Sunday, July 09, 2006


With the arrival of our second son back in March, our family has outgrown our present house, so we've got it on the market and are looking for a new, larger one. My wife has a long list of requirements for the new place--everything from the type of siding to the number of sinks in the master bath--but I have only one: the stove's exhaust fan must ventilate to the outside.

It doesn't look like we're going to be moving any time soon.

We've toured close to twenty houses, of varying sizes and styles, though all of them were built in the last 20 years. And, in every single one of them, the hood over the stove does not have a pipe that takes smoke and vapor outside. Instead, they all pass them through a thin, cheapy filter and push the air right back into the kitchen.

My current kitchen has just such a fan, and it is all but useless. Many of my favorite dishes--like braised meats and pan-seared steaks--involve an initial browning over high heat in order to get a good char on the meat. And this browning puts off a lot of smoke. So, I click the hood fan to high and it's so loud as to drown out conversation, but the smoke that it pulls into the fan is immediately spit right back out into the room, apparently unimpeded by the little charcoal filter inside. My favorite dishes, therefore, are all but guaranteed to fill the the whole house with thick greasy smoke, set off the smoke alarm, and start the baby wailing.

Perhaps, like flat-top ranges that are easy to clean but terrible to cook with, this is a symptom of how little real cooking most Americans do. Unless you are going to really crank up the stove and try to brown meat--and, honestly, how many people really do that these days?--you'd probably never even notice that the fan is ineffectual. So, why should a builder bother with the slight additional expense of running the pipe to duct the fan outside?

Because of my lack of effective kitchen ventilation, I've had to put a moratorium on creating one of my all-time favorite dishes, Pollo al Matone, which is Italian for "Chicken-Under-a-Brick" (I always call it the latter, which has such a nice ring to it.) This usually is a grilled chicken dish, in which a whole chicken is roasted over a fire with a big stone pressing down on it to flatten it out and make sure it cooks evenly. I do a modified stove-top and oven version that I borrowed from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and make in a big cast iron pan.

Chicken Under a Brick

1 whole chicken
2 tsp Kosher salt
1-2 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced rosemary
olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Prepare the chicken by removing the backbone and splitting it so it will lay flat. To do this, use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut along either side of the backbone from front to rear, removing it as a single 1- to 2-inch wide strip. Then, spread the chicken out flat.

In a small bowl, mix about 1 Tbsp olive oil with the salt, garlic, and rosemary, then rub the mixture all over the chicken--both the skin-side and the inside.

Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, pour in about 1 Tbps of olive oil, and add the chicken, skin-side down. Then, weight the chicken so that it is firmly and evenly compressed. I usually cover the chicken with a piece of aluminum foil (just to make clean-up easier), then place a smaller cast iron skillet on top and an antique cast-iron clothes iron that I've found at a flea market and weighs close to ten pounds. You could use a brick or a big rock as well--it just needs to be heavy enough to press the chicken nice and flat.

Cook on the stove top over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, then move to the 450-degree oven. Allow it to roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan, turn the chicken over, replace the weights, and put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes. (This last part can be a bit dangerous. Keep the kids out of the kitchen and use good, thick oven mitts on both hands--all that cast iron will be hot!) Before serving, pierce the thighs with a knife and be sure all the juices run clear. Remove the chicken to a platter, cut into pieces, and serve.

This requires a little heavy lifting and a lot of greasy smoke from the super-hot pans and oven, but it is very much worth it. The chicken skin will get so delightfully toasted and crispy, and the meat will be the juiciest, most flavorful you will ever have.

Maybe I'll luck up and find a house with a proper external-ducted range hood. If not, I'll just have to wait till Fall arrives and I can open all the windows and go nuts. Boy, do I ever miss chicken-under-a-brick.


Agricola said...

First, love your blog. Have you determined how much it will cost to reroute ventilation to the outside? We have the same problem, obviously, but don't have the infrastructure to move the vent to an outside position.

Paul said...

I recommend "Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way" by Sally Ann Robinson. :)

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