Chicken caught in a compromising position: You could call it butterflied or split, but why bother when there’s a word like “spatchcock” to be bandied about? By it I mean the process of wrenching out the backbone of a chicken and smashing its breastplate flat with your bare hands, turning the already dead chicken into the equivalent of culinary road kill.
I’m working off another recipe from the UCSD Moores Cancer Center’s Healthy Eating Program but this one assumes that I already know how to spatchcock. Which I don’t, which is the point of this whole exercise. So I need a fall back, which comes in the form of my King and Queen of cooking, Mark Bittman and Martha Stewart (more specifically, the folks over at Martha’s Everyday Food magazine, who I view with a reverence bordering on obeisance). Ultimately Martha won out, since I was at least able to make sense of the photos, less so of Bittman’s drawings (which is less a reflection of Bittman than a commentary on my inability to decipher drawings).
Meanwhile, I also decided tonight was the night to learn how to grill. With charcoal. It seemed like a good idea this morning, but less so at 4:00 with a whole chicken and a cold grill staring at each other (allegorically speaking).
Undaunted, I headed into the kitchen, hoping to at least get something accomplished before my husband arrived home from the beach with Gonzo Girl. I culled together my cookbooks, spatchcock how-to’s and the aforementioned UCSD recipe. When the garage door opened, I panicked, knowing I’d so far accomplished nothing other than defrosting a whole chicken (which I started the day before so, really, that hardly counts).
I resisted the urge to call Pizza Hut and instead headed out to my “garden” which is really nothing more than four or five containers that constitute my herb garden. The UCSD recipe has you grill the chicken on a bed of rosemary, which I have coming out of my ears. Soak said rosemary in water for at least 30 minutes.
Next I learned how to heat up the grill. How I’ve reached the age of 39 and never lit a grill is beyond me, but I also can’t mow a lawn or detail a car, making the trifecta of cool things guys do well beyond my reach. Turns out, it’s super easy.
Here’s what you do:
1. Stuff your charcoal chimney starter with a few pages of newspaper, place at the bottom of your charcoal grill (top grate is removed and being cleaned by you, or, preferably, someone else).
2. Dump in some charcoal; my Gonzo husband only uses all-natural hardwood lump charcoal, and so should you.
3. Create a hot mess by lighting the newspaper. Stand back as the smoke envelopes your entire yard, and that of your neighbors.
4. Let heat for 30-40 minutes, or until you can’t hold your hand over the heat for more than a few seconds.
5. Once your fire and your food are ready, release the charcoal into the grill, replace the grate, and get grilling.
Okay, mission accomplished, other than the fact that the chicken, while eager, is still whole. Here’s where things get squirrely. I’d seen this process performed live by Susan Faerber of UCSD just days before, but, like any qualified professional, she made it look easy. And that’s not to say that it wasn’t, but in the end I’m not entirely certain that I removed the chicken’s backbone as much as I wrenched it from the body as if my life depended on it.
Martha’s people first tell me to place my chicken, breast side down, on a work surface. They used a cookie sheet, so I did, too. Now, I can rarely tell the breast from the back on a chicken, which is where her photographs (sorry, Mark!) came in handy. That’s how much help I needed getting this bird lined up.
Next I used my cooking shears to cut along one side of the backbone. Either her shears or her staff are super strong, because while this step is photographed as being as simple as cutting through tissue paper, things on my end were a bit, well, tougher. I started the cut but then was immediately hit with resistance from the chicken.
Naturally I wouldn’t want my backbone cut out either, but this bird had no say in the matter, whereas I, with my shears, did. In the end I did a hack job, but did succeed in getting something vaguely resembling a bone out of the chicken and into a Ziploc freezer bag for further use.
Finally I flopped the bird over and, using both hands, smashed in that sucker’s breastplate so that I had, instead of a pretty whole chicken, a mangled flat chicken that fit easily into a square Pyrex dish.
This obviously isn’t for the squeamish. But for me it was, dare I say, a bit thrilling, knowing I could actually spatchcock for all the world to see. My great-grandfather was a butcher in Queens at the end of the 19th century, and I rather felt like I was following in his footsteps, minus the cool butcher coat and blood and all.
Next came the line that sent shivers through to my very soul. So focused was I on spatchcocking and heating the grill that I completely forgot to actually read the recipe, so that it was nearly 5:00 before I discovered that Susan expected me to actually marinate my mangled bird. Throwing caution to the wind I simply whipped up a simple marinade of lemon juice, garlic, more rosemary and some oil, and dumped it over the bird while she (it?) sat in line sight of the grill.
Susan also expects you to use a brick on top of the chicken to further flatten the bird while cooking (Mark expects this as well). Not having any bricks at the ready, I subbed in a cast iron pan (in the event that you do have bricks, wrap them in foil first, obviously dusting off any spiders or whatever may be hanging on for dear life). I hauled the chicken, the soaking rosemary, long tongs, an oven mitt and the cast iron pan out to the grill, and settled in for lesson number three: grilling.
Turns out I was only marginally helpful in the grilling department, as other things such as playing with Gonzo Girl and making her dinner during the entire 45 minutes grilling process took precedence. I need to take this opportunity to point out that the entire reason for spatchcocking is to significantly reduce grilling time, given that you’re now grilling a flat assembly of chicken parts rather than a lovely round bird.
To this day we’re still not sure what went wrong, but we (by “we” I mean my husband) ended up turning and moving and repositioning that bird and cast iron pan more times than we can count, although we (as in I) estimate actual grilling time to be around 45 minutes. Susan’s recipe said it would take about 10 minutes a side, so clearly we should have had the bird over the charcoal, rather than to the side (i.e., the cooler part of the grill). Lesson learned.
Nonetheless, the bird eventually emerged with a lovely brown crust and, after a 10 minute rest, was the most succulent, tender, rosemary-infused chicken I’ve ever tasted. And in the end, dismissing all pleasure of learning to not only spatchcock but heat up a grill, delicious chicken was what I was after. Mission accomplished.
Spatchcocked Chicken under a Brick
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
5-6 gloves garlic, casually smashed
2 tablespoons chopped rosemary
8-10 intact sprigs of rosemary
1 whole roasting chicken
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Spatchcock the chicken. Place in large bowl.
2. Combine the garlic, chopped rosemary, olive oil and lemon juice in a small bowl; pour over the chicken. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour, longer if possible.
3. Heat your grill.
4. Place the sprigs of rosemary in a shallow dish of water and soak for at least 30 minutes.
5. Once the grill is ready, shake the excess water out of the rosemary and place on the hottest part of the grill.
6. Arrange the chicken on top of the rosemary, then place 2 foil-wrapped bricks on top of the chicken. Grill for 10 minutes, then flop the chicken over, and grill on that side for another 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
7. Remove the chicken to a cutting board, cover with foil and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Adapted from UCSD Cancer Center Healing Eating Cooking Class, Summer Celebration: Picnic, Parties & Grilling Guidelines