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Between a brick and a hot place: delicious chicken

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Virginia R. Phillips

If you want to make an impression, here's a dish with gravitas. Chicken Under a Brick definitely has weight. If the name sounds Flintstone-esque or Food Channel notion du jour, don't be fooled. The technique is old Italian.

Step by step

1. Spatchcocking: Cut from head to tail on either side of the backbone, so backbone can be lifted out and chicken opened like a book. The splayed chicken will lie flat, but press on breastbone to flatten further. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette photos/Food styling by Marlene Parrish)

It is rediscovered often and deservedly, because it is gorgeous, just about foolproof and madly good, as PG Food Editor Suzanne Martinson reported last Sunday when she described her visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she first enjoyed the dish at the new Ristorante Caterina de' Medici.

The chicken emerges theatrically bronzed, with crispy, garlicky, herb-crusted skin and firm meat that is juicy to the last bite of dark or white. This is pollo al mattone. Pollo, chicken; mattone, brick.

To create this mouthwatering marvel, you will mainly need, as my mom used to say, brute force and ignorance. Plus a supermarket chicken, the right pan, two bricks and a new vocabulary word.

A standard fryer -- most seem to be about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds -- fits well into a 9- or 10-inch skillet.

2. After cutting the chicken, put it into "the lotus position": Tuck drumsticks into slits snipped in the skin between leg and wing. The splayed, whole chicken is then cooked in a cast-iron skillet under two bricks. (Note: On a grill, you halve the chicken, which browns perfectly under a brick.) (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette photos/Food styling by Marlene Parrish)

But not just any skillet. The pan matters. To achieve the legendary deep browning and zesty crust, the essential pan is a black cast-iron skillet. If you can't borrow or steal one, use as heavy a pan as you can find, such as a glazed cast-iron Le Creuset type or a very heavy stainless steel. Nonstick won't work.

Now for the new word: If you want to see a funny look on your butcher's face, ask him to "spatchcock" your chicken. The word sounds as if it must be fowl play in a bar fight. In fact, the term's origin is thought to have had (in Ireland of yore) something to do with dispatching a chicken.

Today it means removing the backbone of a previously dispatched chicken so you can open it out flat like a book.

Do what to the chicken?

3. Chicken prepared in the skillet emerges bronze-crusted from under the weight of foil-wrapped bricks. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette photos/Food styling by Marlene Parrish)

This procedure you can do yourself, using a heavy knife or sturdy poultry shears. I made the mistake of starting with a crummy pair of poultry shears that broke right in my hand.

Lay the chicken breast-side down, with the pointed fatty tail aimed away from you. You will be looking into the neck cavity. Cut lengthwise neck to tail on each side of the backbone. It helps to use a knife to cut through the skin layer lightly first. Then cut all the way through, down one side of the backbone and the other. Lift out the backbone and open the chicken out flat.

Turn it skin side up and push hard on the breastbone -- sometimes called the "keel bone," since it resembles a ship's keel-- with the palm of your hand to flatten the carcass as much as possible. (Some people remove the ribs, too, so you don't bite into the little bones-- a nicety but not essential.)

An aside here: If you could possibly be as absent- minded as I was -- after doing this enough times to know better -- and realize to your horror that you have cut through the breastbone instead of the backbone, don't worry. Simply turn the chicken over and remove the backbone, too. This divides the chicken into neat halves, which grill perfectly under a brick and are convenient to turn.

The point of spatchcocking, as you will have guessed, is to reduce chicken to steak-like thickness so that it cooks fast and evenly. A footnote about spatchcocking: The word is usually applied only to fowl. Butterflying, similarly intended, refers to cutting open a usually boneless piece of meat, fowl or fish to make it a uniform thickness.

At this point the splayed bird will look pretty much like a run-over toad. That must be what the French think, because the Gaelic term for this presentation is en crapaudine -- "chicken in the style of a toad."

Here's an optional refinement: With the chicken skin side up, make a 1/2-inch slit on each side, between the wings and the leg, but closer to the wing. Turn the legs, and tuck the drumstick tips neatly into the little slits.

Now you have a flat, square-ish package that looks quite a bit like a chicken in the lotus position. Your chicken yogi can rest serenely in the refrigerator while you send the explorer in the family out to find bricks and you chop herbs for the marinade.

Bricks, pieces of Belgian block abundant in this town, even ordinary rocks will work. Bricks are ideal because they weigh 5 or 6 pounds each, happen to fit easily in the skillet and distribute a perfect amount of weight evenly. Wrap your bricks or rocks with aluminum foil.

In lieu of bricks, you can weight the bird down by placing a second heavy skillet loaded with heavy household objects on top. Pre-brick, I had great results loading a second skillet with a soapstone Eskimo carving and the base of my Cuisinart.

The key is to use a lot of weight -- at least 10 pounds. To develop that delectable crust, as much of the skin as possible should be pressed against the cooking surface.

Round up good olive oil. Get fresh herbs, if you can, from a yard or farm market. Let one flavor be chicken-friendly rosemary or sage. The rest can be just about any combination of parsley, thyme, chives, basil and mint, any and all. Farm market garlic, firm and juicy, makes a handsome contribution.

Coat your chicken thoroughly with olive oil flavored with mashed garlic, salt and dried red pepper. Pat on the chopped herbs till your chicken looks like a grassy chia pet. This zesty thatch will meld with the chicken skin as it crisps. Refrigerate the marinating chicken up to a day.

A weighty subject

Put a folded newspaper next to the range as a place to plunk your greasy bricks when color-testing the chicken. You'll also need a strong spatula.

The pan should have a light coating of olive oil. When the pan is hot, put the chicken in, skin side down. Place the two foil-wrapped bricks on top, either lying flat or on edge, or one up and one flat, if that configuration fits the skillet better. If the bricks on edge wobble atop the chicken's topography, fastening them together with a rubber band -- the kind the mail carrier snaps around your junk mail -- will keep them securely upright.

Set the heat to medium low. There should be some gentle sputtering going on. After 20 minutes, using a spatula turned over for leverage, scrape hard under the chicken in all directions. This will loosen the bird with its crust intact. Lift and look at the color. If not deeply bronzed, inch up the heat, and let it brown 5 minutes more.

Loosen again. Using the spatula in one hand and with a folded paper towel protecting your other hand, turn the chicken. Replace the weights, and cook 15 to 20 minutes more. Check doneness using an instant-read thermometer. It should read 160-165 degrees. Alternatively, make a small cut in the thickest part of the thigh; if the juices run clear, the chicken is done.

Lift your chicken and place on an herb-fringed platter or serve it right from the cast-iron skillet. Spritz with lemon juice if you like, and garnish with lemon wedges. Using poultry shears or a heavy knife, cut serving pieces -- thigh, drumstick, wings and the breast sections.

Take your time getting other things on the table because pollo al mattone is delicious warm or at room temperature.

This rich dish calls for something tart and pungent, perhaps tomatoes and arugula or sauteed greens with balsamic vinegar (at the CIA, they serve escarole). Also, add something soothing. Polenta with fresh Parmigiano or mashed potatoes with olive oil and basil would be perfect. Uncork an Italian red and be happy.

Virginia Phillips is a Mt. Lebanon-based free-lancer and French translator.

Related Recipes:

Classic Chicken Under a Brick
Sunset's Birds on the Grill

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