenly distributed.
To season the outside, many think it's best to go beneath the skin first. Since it isn't really necessary I usually skip this step, so if you're afraid you might break the skin you can go ahead and just season the top. If you do want to salt beneath the skin, start at the back end of the chicken, neck end away from you, and work your fingers beneath the skin around the legs and thighs, working your way up the bird. Once the skin is mostly separated from the flesh, apply some salt and pepper (1/2 TBSP and 1/4 TBSP?) evenly with your fingers.
If the bird feels a little damp, pat the exterior dry again before seasoning. Lightly rub the bird with oil, or melted butter, and sprinkle salt over the bird, top, bottom, and sides. Hold your hand about 6-8 inches over the bird to ensure an even distribution. Crack pepper the same way, over the entire bird.
Sprinkle 1/4 TBSP paprika on the top side of the bird, and rub in with your fingers - do the same to the opposite side. The paprika is certainly optional, or could be traded out for any number of other herbs or spices depending on what flavor you're going for. You could use lemon zest, or cayenne, or garlic powder, or curry and cumin - whatever is your fancy. I like paprika because it's simple, not an overwhelming flavor, and adds a little color.
Slice lemon and full head of garlic in half, and stuff inside the bird. This will add a only a hint of lemon to the meat of the bird (if you want more lemon flavor, zest the lemon first and season the chicken with the zest), but will help add moisture to keep the breast meat from drying out.
At this point you can also stuff the chicken with any fresh herbs you want, such as thyme, rosemary, tarragon, etc.
Now for 'trussing' the bird. Trussing is a method of tying the legs and body so that the bird cooks evenly, which means no dry breast meat. It also keeps any stuffing's inside, and holds the bird in shape. There are a bunch of different ways to go about this, from simply knotting the ankles together to complicated stringing techniques.
Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman have a quick, simple tutorial video, which I've embedded below. Polcyn's method is easy to do, effective, and is what I tend to use.
Once your chicken is stuffed, seasoned, and trussed, place it (breast side up) in a roasting pan, Pyrex baking dish, or oven safe saute pan.
Quarter your onion, and cut your carrot into hearty chunks and arrange around the chicken in the pan. Place in the oven, and bake for 40-60 minutes. The cooking time depends primarily on the size of your chicken, so check it on the early side. If you have an instant read or meat thermometer, it should read 170 when inserted into the center of the thigh, or 165 in the center of the breast. Otherwise, you should look for the skin to be thin and pulled taught between the legs and body, and for the juices to run clear when the dark meat is pierced.
Once the bird is done, remove from the oven and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before carving, to let the juices redistribute. Some people like to tent foil over the bird at this point, to keep it from drying out, but I haven't found this necessary. You can if you want to, or if it will be a little while before serving and you want to keep the roast warm.
(If I may be so bold... Bam!)
You can serve the bird as it is, drizzled in pan juices or slathered in butter, or simmer the pan juices along with chicken stock, white wine, and corn starch to make a gravy.
On it's own, as a centerpiece, with veggies and mashed potatoes, as a side, in a sandwich, on a salad... I can hardly begin to hit all the selling points, here. You could even do a spicy rub and then slather it in barbeque sauce! From elegant to finger lickin' in one fell swoop.