Monday, September 19, 2011

baby chicken alla mattone

My pal Laura moved back to town after a year in Europe, and I wanted to make dinner for her on her return. So I looked through the book at various dishes I might make, and thought this would be a good one, because we had just been talking about spatchcocking a chicken, a procedure required for this dish. Sometimes that's the kind of thing we talk about.

But I talked myself out of it about four times, because when I did this dish, I wanted to make the panzanella with tomatoes I had grown myself. So I put together a list of 3-4 dishes and asked what sounded best to her, including this one, but with the aforementioned caveat.

"So, you don't want to make that dish … because you didn't grow the tomatoes?" she asked. Those were the words she said. But here was the subtext I heard: "Are you freaking serious? You're insane. Go buy some #*@! tomatoes."

So I went and bought some tomatoes.

It happened that I was doing this dinner the same week that I was procuring some  ingredients for a parallel but separate project from a real-life farm up in Brooksville (more on that in a future post), and I got the last-minute idea to see if I could find a farm at which to get actual baby chickens.

I did not. But at Whole Foods, the same place that I found the pre-grown tomatoes, I found these …

How's that for product placement. And Bell & Evans didn't even pay me to do that. Believe me, they really didn't. Quite the opposite.

Here is a more generic shot of the Cornish hens, which are for all intents just baby chickens …

There. That's less egregious. A little more fleshy, though.

The birds get spatchcocked, which sounds either sexy or painful or both, but is really just removing the backbone of the bird, which, under different circumstances, would probably be super painful. Then you push it flat. Which I really should have taken a photo of. You can sort of see what I mean in the photo at the top.

Then they go on the grill, and a foil-wrapped brick goes on top (alla mattone).

I had preheated the bricks on the grill. The birds are small and thin, so when they cook over high heat, with a hot brick on top, it doesn't take long before they're done.

There was just enough time to make the panzanella, which is a bread-based salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and dressing.

Laura made the bread, because she told me she had perfected the art during her time in Europe. 

A quick mix of all those ingredients and the salad is ready in no time. Lay a hen on top of the salad, garnish with lemons and go.

This dish had zero chance of failing. Grilled chicken is always going to be one of my favorites in any form, and the salad was terrific.

The best panzanella I've had was at Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif. The tomatoes were like candy. But I was intent on putting together as good a panzanella as I could, and with that bread, I was really happy with how it came out. Ad Hoc's was still better, but then, Thomas Keller grows his own tomatoes, doesn't he.

Up next: Peach crostata with honey gelato

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