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Pollo al Mattone, Or Chicken Under a Brick

A long time ago, a reader wrote, saying, “Hi, I am searching for an Italian dish called “Pollo al Mattone,” which is cooked with a brick to weigh it down and make it crispy.”

Pollo al mattone is indeed crispy, and brings back memories of childhood, when we would stay at a friend’s hotel on the Tuscan coast, where Beppe, Laura’s father, would grill chickens out back in a little hearth scooped out of the sand. I think he may have used blocks of basalt (they were dark) instead of brick, but the chickens he cooked were still wonderful.

You’ll need:

  • Moderately large chickens (you don’t want huge birds here) sufficient to feed your party, split, with their wings folded back, and with their sternums removed
  • The herbs of choice (see below)
  • Clean bricks or non-porous blocks of stone (Italians often use small basalt blocks of the sort used as paving stones instead of bricks — you don’t want a porous rock such as a sandstone that has absorbed moisture, because as it heats it could crumble or even explode)

And how to proceed?

In introducing Pollo al Mattone in La Cucina Toscana, Giovanni Righi Parenti says it’s an extremely old dish: Frescos depicting what appears to be a grill with a chicken being flattened by a stone occur in Etruscan tombs. Here are his instructions:

Clean the bird, chop off the neck (many Italian chickens still come with neck and head attached), and split it up the breast (he doesn’t say so, but remove the breastbone), then press it flat and pound it well with the flat of a thick-bladed knife, as if you were pounding a cutlet. Make a rub by mincing a few leaves of sage, one or two cloves of garlic, salt, abundant freshly ground black pepper, and a little red pepper. Rub the rub into the meat, rub it with abundant olive oil, and set it aside until you are ready to grill it (if you do this do this the day before, letting it marinate in the oil, you won’t have to baste as you grill).

Once the coals are ready – you want them hot but not searingly hot – lay the bird over them and place a well-cleaned brick over it to help keep it flat. Use a potholder to lift the brick when it’s time to turn the bird over. Mr. Parenti suggests 15-20 minutes’ cooking time, which in my experience isn’t enough — I often grill chicken for close to an hour. Exactly how long you do cook the bird will depend upon its size and the heat of the fire; it will be done when you sick a skewer into the wing joint and the juices run clear. Mr. Parenti also notes that if you do not marinate the bird in olive oil, you will have to baste it with olive oil repeatedly as it cooks lest it dry out.

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Pollo al Mattone, Or Chicken Under a Brick

A long while ago, I got a note saying, “Hi, I am searching for an Italian dish called Pollo al Mattone, which is cooked with a brick to weigh it down and make it crispy.” Pollo al mattone is crispy, and brings back memories of childhood, when we would stay at a friend’s hotel on the Tuscan coast, where Beppe, Laura’s father, would grill chickens out back in a little hearth scooped out of the sand. I think he may have used blocks of basalt (they were dark) instead of brick to flatten the birds, which tasted wonderful.

You’ll need:

  • Chickens sufficient to feed your party, split and with their sternums removed
  • The herbs of choice (see below)
  • Clean bricks or non-porous blocks of stone (Italians often use small basalt blocks of the sort used as paving stones instead of bricks — you don’t want a porous rock such as a sandstone that has absorbed moisture, because as it heats it could crumble or even explode)

In introducing Pollo al Mattone in La Cucina Toscana, Giovanni Righi Parenti says it’s extremely old: Frescos depicting what appears to be a grill with a chicken being flattened by a stone occur in Etruscan tombs. Here are his instructions:

Clean the bird, chop off the neck (many Italian chickens still come with neck and head attached), and split it up the breast (I would perhaps split it up the back), then press it flat and pound it well with the flat of a thick-bladed knife, as if you were pounding a cutlet. Make a rub by mincing a few leaves of sage, one or two cloves of garlic, salt, abundant freshly ground black pepper, and a little red pepper. Rub the rub into the meat, rub it with abundant olive oil, and set it aside until you are ready to grill it (if you do this do this the day before, letting it marinate in the oil, you won’t have to baste as you grill).

Once the coals are ready (you want them hot but not searingly hot) lay the bird over them and place a well-cleaned brick over it to help keep it flat. Use a potholder to lift the brick when it’s time to turn the bird over. Mr. Parenti suggests 15-20 minutes’ cooking time, which in my experience isn’t enough — I often grill chicken for close to an hour. Exactly how long you do cook the bird will depend upon its size and the heat of the fire; it will be done when you sick a skewer into the wing joint and the juices run clear. Mr. Parenti also notes that if you do not marinate the bird in olive oil, you will have to baste it with olive oil repeatedly as it cooks lest it dry out.

How to Stuff and Cook a Boned Chicken, Illustrated

Stuffed Boned Chicken, with Caponata: Enjoy!

Stuffed Boned Chicken, with Caponata: Enjoy!

Cooking a chicken once you have boned it is easy: you simply prepare the stuffing, stuff the bird, and cook it, and it should come as no surprise that there are a great many Italian recipes for stuffing birds, especially chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese. But as is true always, there are a few caveats.

In particular, since there is no skeleton to hold the meat up, it tends to settle during cooking, and as a result the stuffing is much firmer than it would be in an unboned bird.

Italian cooks take this into account in preparing stuffings; they generally use ground meats and other firmer ingredients, for example chestnuts or apples, rather than bread, and the stuffing serves to increase the amount of meat available, rather than act as a side dish. A chicken stuffed in the Italian way will easily serve 8, and there may be leftovers.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: What You'll Need

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: What You’ll Need

A Simple Stuffed Chicken Recipe

This is a very simple recipe of my mother-in-law’s that works well year round; I prefer to serve it warm in the winter months, and cool in the summer. You’ll need:

  • A boned medium-to-large chicken
  • 1 pound (500 g) ground veal
  • 1/4 pound (125 g) cooked ham
  • 1/4 pound (125 g) mortadella
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives, chopped
  • 1/2 cup pistachio nuts, chopped
  • 3-5 leaves sage, shredded
  • The leaves from a 6-inch (15 cm) sprig of rosemary, chopped
  •  2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • A mesh bag, a heavy-duty needle, and butcher’s twine

 

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Blend the Meats, But Not Too Finely

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Blend the Meats, But Not Too Finely

Put the meats in the blender.
Put the ground veal in the blender with the ham and the mortadella. Blend the mixture, using the pulse function of the blender to shred the cold cuts. Don’t overblend or you will end up with a paste.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Combine the Other Ingredients of the Stuffing

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Combine the Other Ingredients of the Stuffing

Turn the blended meats out into a bowl and add to the olives and nuts. You can use whatever kind of olive you prefer; in this case I used plain black pitted olives cured in brine, and left them whole so they would be easier to see in the picture. I generally chop them, and also chop the pistachios. If you want you can also use a mixture of nuts, for example pistachios and walnuts.

Next, add the herbs — both sage and rosemary are nice with ground veal, and parsley is universal — and season to taste with salt and pepper; I went heavier on the pepper here because mortadella and ham are both salty. Feel free to use other herbs and spices as well, for example, a little paprika or freshly ground nutmeg.

In any case, mix the stuffing well.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Sew The Neck Opening Shut with Butcher's Twine

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Sew The Neck Opening Shut with Butcher’s Twine

To keep the stuffing from leaking out as the chicken cooks, sew the neck cavity shut using a heavy needle (an upholsterer’s needle is perfect here) and heavy thread or butchers’ twine. If you don’t have butcher’s twine, use a couple of long wooden skewers.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Now, Stuff the Bird

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Now, Stuff the Bird

Fill the chicken with the stuffing, pressing it down firmly — unlike a bread stuffing, which should be light and airy, here you want something fairly compact. Should you have any leftover stuffing, it makes excellent meatballs.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Before Bagging the Chicken, Tie it Lengthwise

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Before Bagging the Chicken, Tie it Lengthwise

When you finish stuffing the bird, sew the second opening shut and run a length of twine from top to bottom of the bird to help it keep its shape.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Turn the Mesh Bag Inside Out

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Turn the Mesh Bag Inside Out

Since it’s boned, the chicken will be more delicate as it cooks, and can fall apart, especially if you boil it. To combat this problem, use a length of finely woven mesh of the sort butchers have, tying a knot in it and turning it inside out to make a mesh bag. Another option is to use a small muslin bag.

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Tied Widthwise Too, And Into the Pot

To Stuff a Boned Chicken: Tied Widthwise Too, And Into the Pot

Put the chicken in the bag, and tie it as you might a salami, wrapping it crosswise so as to make the chicken elongate. Prick the skin in several spots with a carving fork.

Though you can roast a stuffed chicken, my mother-in-law prefers to boil it, putting it in cold water to cover with a carrot, a stick of celery, an onion stuck with two cloves, and several sprigs of parsley. Season the water with several peppercorns and salt to taste, and add the bones of the carcass, if you have them. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer the chicken for about 2 hours, skimming the foam that rises to the top of the pot occasionally.

Remove the mesh bag and thinly slice the chicken crosswise. Arrange the slices on a platter and serve them with mayonnaise, pickles, and whatever other vegetables you prefer. In this case we had caponata (Sicilian stewed vegetables) with our stuffed chicken.

The water the chicken cooked in will be an excellent broth; after you have degreased it you can use it to make something along the lines of stracciatella, Roman egg-drop soup, or serve it with tortellini or pastina.

How to Bone a Chicken, Turkey, or Other Bird

Boning a chicken: Begin!

Boning a chicken: Begin!

This is how Adriano Alti, my father-in-law, boned birds in his poultry shop in Florence. Unlike some other techniques, which require making a cut along the back, Adriano’s technique leaves the skin intact, and this makes it much easier to stuff the boned bird, or do whatever else the recipe calls for.

In addition to a bird, you will need a couple of knives, one with a stronger blade for cutting through the joints, and one finer for trimming the flesh away from the bones. Both should be quite sharp, and if you have a sharpening steel you will want to use it. You’ll also need a cutting board.

In terms of time required, things go quicker with practice. Adriano, who has a lot, can bone a chicken in less than 5 minutes, and does a duck in about the same time. It takes him a bit longer to do a turkey, because it’s bigger.

Boning a chicken: Trim the wings

Boning a chicken: Trim the wings

Begin by removing the wingtips. Set them aside, together with the other bones, to make stock.

Boning a chicken: Work the skin back

Boning a chicken: Work the skin back

Next, slip your fingers under the skin at the neck hole, and work the skin back until you expose one of the shoulder joints.

Boning a chicken: Cut the Shoulder Joint

Boning a chicken: Cut the Shoulder Joint

Using your larger knife, cut through the shoulder joint to separate the wing bones from the carcass.

Boning a chicken: Scrape the Meat From The Bones

Boning a chicken: Scrape the Meat From The Bones

After you have freed the wing bones, scrape and trim the meat from them using the knife. When you have fisnished, the bones will be clean, while the flesh will be attached to the skin.

Boning a chicken: Scrape the Meat From The Bones

Boning a chicken: Scrape the Meat From The Bones

Grip the stripped-clean end of the wing bone (that which was closest to the shoulder originally) and pull gently; the wing will end up inside-out with the bone attached to the skin only at its extremity. Cut it free and add it to the stock pile. Repeat the process with the other wing.

Boning a chicken: Pull out the wing bone

Boning a chicken: Pull out the wing bone

Pull the skin a little further back over the breast, to expose the wishbone.

Boning a chicken: Expose the wish bone

Boning a chicken: Expose the wish bone

Once you have exposed the upper part of the breast, use your shaper knife to cut under and along the wishbone and thus free it of the breast meat. Remove it and add it to the stock pile.

Boning a chicken: Remove the wish bone

Boning a chicken: Remove the wish bone

Work back along the rib cage, turning the chicken inside out as you go.

Boning a chicken: Trim the Meat from the carcass

Boning a chicken: Trim the Meat from the carcass

You are now ready to trim the meat from the carcass. Using your sharper, finer knife, trim the meat along the ribs, pushing the chicken flesh back as you go; the effect will be rather like turning a sock inside out. Be careful during this phase to keep the point, and blade, of the knife pointed towards the carcass lest you inadvertently puncture the skin.

Dislocate the hips and push the legs down.

Boning a chicken: Dislocate the hips

Boning a chicken: Dislocate the hips

There are two ways to proceed at this point, and we’ll do this one first.

When you come to the legs, bend the knees (one at a time) and continue turning the chicken inside-out to expose them. when you have exposed them, push them flat to dislocate them (Adriano picks the bird up and twists them back, one at a time, and it does take some effort). But doing so makes it easier to cut through the hip joints.

Boning a chicken: Cut through the hip joints

Boning a chicken: Cut through the hip joints

Once you have dislocated the hips, cut through the joints with your heavier knife to separate the legs from the carcass.

Boning a chicken: Finish freeing the carcass

Boning a chicken: Finish freeing the carcass

When you reach the tail bone, cut through it.
Now that the legs are freed from the carcass, continue trimming along the carcass, keeping the point and cutting edge of the knife pointed towards the carcass rather than the skin, until you reach the tailbone. Sever the spine at this point and you will have separated the carcass from the chicken.

Boning a chicken: Scrape the meat from the leg bones

Boning a chicken: Scrape the meat from the leg bones

The chicken still has the leg bones at this point. Proceed as you did with the wings, trimming and scraping them to remove the flesh from them.

Boning a chicken: Cut the leg bones free

Boning a chicken: Cut the leg bones free

When you have trimmed the meat from the leg bones, grasp them by their free ends (those that were towards the hips) and pull; the legs will go inside out, and you can cut the bones free.

An Alternate Technique for Boning the Legs

Boning a chicken: Another way to bone the legs

Boning a chicken: Another way to bone the legs

You can also bone the legs in stages, first the drumsticks and then the thighs, and this technique might be easier with a larger bird, say a turkey.

When you are trimming the meat from the carcass and get to the legs (step 9), flex one and cut through the knee joint. Scrape the meat from the drumstick, pull the free end out, and cut the drumstick free. Repeat the process with the other drumstick.

Boning a chicken: Dislocate the hips

Boning a chicken: Dislocate the hips

Dislocate the hips by pushing them down flat and twisting them (this will take a little effort). Scrape the meat from the bones.

Boning a chicken: Scrape the meat from the bones

Boning a chicken: Scrape the meat from the bones

Trim and scrape the meat from the thigh bones, and then cut them free from the carcass.

Boning a chicken: Separate the carcass from the meat

Boning a chicken: Separate the carcass from the meat

Once you have removed the thigh bones, continue trimming and scraping until you reach the tailbone. Cut through the spine at this point to separate the carcass from the chicken’s body.

Boning a chicken: Turn the chicken skin side out

Boning a chicken: Turn the chicken skin side out

At this point your chicken will be inside-out. Turn it right-side-out, the way you might a sock, so the skin is on the outside.

Boning a chicken: Done!

Boning a chicken: Done!

You’re done! You now have a boned chicken, ready to be put to use, and a pile of bones that will be perfect for making stock.

If you are making Italian style broth, boil the carcass with beef (shanks, brisket, or similar cuts), and a piece of spongy bone. Start with cold water, and add to the pot half an onion spiked with a clove, a small stick of celery, a small carrot, and a small bunch of parsley. Season to taste with salt and a few peppercorns, and simmer the broth, skimming the foam that rises to the surface, until it’s done, about 2 hours. It will be perfect with pasta (especially pastina, tiny bits of pasta), passatelli, or tortellini.

Another option would be chicken soup.

Chicken with Bell Peppers, Pollo ai Peperoni

Chicken With Bell Peppers

Chicken With Bell Peppers

Chicken with bell peppers is a classic north Italian dish, or at least that is where I have encountered it — in Piemonte, and very fine eating it is.

  • A drawn chicken weighing about 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 k)
  • 3 meaty bell peppers of the colors you prefer
  • 3 medium onions
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • A sprig of fresh rosemary
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 3/5 cups (400 ml) dry white wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C).

While it’s heating, season the bird inside and out with salt and pepper to taste and slip the rosemary and bay leaves into the cavity. Truss the bird and put it in a fairly high-sided baking dish.

Wash, stem, seed, and rib the peppers, and dice them. Peel the onions and slice them crosswise quite finely.

Distribute the onions and peppers over the chicken, seasoning them too to taste with salt and pepper, dot the vegetables with the butter, and sprinkle the wine over all.

Cover the pan and bake the chicken for 45 minutes to an hour (or until the juices from a skewer inserted into the wing joint run clear), basting the bird occasionally with the pan drippings.

When the bird is done, chop it and serve it with the cooked vegetables and the pan drippings to taste. In the winter it’s especially nice with polenta, and in terms of a wine I would think about a Dolcetto or an unoaked Barbera.

A note: The picture is from a restaurant in Barolo, and I think they may have chopped the chicken before roasting it. You could too if you want, though roasting it with the herbs in the cavity will infuse their aromas in the meat.