Barbecuing with Artisanal Sea Salt: Part I, Chihuahua Chopped Tehachapi Chicken

Barbecue. The word, when it is the first thing that pops out of your mouth as you lie in bed and your wife greets you with a sleepy pillow-eclipsed smile and the cats claw outside your bedroom door, can sound a little ridiculous. What does Bar B Q mean anyway? What are its origins?

Actually, nobody cares, because once you say the word “barbeque” the mind abandons frilly thoughts of etymology and ontology, and moves on to halibut and kebabs and corn and tri-tip and sausage and short ribs and salmon and burgers and leg of lamb and turducken and scampi and kangaroo and scrod and fennel root and game hen and all the good things that have accreted in our collective unconscious since the discovery of fire by some axe-wielding Persian king back at the wee dawn of time.

Barbecue. What shall we grill? How shall we grill it? With what shall we eat it? What are our beverage options? A floral yet crisp rosé from the south of France? Those assorted bottles of weissebier idling in the basement from last years trip to Bavaria? A fine, slender-bodied Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley? Your intrepid neighbor’s latest experiment with home-made root beer?

Once these questions have had an opportunity to percolate, the mind drifts inexorably toward that fateful consideration: what to do about salt? Hickory smoked Maine sea salt, fleur de sel de Guérande, Halen Mon Silver Welsh sea salt, Pangasinan Star Philippine sea salt, Iburi-Jio cherry smoked salt from Japan—all glittering like gemstones in the treasure chest in the shadowy motes of your minds eye.

The morning mind’s idle delectations.

Waking up with “barbecue” bobulating off the tongue is admittedly not an indication of some rich inner life. Rather, it is the redeeming effervescence of the beaming boy or bouncing girl at the core of you. Barbecue. The utterance contains something of the thing itself, the germ from which fine blades of grass sprout and a gentle breeze lifts us. The word “barbecue” springs us loose to net butterflies in the quite meadow before good and evil.

Generally speaking, whatever we do in the course of our food preparation indoors, we finish with salt. This strategy of finishing with salt bears implicit within it the supreme importance having respect for your food—no, more, having trust in it. If you trust deeply that your food is worthy of you, and you of it, then do not corrupt its very nature by shellacking it in salt before it even makes it to your plate. When you trust that the food you eat is not just calories and minerals, but rather the fresh and crispy ephemera reflecting your earthly existence today, you are unafraid, you are respectful, you wait, and then with a lover’s touch, join salt to the occasion.

That said, we embrace the urge to barbecue as a rogue moment in modern life. With our primitive faculties at play, can see ourselves as we really are, absurd under the glowering incandescent light of our antiseptic indoor kitchens, decked like Victorian monkeys in frills and corsets and codpieces, starched with propriety and unexamined conventions. At the barbecue grill we stand immutable, burning and licking our fingers, grunting and humming, flicking a leaf from our hair, listening to the chirp of sparrows we will never catch. If the ancient Greeks were correct that society needs Dionysian abandon to balance Apollonian order, the barbecue is more than just fun in the sun, it is the spit in the handshake of our contract with society.

The sun is lapping at the windowsill by the nightstand. Your darling rolls, over mumbling something unintelligible, and tries to gather a few moments more of sleep. The cats have begun to fight, thumping the door and yowling at each other’s disconcerting knack for remorselessness. You have pondered long enough; it is time to get up, brew coffee, and decide what you are going to grill today.

I am fully aware that every single person on our small planet feels in the marrow of their bones that they are the world’s leading expert at barbecuing. So it is with deep humility and a scalpel fear that I offer up three foods that may serve both as general illustrations of how to use salt at the grill and as actual recipes for the basics: salmon, beef, and chicken–surf, turf, and sun. Today, we will cover chicken, which I am the world’s leading expert at barbecuing.

Chihuahua Chopped Tehachapi Chicken. This recipe was adapted at our remote mountain house in Tehachapi California from a game hen dish we often prepared while living in Paris (life is long, and strange). For all its uncanny simplicity, it never ceases to regale family and guests alike. Perhaps it is the exceedingly toothsome flesh that results from the special manner of chopping and salting the bird, perhaps it the herbs that combine to a special and inescapable tonic. Whatever the reason, this recipe gives satisfaction to rugged and delicate palates alike. The key to this recipe is how you cut the chicken. The goal is crispy, gold colored skin infused with herbaceous fragrance, and super tender juicy flesh that practically falls off the bone.

Ingredients: one 4 to 7 pound chicken, whole; ¼ cup coarse gray salt (more on that below); 2 tablespoons finely chopped thyme; 2 tablespoons finely chopped sage; 1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary; 2 teaspoons freshly ground vine ripened black pepper such as Parameswaran’s, 2 tablespoons coarse Brittany sel gris such as Sel Gris de l’Ile de Re (aka gros sel, gray salt, or Celtic salt).

Fat and bone are the key flavor enhancers of meat, and cutting chicken in the fashion described below (which I learned watching Mexican street in Chihuahua) guarantees you will get the most out of both.

First, light your briquettes–unless you are one of those politically correct but culinarily adrift owners of a gas grill (I have barbecued on every imaginable surface, and like everyone else who believes they know it all, I know it all: coal is king, perhaps with a wedge of apple wood or a twig of mesquite tossed in to boot).

Next, remove and discard any neck and gizzards from the cavity of the chicken. Place the whole chicken breast side down on a cutting board. With a large knife, cut through the skin vertically along the spine. It sounds gruesome, but if you don’t have a massive cleaver and good aim to just hack longitudinally through the spine, you will need to take the pointy end of the knife and stab, sewing machine style, several times down the middle of the length the spine. After that, you can press the length of the knife blade through, cutting the spine in two (aka cleaving in twain, rendering asunder, etc.), leaving you with two symmetrical chicken halves–each with portions of the difficult-to-eat but very flavorsome back bones and meat.

Next, wash the halves in cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Combine the salt, pepper, and herbs in a bowl. Taking up the salt-herb mixture in the palm of your hand, press firmly onto all sides of the chicken pieces.

When coals are hot, put the chicken halves skin side down and cover grill. After about five minutes (before the skin starts to burn), flip over with spatula, careful not to scuff or tear skin. Thereafter, flip the pieces every three to five minutes until cooked, about thirty to forty minutes. The skin should change from cornflower yellow to gold to rich hazelnut brown, becoming increasingly crackly crisp, and the bone bits on the flip side should become lightly burnt. Remove, place on platter skin side up, and let sit for five minutes. Save the juices that collect in the platter.

To serve, cut leg from back portion, and cut drumstick from thigh, careful leave intact skin on each piece. With your trust heavy knife (washed after prepping the chicken), give a Chihuahua chop to free the breast portion free from the back, and then Chihuahua chop the breast in two. Arrange on a serving platter, and pour juices over top. Serve. No finishing salt required.

Mark Bitterman
Selmelier
The Meadow / gourmet salt – chocolate – wine – flowers

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