If you’ve ever browsed the meat case at your local butcher around the holidays, then you’ve seen the few plump, round capons that many of them inevitably carry. A lot of people assume that capons, like guineafowl, are a species apart from the common chicken when, in fact, capons are just male chickens that have been castrated at an early age. The procedure causes the birds to store more fat—both in their skin, and in their flesh, which accounts for their buxom appearance. (For the interested reader, there’s an intriguing history of the capon over at Modern Farmer.)
My own familiarity with capons started out secondhand. Growing up, my mother and her aunts often made an Anglo-Indian dish called Country Captain, a sauté of chicken topped with drifts of crisp, caramelized onions. The differing explanations of the dish’s unusual name are too numerous to get into though, needless to say, each family has its own pet theory. My mother and her aunts claim that the dish was traditionally made with capons, and that the “Captain” of the name is actually a variation on “capon.” Whether this is true I’ll leave to someone else to argue over.
In the meantime, I offer up this take on a roasted capon that's a perfect centerpiece for any holiday table and a nice alternative to turkey, and much more affordable than a goose or a duck. I’ve suggested using a blend of dried fenugreek greens, coriander seed, cumin seed, and red chile flakes that provides a spicy foil to the richness of the meat. I serve the bird with an accompaniment of bitter-sweet grilled radicchio dressed simply with pomegranate molasses, olive oil, and dill but it would be just as good with a salad of mixed dressed lettuces or whatever other green strikes your fancy.
A Note on Cooking:
Salting and Cooking Temperature: The flesh of the capon, true to reputation, is rich, compact, and retains much more moisture than your run-of-the-mill turkey or chicken. Though the extraordinary plumpness of the capon is, undeniably, an asset, it does present some small logistical problems. The juiciness that keeps the bird from drying out can, if left unchecked, produce a gushing, too-moist bird, even when fully cooked. To counter this, salt and air-dry your bird for at least a day in the refrigerator. This will draw out some of the extra moisture in the capon (and give the salt a chance to properly season the flesh). Secondly, though most chicken and turkey recipes recommend cooking to an internal temperature of 165°F and letting the residual heat cook the bird through to 170°F, I highly recommend cooking your capon a little beyond the usually recommended point. And if you find, when you remove the legs from the carcass that they are still a little too moist for your taste, this is easily fixed: just put them in a pan and pop them back in a 400°F oven for 15–20 minutes or until done to your satisfaction.
Pan juices:This recipe makes a scant 1/2 cup or so of sauce, just enough to nap the breast meat of the capon. If, at any point during roasting the juices at the bottom of the pan begin to burn, add a little more water to the bottom of the pan. And if the skin seems to be browning too quickly and the capon isn't cooked through yet, tent the roasting pan with a sheet of foil.
A Note on Ingredients:
Radicchio di Chioggia is the variety of radicchio most commonly found in American supermarkets. A deep magenta colour, these bitter lettuces are each the approximate shape and size of a large grapefruit. If you prefer to use another variety of radicchio, feel free: there are some lovely ones to choose from and each will add its own unique flavor to the dish.
Kasuri methi are desiccated fenugreek greens. These can be found fairly easily in most Indian grocery stores. If you’re feeling ambitious and have access to fresh fenugreek, you can even make your own. Simply wash the greens, lay them out on clean paper towels and leave on a sheet pan in a turned-off oven overnight or until completely dry. Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot. Conversely, if you can't find fenugreek, feel free to adapt the recipe to what you have available!
Roast Fenugreek Capon with Grilled Radicchio
1 7–8 lb capon, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon red chile flakes
3 teaspoons kasuri methi (see Note on Ingredients)
Apple cider vinegar
2 heads radicchio di Chioggia (see Note on Ingredients)
Salt and pepper to taste
At least 24 hours before you plan on cooking the capon, salt it thoroughly, using at least ¾ teaspoon of sea salt per pound. Thoroughly salt both the skin and the cavity of the bird.
Place the capon breast-side-up on a rack in a roasting pan and refrigerate, uncovered, in the refrigerator, for at least 24 hours.
Two hours before you plan on cooking the capon, take it out of the refrigerator to let it come up to room temperature.
In a small cast-iron pan, gently toast the coriander seed and cumin till fragrant. Let the two cool before adding them to a spice grinder or mortar along with the red chile flakes and methi and grinding till very fine.
Combine all the spices in a small bowl with 2–3 tsp of olive oil and mix to combine.
Using your hands, massage the spice-and-oil mixture onto the capon, making sure to get under the skin of the breast. Set aside until ready to cook.
Half an hour before you start cooking, place a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 450°F.
When the oven is preheated, place the capon breast-side-up, in its rack, in a heavy roasting pan (cast iron is ideal) and place in the oven, making sure that the legs are facing the back of the oven to ensure that they cook faster than the breast.
Cook, undisturbed, for 30 minutes.
Remove the capon from the oven and turn the heat down to 375°F. Using heatproof gloves, or two non-terrycloth kitchen towels, turn the capon breast-side-down on the roasting rack. Pour 1 cup of water in the bottom of the pan and place the pan back in the oven, once again making sure the legs go into the oven first.
Bake for another 40 minutes.
Remove the capon from the oven and turn it over one last time. Baste the breast of the capon with the accumulated pan juices and return to the oven for 30 minutes longer.
Remove the capon from the oven. The skin should be an even, golden brown and the skin on the breast and thighs should have rendered out most of its fat and feel papery and crisp. Check the temperature at the thickest point of both thighs with an instant-read thermometer. The thermometer should read 170 and the juices that flow from the point where you inserted the thermometer should be golden and clear without any trace of pink.
Remove the bird, in its rack, to a wide platter, and loosely tent it with foil. Pour the juices from the pan into a glass measure and set aside so that the juices and the fat can separate.Make sure to scrape up any bits of caramelized juice from the bottom of the pan as well.
While the capon is resting, prepare the radicchio. Cut each head of radicchio into 6 wedges, making sure that each wedge is held together by a piece of the core. Heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until the oil begins to shimmer.
Working in batches, sear the radicchio until caramelized and dark on both sides. Remove the wedges to a plate as they come off the heat.Add more oil to the pan as needed.
Sprinkle the wedges of grilled radicchio with salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and pomegranate molasses. Garnish with sprigs of dill.
Use a baster with a bulb to siphon the pan juices out of the bottom of the glass measure, taking care not to disturb the layer of fat above it. Add the pan juices to a small saucepan with a splash of apple cider vinegar and cook on high heat till glossy and thick. Adjust salt as needed. This will make a scant ½ cup of sauce, just enough to nap the carved breast meat.
Place the radicchio around your serving platter. Carve the capon as you would a chicken or a turkey, into drumsticks, thighs, and wings. Separate the breast from the carcass and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange the carved capon in the middle of the platter, drizzle with the hot pan juices and garnish with sprigs of dill. Serve immediately.