Monday, October 13, 2008

Wood Fire Chicken

Moving out of the city has greatly changed my relationship to food. On the one hand, I can no longer get a tamale whenever I want. On the other, I can now forage for firewood behind my house and use it to make meat taste like trees.

The mixed grill pictured above includes zucchini, summer squash, and half of a chicken, cut into pieces. The only seasoning was olive oil, salt, and smoke.

I've grilled meat before, and I've cooked over a wood fire before, but somehow I had never actually grilled meat over a wood fire until this past weekend. The result was intoxicating.

While fire is a source of light, when you're cooking over it in the dark, you can't really see what you're doing. If you're the controlling type of cook, and most are, you might do better to start your fire while it's still light out. Do your grilling, and if afterwards you still want to enjoy a fire while it's dark out, throw a log onto the coals when you're done and you should be good to go. Of course I didn't realize this until after the fact, but it's what I'll do from now on.

Given the lack of visibility, I'm thrilled that the chicken turned out as well as it did. The skin was crispy, the flesh moist and charred but not burnt, and it truly did taste of smoke in a way that you'll never get from gas or even charcoal.

As I was putting the bones away for stock, I suddenly remembered Jill Santopietro's recent piece in the Times. In it she observed that fatty meat best absorbs the flavor of the smoke. With this in mind, I nibbled on a bit of tail still clinging to the backbone, and it was better and smokier than any other piece I'd had that night.

While my weekend grilling had a distinctly non-urban feeling, this is something you could easily do anywhere but in a condo. Just fill a charcoal grill with wood, put on a CD of nature sounds, and you'll have virtually the same experience as I did.


Recipe: Wood Grilled Chicken

chicken, sustainably raised

Start your fire. As the logs burn down into coals, cut your chicken into the predictable pieces (thigh, drumstick, etc.).

Oil and salt it liberally on both sides. When the flames are in their last gasp, throw the meat on the grill to sear.

You'll want fire in the beginning and coals to finish it off, so do what you need to do to ensure that the meat isn't over flames for very long, or it will burn the exterior while the interior remains raw. For instance, scatter the coals, raise the grill, or move the meat to a less toasty portion of it. Cook until juices run clear. Determine this by flashlight.

Note: Not all types of wood are suitable for grilling. Stick to hardwoods like oak, hickory, beech, maple and so on.

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