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Classic Chicken Under a Brick

It's worth the effort to scare up a cast-iron skillet. And don't skimp on the fresh herbs. Your reward will be the aromatic bronzed crust that seals in the juices. And your kitchen will smell like a Tuscan trattoria for two days.

3 1/2- to 4-pound frying chicken, backbone removed and spread flat (see instructions)
2 bricks, foil-wrapped (or other weights)

1/3 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons to film skillet
1 cup mixed chopped herbs, including rosemary or sage, in any combination of parsley, thyme, basil, mint, chervil or oregano
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large, 2 small cloves garlic, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried red pepper, or to taste

Garnish: Herb sprigs and 1 lemon, cut in 6 wedges

Remove neck and giblets from chicken; reserve for another use or discard. Pull off and discard any lumps of fat. With poultry shears, cut along both sides of backbone, cutting back completely in two. Save backbone for stockpot. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Pull open and set skin side up on a flat surface; press breastbone with your hand to flatten.

Chop garlic. Sprinkle coarse salt on top. With tines of a fork, crush garlic thoroughly into the salt. Stir garlic paste into 1/3 cup olive oil in a baking dish large enough to hold chicken flat. Add dried red pepper. Coat chicken all over. Pat the mixed chopped herbs onto chicken thickly. Return chicken to container and refrigerate an hour or up to a day.

Using two tablespoons of oil, lightly coat the bottom of a heavy skillet measuring 9 or 10 inches across the cooking surface.

Heat the oil and put the chicken in, skin-side down. Weight with 2 bricks or another heavy skillet loaded with heavy items, at least 10 pounds in all. Cook on medium-low heat for 20 minutes.

Scraping with a spatula turned upside down, loosen chicken and lift to check color. If not deeply browned, turn up heat a bit and cook 5 minutes more. Scrape again to loosen. Turn the chicken, using a large spatula and your other hand protected with paper towels. Weight again and cook 20 minutes. Test for doneness using an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh -- it should read 160 degrees to 165 degrees -- or make a small incision in the thigh with a sharp paring knife. If juice runs clear, chicken is done. Garnish with lemon wedges and sprigs of herbs. Serves 4-6.

Virginia Phillips

More options for preparing Chicken Under a Brick:

Alterations: If your chicken doesn't want to do the lotus position and its untucked legs are a bit long to lie flat in the skillet, trim off the tips of the drumsticks.

Chef's trick: Cook skin-side-down to a golden turn 20 minutes in the skillet or on a grill, then transfer skin-side-up, to a 400-degree oven. Check for doneness after 10 minutes. This can save the day when charcoal briquettes poop out on you prematurely.

A choice of flavors:

Limit the herbal flavoring to rosemary, leaving it in small stems left whole. Add to marinade, then press the stems into the chicken skin to cook. This will make a pretty pattern as the herb cooks into the skin.

Use flat-leaf parsley and oregano and increase the dried red pepper to 2 teaspoons for devilish hot Pollo al Diavolo.

Frenchify: Omit rosemary and sage. Add 1/4 cup Dijon-style mustard and 1/4 cup lemon juice to the marinade.

Take your chickens out to the grill

Sunset Magazine's technique for "brick chix" on the grill browns chickens beautifully and adds a bonus of handsome grill marks. Sunset found it works equally well for Cornish hens, poussins (very young 1 1/2 -pound chickens) and birds as small as quail.

To be able to turn the chicken with its all-important skin intact, it is important to cook on a cleaned grate, using a wire brush or a wadded-up ball of aluminum foil removing any loose bits. It is equally essential to swab the cleaned grate thoroughly with a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil. I found that grates with wider bars, such as gas grills usually have, make it easier to detach the chicken without damage to the skin.

Sunset counsels closing the grill. We departed from the recipe, leaving the grill open throughout. I prefer my chicken less "steamed" and more crisp and found the lid-open method made for crispy outside and juicy inside. I had no oil flare-ups cooking on the gas grill and only minor ones cooking on charcoal.

-- Virginia Phillips

Sunday, October 14, 2001

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