I’m back from vacation, full of good memories, tanner than I’ve been all year, and, yet, just nearly as tired as any other day. It was great to be at the beach, and great to see family, but I tend to get very little rest because I suffer from an unfortunate condition: I have a bad case of “Needing to Do Things the Right Way.”*
So, when my wife and kids got to the beach before me and put the towels and toys down too far from the water on a day when the tide was going out, I picked everything up and moved it four feet. Only after I did this, did I realize that no one but me cared.
The condition intensified around mealtimes. If I didn’t get involved, I would have been eating tuna casserole, pizza, or hot dogs and hamburgers (the latter of which we did eat the one night I didn’t cook, and even then I had to take my burger back to the grill and finish it, but that’s life in a big family).
We were about eleven heads in the house. I say “about,” because some of those heads belonged to small children, and some belonged to teenagers. Sometimes the teenagers ate like small children; other times, they brought their friends to dinner.
When I was a boy, my father—who was a lawyer and had his own practice—would complain mightily about the break up of Ma Bell. After the telecommunication giant lost its grip on the country’s phone system, he wrestled with buying new equipment each year, was constantly frustrated with his phone bills, and generally had a hard time running the communication aspect of his business. The way my grown siblings and I talk to each other makes those days look like a model of efficiencey. All we do is cross wires when it comes to talking about important things, especially dinner.
One night, when I was planning on grilling a pair of chickens for eleven, I was told (after much back and forth) that my nineteen-year-old niece and her college roommate and her boyfriend, would be coming for dinner, too. One chicken feeds about four people, and I was planning to stretch the chickens by serving my three-bean salad. But I figured there was no way the two chickens would feed all thirteen, especially when I learned that the boyfriend was a football player.
I almost panicked, but then I took a page from Tamar Adler’s book “An Everlasting Meal.” In it, she often throws an egg into a salad to make it a meal. All I needed to do was to boil some eggs (I cooked nine), slice them in half, and serve them with the chicken, three-bean salad, a plate of tomatoes and red onions, and a large romaine salad. My mother, wise to the ways of feeding many with little, insisted that I serve bread, too. She was right, and we had plenty of food. It helped, too, that the football-player boyfriend was a punter, with a normal appetite, and not a lineman, with an outsized one.
I had always found it vexing to cook chicken on the grill because the legs would burn and the breast would come out raw, or vice versa, but I was excited to make these two birds because of an amazing recipe I found in the current issue of Cook’s Country magazine. It suggested butterflying the birds, which allows them to cook flat on the grill, and it solved all my problems. The chickens practically cooked themselves, and the act of butterflying the animal was as easy as peeling a carrot. Anyone can do it. Just flip the bird so it’s back is up, and cut with a knife or scissors along one side of the backbone. You can either cut along the other side of the backbone, and remove it, or you can leave it attached (which if you’re feeding a lot of people can be a good idea). With the bird laying flat, press on the breast to break the breast bone and have the bird flatten out further. If you are confused, look on the Internet; there are many videos demonstrating the technique.
The recipe called for marinating the birds in wine, thyme, lemon, olive oil, garlic, sugar, and parsley. Cook’s Country magazine is very thorough—they are masters of doing things the right way—and the recipe writer tested all kinds of wine, and all kinds of methods for marinating and cooking the birds. He suggested using a blender to make the marinade, claiming that the blades would release the flavor of the herbs. He may have been right, but he didn’t take into account a rental house that lacked such standard kitchen equipment as a blender (the house lacked a whole lot of other things, but that’s another story; let’s just say “location, location, location,” was all that mattered as it was about fifty yards from the beach).
I did my best to follow the recipe writer’s intentions, but in addition to forsaking the blender, I forgot a key step: poking holes in the chicken so it absorbs the marinade. But, their thoroughness means their recipes really work. They’re built to withstand bad rental houses, dysfunctional families, and anything else that might stand in the way of culinary perfection.
It didn’t matter that I chopped everything by hand (and didn’t really measure anything) mixed up everything in an old Pyrex bowl, threw the marinade on the birds and tucked them into zip lock bags for a couple of hours. The marinade was so good, Santa Maria said she wanted to drink it. The chicken was well worth the effort. Sometimes, it pays to do things the right way, even if the right way isn’t the “right way” at all.
Shore Special: Rental-House Wine and Herb Grilled Chicken
(serves 8 to 13, depending on sides and appetites)
- 3-4 cups dry white wine (cheap is fine, so long as you would drink it on its own)
- 2 or 3 lemons, juiced
- More than couple of good “glugs” of extra-virgin olive oil (about 6 tablespoons)
- 1 head of parsley, chopped
- 1 bunch of fresh thyme, chopped
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 heavy teaspoon fresh pepper
- 2-3 tablespoons salt
- 2 whole chickens (about four pounds each), butterflied.
Combine the wine and other ingredients in a bowl and whisk together.
Put the chickens in with the marinade and mix around.
Put each chicken in a gallon Ziploc bag and pour the marinade around each one, evenly.
Marinate the chickens in the bags in the refrigerator for two hours or longer.
Using a gas grill, heat all elements to high for about fifteen minutes.
Make sure the grill is clean.
Turn off all but one of the elements, and put the chicken, skin side down, over the cooler part of the grill.
Reserve the marinade.
Cover and adjust the grill so it’s about 400 degrees in the grill.
Cook covered for about 50 minutes.
Pour some of the marinade on the chicken.
Flip the birds, and move closer to the heat if possible.
Pour some more marinade on them.
Cook for another 15 minutes or so, or until the internal breast temperature is about 165 and the thigh, too.
If possible, let rest for about ten minutes before serving.
Cut into pieces and enjoy.
Note: For those who really like to do things right, the Cook’s Country recipe is available online. A trial subscription is required.
*(Credit to identifying the “Right Way” condition goes to L. Rust Hills; see “How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man,” for example.)