Get Cooking: Baking chicken under a brick

Finally, a recipe older than I am.

When out on campaign, especially in what was known as a “full pace march,” Julius Caesar’s soldiers were expected to cook for themselves. (On slower marches, their accompanying servants or slaves cooked for them.) Roman legionnaires and centurions didn’t benefit from any sort of mess hall. Quartermasters didn’t stock food; in large part, they were mere blacksmiths. And, nope, no chuck wagons.

Consequently, a Roman soldier lugged his own food, as well as the implements needed to cook it. Chief among these was the clibanus (also called the testum), a sort of small upside-down Dutch oven made of thick-walled clay. What we would call the top of the Dutch oven was the bottom “plate” of the clibanus, while the pot-like portion would be placed over it, like a dome, topped with fiery hot coals. The heat radiated down and cooked or baked what was in the cavity. Cato and Pliny recount many “sub testum” recipes. (Modern-day campers cook in a similar manner with cast-iron Dutch ovens.)

In time, and in order to roast small game or fowl, a heavy, glazed terracotta tile (what in Italian is called a mattone) replaced the hollow part of the clibanus and was designed to apply significant weight on the meat cooking under it, which by now was heated from below by a flame or all around within an oven. You can buy such two-part, all-clay cooking set, with a mattone, in shops in Tuscany, especially in the coastal region around Lucca.

Thus, we inherit the recipe for “pollo al mattone,” or “chicken under a brick,” to my mind one of the more delicious ways to prepare a small 3- to 4-pound fryer.

Chicken Under a Brick read to go into the oven. (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)

Chicken under a brick (Pollo al mattone)

Ingredients

1 whole, small to medium chicken, 3-4 pounds, the cavity trimmed of excess fat

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (not overly fruity or peppery), plus more for cooking

Juice and zest of 1 lemon, plus another lemon in wedges for serving

1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or more to taste

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary needles, finely minced (or 1 teaspoon dried, crushed in the palm)

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Chopped flat-leaf parsley for serving

Directions

Spatchcock the chicken: Rinse then pat dry the chicken and place it breast-side down on the cutting board, its neck turned away from you. With kitchen shears or a boning knife, cut along the backbone, tail to neck, tight along one side of the backbone, Repeat along the other side, discarding backbone. (If you wish, save the bone for making broth.)

Flip the bird over breast-side up and press down with both hands, as if performing CPR, until you hear the breastbone crack. Flatten the whole thing as best you can and place it on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper or in a non-reactive pan large enough to hold it but that also will fit in the refrigerator.

Make the marinade: In a bowl, mix together the olive oil, the juice and zest of the 1 lemon, the pepper flakes, rosemary, garlic and salt and pepper.

Slather the marinade all over and under the spatchcocked chicken (even under some of the breast skin, if you like), cover it with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. If you’re up in the middle of the night, turn it over and re-cover it. Before cooking, bring it out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

To cook, heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a heavy, oven-proof skillet large enough to hold the chicken flat (such as 12-inch cast iron or heavy aluminum), and over medium-high heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil until it shimmers. Take the chicken and shake off any pieces of garlic or lemon peel from the marinade and add it to the skillet, skin-side down. Quickly top the chicken with a heavy object(s) (see important note below) the bottom of which is oiled or coated with cooking spray and that evenly presses down on as much of the surface of the chicken as possible. Cook this way for 5 minutes.

Place the pan, the chicken and its weights in the oven and roast the chicken for 25 minutes. Remove the pan, pull off the weights, flip the chicken skin-side up, then replace the weights and roast for an additional 10-15 minutes or until a thermometer reads 150 degrees in the breast, or until the juices run clear at the thigh joint.

To serve: Let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes on the cutting board. Carve the chicken into pieces, serving it with the pan juices, lemon wedges, and chopped parsley.

Several notes on cooking: You may choose not to marinate the chicken ahead of time; that’s often done in Italy when grilling the bird over coals. In that case, go easy on the black pepper which will simply char bitterly. You may use another herb than rosemary (although it is the most traditional), such as twice as much parsley, or the same amount of sage or summer savory, or half as much thyme or oregano. Shallots may substitute for the garlic; lime juice and zest or balsamic may sub for the lemon juice. Instead of olive oil, you may also use ghee or French-style clarified butter.

As for weights, many possibilities: Heavy housing bricks covered with a double thickness of heavy-duty aluminum foil; another cast iron or enameled iron pan, or a couple of small dumbbells or big rocks in a skillet. You may be lucky enough to own a true mattone or glazed clay weight made just for this purpose. Whatever you choose to use, it must be oven-proof (no encyclopedias). The weight(s) should add up to at least 10 pounds.

You also may cook the chicken on an open or flat grill surface, minding the temperature with an instant-read thermometer. Or entirely atop the stove in the heavy skillet. In any application of heat, however or wherever, the recipe calls for weights on the chicken while it cooks.