Monday, March 26, 2012

Provencal Grilled Chicken and Striped Zucchini

I had one last Rhode Island red chicken burning a hole in my freezer. But what to do? It was another unseasonably beautiful March day and I had a full tank of propane. Should I risk grilling something that I didn't even have the bullocks to roast a couple of weeks back? Should I go tried and true and just braise this tough old bird?

Caution, meet wind.

Well, it's not that risky when you think that in Provence, the French love to grill things over open charcoal fires. This includes seafood and of course poultry. Further, I figured that this Rhode Island red was probably closer to a typical French farm yard bird than anything from a Canadian grocery store. Grilling would have to be slow, precise and very controlled. However, the fact that this bird simply didn't have the high levels of fat of a grocery store hen, I didn't have to worry about flare ups as much. I also needed an accompaniment, so I decided to keep things around the Mediterranean and go zucchini (a beautiful striped variety), along with some simple cremeni mushrooms. So here's what I did:

First, I sorted out the bird. I cut out the back bone: which went into a pot with some bay leaves and fresh thyme. This would be the jus to pour liberally over the bird. Now, the red was spatchcocked, I got it into a non-reactive dish and poured over a marinade that consisted of one part Dijon mustard, one part fresh herbs (I used tarragon, savoury and thyme), a clove or two of crushed garlic and three parts olive oil. I massaged this into the bird, and then sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper. Back into the fridge for a solid 2 hour marinade. Now on to the veg. 

I wanted to impart as much flavour into these zucs as I could without introducing a pile of oil. The wife is still trying to keep things light, so I have been experimenting with ways to boost flavour without boosting calories -  a true and troubling handicap for anyone who likes to cook - and yet a challenge that I accept. To do this, I have created a sort of herbal flavoured salt. This draws out a bit of the zucchini's water and actually simulates some of the chemical processes of sautéing in oil. I got a good bunch of chopped herbs - the same ones that went into the chicken marinade, tarragon, savoury and thyme. I put these chopped herbs into a pestle and mortar. To that I added a pinch of whole fennel seeds, a few cranks on the pepper mill and a really generous pinch of salt..maybe even two. Then start bashing it all up. You'll end up with a green paste that is quite salty - this is okay, the salt will distribute. Then I halved the zucs and then scored deeply into the flesh. Then I got the paste and massaged it into the vegetable and paid special attention to grinding it into the scoring. I did the same thing with a few cremeni mushrooms.

Score the zucchini almost down to the skin
Now massage the salt and herb paste generously into the flesh
I let the vegetables drink in the paste for a while, and as a result, they started to 'sweat' out some of their waters. This mimics some of the effects of sauteeing or sweating vegetables in oil. It removes water, bitterness and concentrates sugars - all without using any oil or fat. I gave them about a half hour to rest with like this, then I dabbed them a bit with a paper towel to remove the worst of the water, and then out to the barbecue with a cold beer in hand. Sheer bliss!

To grill a bird like this requires patience and precision. The risk of drying it out is always threatening. This is what I did, with excellent results:  preheat the BBQ till good and hot, then liberally oil the grills with a neutral, high smoke point oil such as grapeseed oil. Then wipe off most of the marinade from the bird. Season generously with salt, and then place, skin side up, directly on to the grills. The bottom of a spatchcocked bird is mostly bones that will actually act as a sort of natural trestle that will protect the flesh from scorching. Close the lid of the BBQ leave it there for a while, say maybe 8-10 minutes.  Don't go too far, as flare ups are still a reality at this point. After about 10 minutes, drop the heat to low, but leave the bird where it is (with lid closed). What we're doing here is sort of 'roasting' the bird by employing the BBQ like an oven. You'll notice after about 15 minutes have passed, the skin is starting to brown but the drumsticks might be taking a bit of a beating. At this point, with the gas still low, very carefully turn the bird over so that the skin side is on the grills. Leave for about 6 or 7 minutes with the BBQ lid OPEN. Watch for flare-ups. after six or seven minutes, carefully rotate the bird 90 degrees to produce a nice quadrilage or grill marks. Again, leave the lid open. Carefully check the skin periodically to make sure you're getting the colour you like. Once you've got some nice grill marks and colour, return the bird to it's skin side up position and completely kill the gas to the burner directly under the chicken (my BBQ has three individually operated burners). Turn the burner on the other side of the BBQ up to full whack and drop in your zucchinis and mushrooms, and close the lid. Come back to check periodically and make sure the inside of the BBQ never gets to hot (keep it under 350F by constantly opening and closing it). This insures that the bird will continue to cook gently and your vegetables are browning up on the grill nicely. Play around with the zucs to get nice grill marks, and flip then when you're happy with the colour. The vegetables shouldn't take longer than  ten minutes. The chicken will be done when the leg quarters easily separate from the body. Then get it out of the BBQ and under some foil to rest for at least 15 minutes.

You'll also remember I had that little stock merrily bubbling away on the stove. After about an hour and a half of simmering, I strained out the bones and herbs, got into a clean pan and reduced another third. Then I whisked in some Dijon mustard, some chopped tarragon, and a tiny bit of a cornstarch slurry to thicken. A squeeze of lemon and some salt and pepper and you got a great little jus or I guess you could call it a 'mustard-tarragon' sauce. Whatever you call it, it sure was tasty.

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