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.
Serves 3 or 4
One 3-pound chicken, preferably organic
1 tablespoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large sprigs fresh rosemary or thyme sprigs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
8 unpeeled garlic cloves, lightly smashed
1/4 cup dry white wine or balsamic vinegar (optional)
Pinch of sugar, optional
Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper toweling. Place the chicken breast-side-down on a work surface. With kitchen shears, cut through the bones along both sides of the backbone and remove it. Trim off any excess neck skin. Spread the bird open, skin-side-up, on the counter and press down firmly against the breastbone with the palms of your hands to break and flatten it. Tuck the wings back and under themselves so they lie flat against the breast. Or, cut off the wing tips and discard.
If possible, season the bird at least an hour (unrefrigerated) or up to 24 hours (refrigerated) before cooking. Sprinkle the bird on both sides with kosher salt and pepper. Press the herbs against both sides. Bring the bird to room temperature one hour before cooking.
Heat a large nonstick skillet, over medium heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat. Blot the bird dry with paper towels and place skin-side-up in the pan. Place a heavy skillet, about 2 inches smaller in diameter, directly on top of the chicken. If you don't have a heavy enough pan - 4 to 5 pounds - use another smooth-bottomed item, such as saucepan. Balance it on the bird and add heavy objects to weight the pan down, such as a rock, a can or two, or a meat pounder . Cook the chicken until the underside is brown, about 10 minutes.
Remove the weight and turn the chicken over with a pair of tongs. Replace the weight. Nestle the garlic cloves around the chicken and continue cooking until the skin is crisp and brown, 12 minutes longer.
To test for doneness, insert an instant read thermometer into the inside of the thigh; it should read 170'. Alternatively, poke the thigh with a paring knife; if the juices are clear, not pink, it is done. Transfer the chicken skin side up to a cutting board and let rest 5 minutes.
To make a simple pan sauce: Pour off all but about 1 teaspoon of the fat in the pan. Set the pan over medium-low heat and add the wine or balsamic vinegar, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dissolve the caramelized juices. Cook until the wine is mellow and has no trace of alcohol taste, about 1 minute. Remove the herbs and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar, if necessary.
With a chef's knife, halve the birds down the center of the breast and arrange one half, and a few garlic cloves on each plate. Spoon a tablespoon or two of the pan sauce over each. Serve at once.