Monday, August 2, 2010

Hot rocks and an Italian flavour

There is something so special about meat that is cooked over coals or a wood fire. The flames and the coals give the meat a wonderful smoky character that an oven just can't deliver. I think about some of my favourite food experiences and a lot of them involve food cooked and eaten outside on a fire - succulent fresh fish prepared on the beach at Jimbaran Bay in Bali, swoon inducing Satay in a smoke filled street market in Singapore, the delectable aroma of spicy Italian sausages cooking on a backyard BBQ in Marrickville.

My fiancee Andrew is a true devotee of cooking over coals (he insists on cooking pretty much everything on the Weber if he can get away with it!) and today's recipe was inspired by his love of hot coals and my love of rustic Italian food. The result is a delicious dish that is full of gorgeous flavours,contrasting textures and of course that brilliant smoky character that cooking over coals imparts.

Recently I attended the Sydney Food and Wine Show, and as well as coming home laden with two new Japanese knives, a Jarrah wood rolling pin and chopping board, breasts of quail, duck, honey, a bottle of NZ Limoncello, four kinds of cheese, a whole baby salmon, salmon roe and lots of other "essentials" (well, I told myself they were!) - I also purchased two Spatchcocks.

Spatchcock (also called Poussin or Spring Chicken) is a young chicken that weighs from between 450 to 750g. Spatchcock is a delicious meat - incredibly sweet and tender and is a lovely alternative to your standard roast chook. It was once quite difficult to source, but is becoming much easier to find. If you do not see it at your butcher, then ask them to order some for you. It also looks fantastic on the plate and makes for a wow factor dinner party dish. You can serve 1 per person as a main course - although I would choose the smaller sizes if you plan to stuff the birds - as I have in my recipe. A 750g bird would be far too much for one person once it has been stuffed.

The amounts given in the recipe below are for two people - or you could do 4 serves as a substantial entree or lighter lunch. Just cut the spatchcocks in half once they have rested if serving four people.You can of course cook this dish in the oven, but if you have a Weber or covered BBQ then I would suggest using it - you will end up with a superior flavour.

I have given my spatchcocks a rustic Italian feel, with a rich mushroom stuffing, lots of garlic, roasted tomatoes and super creamy parmesan polenta. You could plate them up individually or do a big, bountiful platter that you place in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves. However you serve it, I guarantee you will literally want to lick the plate clean....

Roasted spatchcock with mushroom stuffing and Parmesan polenta

You will need: 2 spatchcocks, 1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, 1 egg, 1 red onion finely chopped, 3 cloves finely chopped  garlic, 2 cups sliced mushrooms, 2 rashers chopped bacon or proscuitto (rind removed), 1 teaspoon fresh thyme (remove the rough stalk so you are left with just the soft leaves) , salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon chopped continental parsley, 1/2 tablespoon butter, splash of olive oil, 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese.

Method: First, rinse the spatchcocks in cold water and then dry them thoroughly with paper towels, inside and out. Set aside.

To make the stuffing, heat the butter and a splash of olive oil in a pan. Add the bacon (or proscuitto) and onions and cook until the onions are soft and transperent. Add the thyme, garlic and mushrooms, season with salt and a little pepper and cook for about five minutes.

Add the mushroom mixture to the fresh breadcrumbs, parsley, Parmesan and egg. Season well with salt and pepper. Combine thoroughly and then allow the stuffing mixture to cool.

Stuff the spatchcocks with the filling, making sure the stuffing is well distributed.After you have finished stuffing the birds, you can use toothpicks, a skewer or trussing string to close up the cavity if you wish. It is not absolutely necessary, but will make for neater presentation if you do. It also ensures the stuffing does not come out of the birds when they are in the oven, which can sometimes happen as the stuffing expands a little during cooking.

If you are using a Weber or covered BBQ, cook the birds for around 30-35 minutes, basting occasionally. If you are using the oven, cook them in a moderate oven for around 40 minutes. As sizes of spatchcocks can vary, so will cooking times, so they may take a little bit longer or a little less. They are cooked when the juices around the thickest part of the spatchcock (leg and thigh) runs clear.

Cover the spatchcocks loosely in foil and allow them to rest for 10 mins before serving. Drizzle over the pan juices just before you bring the birds to the table. You could serve gravy if you really wanted to, but there is so much flavour in the meat, stuffing and the pan juices, I think it would be a shame to drown it all in gravy.

Suggested accompaniments: I served my spatchcocks with oven roasted tomatoes (leave them on the stalk for a nice presentation), steamed sugar snap peas, asparagus and sauteed mushrooms with garlic and parsley. I placed the spatchcocks on a bed of creamy Parmesan polenta (cornmeal)

To make polenta, just follow the directions on the packet - but if they suggest using water, replace this with chicken stock for extra flavour. I always use a whisk to stir my polenta instead of a wooden spoon, as it tends to pick up all the polenta from the sides and the bottom of the pan much more efficiently. Polenta has a tendency to stick if you do not tend to it well and the whisk really helps. Prepare the polenta as directed and just prior to serving, stir in a generous amount of grated Parmesan, a touch of butter (more than a touch if you are feeling decadent) and plenty of salt and pepper.

Polenta warning!!! When cooking polenta, be aware that when it boils, it becomes the consistency and temperature of molten lava and tends to splutter. Be careful! Avoid nasty burns and a very messy cooktop by making sure that you turn the heat down low and cook it gently. It will also help to put a lid on the pan (but leave it askew so that the steam can escape)


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