Photo by Ellen Silverman
I use rocks a lot in my kitchen. I haul particularly good ones home when I find them at the beach or in the country knowing that, at the very least, I'll enjoy looking at them and for sure, at some point, they'll present an impromptu solution to something I've set my mind to.
For Cornish hen or squab, I'll use a rock heavy enough to press the birds flat without squashing the daylights out of them.
For example, I pan-fry whole, butterflied chicken and other birds al mattone, (Italian for "under a brick,") using a big white rock I schlepped home from Shelter Island as a weight to keep the bird pressed flat against the pan. This classic technique produces succulent chicken with a delectable crisp skin without fuss and is one I use often to make satisfying dinners on the fly. The rock doubles as a doorstop when not employed in the kitchen, where I also use it to compress pates and meatloaves to make them more compact and sliceable.
Over the years, I've collected rocks in a variety of sizes and weights, so I can gear the rock to the need. When I apply the versatile brick rock-cooking technique to a smaller bird such as a poussin, Cornish hen or squab, I'll use a less hefty rock, heavy enough to press the birds flat without squashing the daylights out of them.
If your collection of rocks is not yet up to speed, you can improvise any number of makeshift weights for cooking your birds this way, such as a smaller cast-iron skillet or saucepan with a heavy can in it, or a brick wrapped in foil.
Has this rock thing of mine become an obsession? I do love finding unexpected uses for ordinary things, especially ones that are free for the hauling and pleasing to look at. I use a green rock I found on the beach in the South of France to weight down the lid when I'm steaming unruly greens in a skillet. I found it many years ago when I was looking for a makeshift pestle for the giant mortar that stood in the courtyard of the little house I lived in.
I used the rock to pound thyme, rosemary, and lavender that grew around the house into olive oil to embellish a soup I'd made. I brought the rock home to New York in my suitcase. Just about any rock with a nice feel and a flat-ish side will work well for quickly crushing garlic cloves (or just tapping them to loosen the skin and peel); bruising fresh herbs like rosemary or sage to release their scent and flavor; crushing spices like peppercorns and coriander; making coarse pestos and infused oils.
Start cooking with stones with this recipe for chicken under a rock:
Photo by Ellen Silverman
The dish takes about 5 minutes of actual work, and about 25 minutes unattended cooking time, during which you can have a cocktail and put the rest of your simple meal together, as your home fills with a lovely fragrance. Use this general method with other birds, from squabs and game hens to Guinea hens, adjusting the cooking time and weight accordingly. You'll find more ideas for improvising on this theme in The Improvisational Cook.