February 1, 2011

For Perfect Roast Chicken, Get Yourself a Brick

The next must-have kitchen gadget isn't at Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma. It's at Home Depot.

This isn't to deny my affection for fancy kitchen implements. The only way you'd take away my Le Creuset Dutch oven is from my cold, dead hands! But I must confess my adoration of the humble brick. I owe it my gratitude for its role in helping make the most flavorful and moist roast chicken I have ever made.

I take roast chicken seriously. There's perhaps no better test of a cook to get it right. It's simple, but not easy. Two things usually foul (fowl?) up roast chicken. The first is insufficiently brown, or worse, rubbery skin. A more glaring fault is dry, stringy breast meat. That's because chicken breasts, like those of other birds, cook more quickly than the legs and thighs. By the time the latter cook completely, the former too often have entered shoe leather territory.

A brick (and pair of sturdy scissors) address these shortcomings. You'll need the scissors, or a sharp knife, to remove the chicken's backbone—an easy feat that will take no more than 1 minute—so that it lays open like a book. The brick forces the chicken flat, ensuring even cooking. In 45-50 minutes—much less time than conventional roasting techniques—you'll pull a perfectly cooked bird from the oven, with the requisite crisp, golden skin to match.

A note about the chicken itself: I highly recommend the Empire kosher brand, which I find at Trader Joe's. I won't pretend to be an expert on kosher slaughter techniques, but I know the process involves salting the meat, a practice that boosts flavor and helps the chicken retain moisture. (You can achieve the same effect by soaking your chicken in cold salted water, a procedure known as brining. Click here for a primer.) I give the chicken an added boost with a marinade of equal parts lemon and olive oil and fresh herbs. Rosemary and thyme are classic chicken-friendly herbs, but tarragon would pair nicely too.

Below you'll find a step-by-step guide to chicken under a brick, or as the Italians call it, chicken al mattone. (It always sounds better in Italian, doesn’t it?)

First, turn the chicken breast down, and with a sturdy pair of scissors, cut along one side of the back bone. Cut from one side to the other. Repeat on the other side of the backbone. The bone will be your guide. (When you attempt this maneuver, you'll see what I mean.)

Next, flatten the chicken with the palm of your hand as if you were mistreating a book. Rub the marinade on the front and back of the chicken. I prefer an all-day marinade, but an hour or two will do in a pinch. Any longer, though, would be a bad idea. The lemon juice may start "cooking" the chicken.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. In an oven-proof frying pan, saute the chicken, breast side down, in a couple tablespoons hot olive oil for approximately 7 minutes. The chicken should be well-browned.

Wrap the brick in foil (see below) and set it atop the chicken, with the chicken remaining breast side down. This will ensure even cooking and perfectly browned skin. Insert pan in oven and roast for 30 minutes. (When my chicken is on the smaller side, around three pounds, I usually roast it for a little less, around 27 minutes.)

Remove the brick and carefully turn the chicken so that it's breast side up. Return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes. (After 10 minutes, I check to see if the chicken is done. Some fancy-pants cooks might advocate use of a thermometer. I prick the leg or thigh with a fork, and if the juices run clear, it's done.)

It's important to let the chicken rest for at least 10 minutes after roasting. As tempting as it looks, resist the temptation to carve into it. Its juices will end up on the cutting board rather than in your mouth. Loosely cover it with foil to keep it warm.

When you're ready to eat, you'll find it easy to cut into serving pieces. I love to serve roasted chicken with crusty bread and white beans, briefly sauteed in olive oil and rosemary. I'll also braise a hearty green, such as kale or Swiss chard, in olive oil and garlic. All complement the simplicity of the chicken so elegantly.

The last step is optional, though highly recommended: This dish, like any meal, is best enjoyed with special company. In this case, it was my equally zesty boyfriend, who just loves this dish.

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