Chicken under pressure
Flattened, marinated and cooked between two skillets over a high flame, this is a dish that’s different from any you’ve tasted before.
Chicken may be the ingredient most identified with Israeli cuisine. The industrial chicken farms common in Israel account for its relatively low price, and the hot weather makes red meat too heavy. It was popular in Israeli homes as a cheap and accessible substitute for beef during the austerity period in the early years of the state; the rest is history. About 80 percent of the chickens sold in Israel come to consumers fresh, with only 20 percent sold frozen. Twenty years ago, the situation was exactly the opposite, but then the government cancelled the subsidy for frozen chicken. Then there was also a substantial improvement in transportation and supervision, and the Israeli consumer switched to fresh chicken. And that’s a good thing.
And still, it seems that in Israel, chicken suffers from poor public relations. With proper handling, chicken can be delicious, and in many countries its meat is actually considered high-end. All over the world, dozens of types of chicken are raised for eating, using various methods. In Israel, on the other hand, only two types are available, Ross and Cobb, and they are bred using industrial methods only. Only recently have there been attempts to raise additional species of chicken and other poultry using fine organic methods.
In a tribute to the delicate and enjoyable meat of a chicken that has been raised and prepared well, this time we will use a method that requires some preparation, but endows the meat with juiciness and a wealth of exceptional flavor. Thanks to the pressure applied to the chicken, its meat is ready within a relatively short time, without losing its flavor and its flexibility in prolonged cooking. It’s almost “chicken in a toaster,” and will definitely become the next big thing at rotisserie stands in Tel Aviv.
It’s easy to prepare the chicken for cooking with the help of good kitchen shears (also called “poultry shears”), but a good sharp knife will also be suitable. You can also ask the butcher to slice and flatten the chicken, but it’s important to stand next to him and make sure he doesn’t damage the skin and doesn’t pound the meat and tear the delicate fibers of the breast. One mature chicken is enough for two hungry people, or four who have already eaten a first course. A young chicken provides a portion for one or, at most, for two who are also eating side dishes.
Preparing the chicken:
1 mature chicken weighing 1.5 to 2 kg, or 2 young chickens weighing 700 gm to 1 kg each
Place the chicken on the cutting board with the breast face down and the back facing you. With the kitchen shears, cut the chicken lengthwise along one side of the spinal column, from the tail toward the neck. Repeat the process along the other side of the spine. Remove the spinal column. Cut off the extra skin around the thighs and tail, and rinse the chicken under running water.
Turn the chicken so the breast faces up, and with your hands pull the two sides of the breast apart until it lies flat on the cutting board. With the palm of your hand, press on the center of the breast until you hear the wishbone break and the chicken lies flat on the board and does not spring back to its original shape. Now place your fingers between the skin and the flesh from the direction of the neck. Gently and carefully separate the skin from the flesh without tearing the skin and without severing the edges of the skin. Later we will put some of the marinade into this space, in order to enrich the chicken’s flavor and reach all the parts of the meat.
Roasting puts pressure on the meat, causing it to secrete a substantial part of its juices. In order to enrich the taste of the chicken and maintain its juiciness, we use a liquid marinade (recipes follow), pouring it over the chicken in a deep bowl. Using your hands, rub the chicken well with the marinade, making sure to place some of it into the space between the skin and the meat. If you use leaves or garlic slices, put them into the space as well. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and place in the refrigerator for one to three hours. Turn the chicken two or three times while it is marinating, so that it will absorb the sauce on all sides.
There are two reasons for using two skillets. While the chicken absorbs heat from both directions, it is also pressed, like toast, and the heat reaches all its parts equally. The pressure also causes secretion of the marinade and uses it to sear the chicken on all sides, giving it an appetizing look and a pleasant crispness.
Prepare two heavy iron skillets, or one skillet and a heavy iron pot with a diameter slightly smaller than that of the skillet. If the skillet or the pot being used as a lid is not heavy enough, place another heavy pot on top to add to the pressure. There are also iron skillets manufactured especially for this method of preparation, which have a heavy iron lid smaller than the diameter of the skillet.
Rinse the bottom of the top skillet well and place it on top of the lower skillet, bottom side down. Light a medium flame and allow the two skillets to heat for a few minutes. There is no need to grease the skillets because the marinade includes the fat necessary for frying.
When the skillets are hot, lift the upper one carefully and place the flattened chicken in the bottom one, skin side down. Place the second skillet on top and press down a little, until you hear the sound of sizzling liquids on the hot skillet. Wait about seven minutes and then, using tongs, turn the chicken over and replace the top skillet on top. After another seven minutes, turn it again so the juices will fill the breast meat. Wait two more minutes, and the chicken is ready.
Roasting time is likely to vary, depending on the chicken’s weight/thickness. The best index is the golden, seared color of the skin. If you’re not sure, insert a sharp knife into the thigh in the direction of the bone and check that the color of the meat is light rather than pinkish.
Chicken prepared in two skillets should be eaten immediately, as is, with your hands. It’s tasty and crisp and full of juice. If you want to make an impression, you can place it skin side up on a bed of rice rich in herbs, or on burgul and lentils that were cooked together in a stock, and divide it at the table. Refrigerated leftovers are delicious cut from the bone and added to a salad or served on bread with a little mayonnaise and tomato.
Chicken in spearmint with garlic and lemon
A light chicken with refreshing flavors. Excellent with a fresh green salad or one of smoked green wheat with herbs.
leaves from 10 spearmint stalks (nana)
8-10 garlic cloves
1 lemon, plus the juice of another lemon
1/2 cup (120 ml) olive oil
ground black pepper
Place spearmint leaves in a bowl. Cut the garlic into thin slices and chop the lemon, including the peel. Transfer to the bowl, squeeze the lemon juice over it, pour on the oil and add salt and black pepper. Prepare the chicken as above, making sure to insert slices of garlic, spearmint leaves and lemon peel between the skin and the meat.
Chicken in white wine and tomatoes
This dish offers classic Mediterranean flavors. The white wine adds a somewhat sour fruity flavor and makes the dish more delicate.
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
4-6 garlic cloves
4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme
3/4 cup (160 ml) Sauvignon Blanc or other fine dry white wine
1/2 cup (120 ml) olive oil
ground black pepper
Grate the tomatoes, on a coarse grater, into a bowl. Chop the garlic and add to the bowl with the thyme, white wine and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and mix. Prepare the chicken as above, making sure to spread the crushed tomatoes on the chicken.
Yellow chicken with hot peppers
North African seasoning gives the chicken the flavor of a street stall in Fez or Casablanca. Excellent with white rice and roasted almonds.
3/4 cup (160 ml) olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp ground turmeric
2-3 hot green peppers
ground black pepper
Mix olive oil with lemon, cumin, cardamom and turmeric. Slice the peppers and add to the mixture. Rub the marinade into the chicken and place some of it between the skin and the meat. Wrap in cling wrap and refrigerate for two hours. Cook as per instructions.
There’s chicken, and then there’s chicken
Like Americans and Canadians, the average Israeli consumes almost 38 kilograms of chicken a year. The French and Italians eat only about a third of that amount. The reason is that in Europe, chicken is considered a finer food, one that receives the proper treatment – both in the coop and on the skillet − and is priced accordingly.
The king of French chickens, Volaille de Bresse, which has a red comb, white feathers and blue legs, is raised in France under strict laws, in farms with no more than 500 chickens. Each chicken is allocated 10 square meters, and its feed is composed of at least 50 percent corn. Antibiotics or “growth enhancers” don’t make their way into its stomach. It has a rich flavor and a wonderful texture. For the sake of comparison, in Israel chickens are raised five birds to one square meter, and one farm is likely to contain tens of thousands of chickens.
Of course, there is a price to the meticulous rules. A Bresse chicken costs up to five times more than the Israeli variety, and is considered a delicacy.
In Israel, one can now find fine chickens of high quality, grown organically or at least without antibiotics, and fed with better food. And it’s worth making the effort to look for smaller chickens, because their meat is richer and juicier.