For tasty chicken, cooked to a crisp, just apply a brick

HAPPY EATER

November 21, 1993|By ROB KASPER

The other night I fixed smashed chicken. I grabbed a brick from my basement and put it on top of some chicken that was bubbling away in olive oil.

Patricia Wells told me to treat the chicken this way. She said the business with the brick was one of the ways Italians make chicken taste so good.

She is an award-winning cookbook author and the restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune, the English-language newspaper of note in Europe. A few years ago while eating at Da Giulio restaurant in Lucca, she had a flattened chicken that inspired her to write a book about the cooking of the small family restaurants of Italy.

The book is out. It is called "Trattoria" (Morrow, $25), and it has the chicken recipe. Ms. Wells was in Baltimore Tuesday afternoon to sign copies of the book at Sutton Place Gourmet. Before the book-signing session she sat at a table, sipped a double espresso and gave me advice on how to level a chicken, how to salt, as well as a few other tips on trattoria-style cooking.

The reason you level the chicken with a brick (or other 10-pound weight) is that the added weight helps cook the chicken evenly and gives it a crispy crust, she said. In Italy, kitchenware shops routinely sell cookers with heavy tops designed to squash the birds, she said.

In America you have to improvise, Ms. Wells said. The chefs at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, for instance, used a brick ,, covered with a piece of parchment paper when recently they made the "pollo al mattone" dish. Reached by telephone in the kitchen of the California restaurant, chef Peggy Smith told me she and colleague Catherine Brandel were impressed with the flavor of the flattened bird.

"It was very good," Ms. Smith said. Compressing the chicken seemed to give the meat more flavor, she said. Ms. Smith was not sure whether the brick was bought especially for the dinner given in Ms. Wells' honor, or whether it was just sitting around near the fireplace.

While in Baltimore, Ms. Wells also talked about her favorite salt, sea salt. "Sea salt has so much more flavor than table salt," she said. "If I can get the world to use sea salt, fresh ground pepper and fresh herbs, . . . I feel I will have accomplished something," she said.

Sea salt is widely used in Europe, said Ms. Wells, who for the past 10 years has lived in Paris. The secret of using it, she said, is knowing when to sprinkle and when not to. For beans, she said, you add salt halfway through the cooking process. If you put the salt in early, it reduces the tenderness of the beans. If you salt after the beans are cooked, no amount of salt will season them properly.

Pasta, she said, has to be cooked in salted water, at least 1 teaspoon of salt per quart of water. Pasta cooked in unsalted water will be tasteless, she said.

There is, however, no need to salt eggplant to remove bitterness. Really fresh eggplant is not bitter, she said.

She also advised against salting raw potatoes that were going to fried, along with a few dark olives, in olive oil. Salting raw potatoes makes them give up their liquid and go limp, she said.

She passed on a few other tips on cooking like the Italians. One was to stuff a sea bass with artichokes and rosemary, then bake it. Another was to compare olive oils by eating raw vegetables that have been dipped in the oils. And a third tip was to use fresh parsley not only as a garnish but as a seasoning as well.

I said good-bye to Ms. Wells, then bought a chicken and headed home to try my hand at chicken squashing.

I split the whole chicken by cutting it in half. Then using the heel of my hand, I punched down both halves.

In a large skillet I heated a half cup of extra virgin olive oil. When the oil was hot but not smoking, I put half the bird in the pan. Then came the fun part. I put a brick, wrapped in aluminum foil, smack dab on top of the half of chicken. After about 20 minutes I removed the brick, turned the chicken over with tongs, then put the brick back on the bird. Not only was this cooking, it was a workout.

The dish was a mild success at my house. The kids liked it. I liked it, especially the crisp golden skin. But my wife, who was not wild about the idea of having a brick in the kitchen, gave the dish mixed reviews. Parts were good, she said, but parts were undercooked. She was right.

After consulting with the chefs at Chez Panisse, I think I have figured out what I did wrong. The uneven cooking meant my chicken was not flat enough. And that means the next time I try it, I will have to use a bigger brick.

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