If I were in a grade school cooking class there is one kitchencentric word that would surely bust me up: SPATCHCOCKED.
Oh, the many uses an unruly young boy might have for such a wonderful word. Well, at least this particular boy, whose school desk at King Philip Elementary School in West Hartford Connecticut often had to be moved into the hallway to prevent me from “disturbing” the other kids. I often challenged my teachers on this strategy on the grounds that “disturbing” was not a synonym for “entertaining,” which is what I clearly was making an effort to do. Like the time we had to use new words in a sentence – out loud for the whole class – and when we got to the word “verisimilitude” I volunteered this line (delivered with a New Yawk accent): “The coat I wore to school today is verisimilitude a one I wore yesterday.” BIG laughs. I KILLED. Desk INTO HALLWAY.
I had been, I might have said to passers-by, spatchcocked.
Today I appreciate a beautiful thing like spatchcocking for more than its hint of frisky wordplay. When it comes to poultry it’s the key to quick flavor.
You know those ubiquitous roast chickens you see at markets for about seven or eight bucks? Ever stop to think, if it’s this cheap after counting in labor, real estate and a creaky rotisserie, how much is the chicken itself actually worth? The answer: not a lot. It’s a scrawny little fryer to start with, mass-roasted with no regard for its individuality then left to steam in its own juices under a heat lamp. By the time you get it home the skin that promised sublime crispiosity is merely tan and wrinkled, like some aging Beverly Hills socialite.
What if you could hand-pick a way better chicken for the same price and savor that deliciously contradictory crispy-juiciness right from the oven?
Well, two problems. One, you’d have to wait for it to cook. Two, roasted chickens can be an iffy proposition: overcooked white meat, under-cooked dark meat, the interior part tastes stewed.
Enter spatchcocking, or the art of eliminating a bird’s backbone (Hey, why don’t they call it Hollywood-Executivizing?). Do this once, you’ll be hooked. It cooks faster and more evenly and produces a crisper skin.
Home from work, turn oven to 375° and yank whole 3-poundish chicken from refrigerator or grocery bag. Pour a glass of something that will stand up nicely to the juice-oozing bird that is less than an hour away from your maw – a just-below-room-temp Gruener Veltliner will work nicely. (But then, so will a bottle of IPA.). Spread out some pages from yesterday’s New York Times with a sheet of wax paper on top. You can use your local paper if it still exists. Get out your trusty poultry shears and if you don’t have any, clean a sturdy pair of scissors in hot soapy water before and after. With the chicken sitting breast down as if it’s reading the newspaper, snip along either side of the backbone (a strip a little over an inch wide) and remove. While you’re at it, snip off the wing tips and any big globs of fat; these, plus the backbone, can be bagged and frozen. When the bag is full, make stock.
Flip your chicken over like a cheap hooker and press to flatten it. Now comes the fun part: mix some olive oil and spices (garlic, salt, pepper, oregano) to make a paste, which you will then smear UNDER THE SKIN and all over the bird. (Yes, I DO think smearing is fun.) Put it breast-up in a roasting pan, jelly roll pan, cast iron skillet – it doesn’t really matter. The last step is to squeeze the juice of half a lemon or lime or a half-capful of vinegar all over the skin. This helps crisp it up.
Roast for 40 minutes. When the bird just starts to turn golden brown crank up the heat to 450° for another 10 minutes or until it achieves the desired crispness on the legs and wings. (But don’t let the drumsticks get shriveled – it’ll be overcooked.) Prick the chicken’s armpit with a sharp knife and if the juices run clear you’re all set. The legs should detach with just a little nudge; the breasts can be easily sliced.
Enjoy – and please let me know how it turns out.