I based this recipe on a Mario Batali recipe that Richard May posted. The original recipe called for a massive amount of fennel pollen, not an ingredient that you can pick up at any supermarket. I went with the alternative, toasted fennel seeds, and—perhaps being less fond of fennel—I used a lot less. I also thought that Mario’s recipe used way too much salt.
Tip: If you plan ahead you can find the fennel pollen on-line.
Interesting Side Note: According to 23andMe, Mario and I are distant cousins—I mean really distant. If you trace his father’s-father’s-father’s back and my father’s-father’s-etc. you will find that we have one male progenitor in common. My father was apparently ~10% Italian. This is confusing to me given that my father’s family came from an endogamous community in Prussia. That means that our connection must have been waaay back, I suspect maybe the Middle Ages or even earlier.
In the United States the young chickens that are called for in the recipe are sold as “fryers” (2½ to 3½ pounds). These can be sometimes hard to find, since most chickens sold in supermarkets are “roasters” (3½ to 5 pounds) or “stewing chickens” labeled as roasters (5 to 7 pounds). The younger the bird the more quickly and tender it will cook.
Karl’s Pollo al Mattone (Chicken Under Brick)
1 whole chicken (3-4 lbs.)
1 Tbs. toasted fennel seeds ground
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbs. fresh thyme, minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 basil leaves, whole
2 bricks wrapped in aluminum foil
1. Rinse and pat the chicken dry. Remove the backbone and wing tips with culinary sheers.
Note: My sister Grace bought me these sheers for Christmas years ago and they have been invaluable.
2. Use a sharp paring knife to cut out the breast bone.
Tip: Although it is not necessary, I like to remove the ribs and the thin bones under the breast. These have very little meat on them and they prevent the marinade from soaking into the underside of the breast. Also, after cutting out the back, the sharp points of the ribs tend to punch holes in the plastic marinating bag.
3. Use a sharp fork to prick the skin of the breasts and thighs.
Tip: You are not trying to pierce the meat, but to give the fat that is rendered under the skin an avenue of escape. This makes for a crisper skin.
4. Toast and grind the fennel seeds into a powder.
5. Put the fennel, salt, pepper, thyme, garlic, olive oil into a small bowl and mix it into a paste.
6. Smear the herb paste over the chicken, inside and out, and place the chicken in a gallon plastic bag.
7. Press the air out of the bag and seal it. Refrigerate the chicken for at least 8 hours, flipping it occasionally.
Tip: Preferably marinate the chicken overnight.
8. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator an hour before you intend to cook it.
Tip: This is to bring the meat up to room temperature, so that it cooks evenly.
9. Build a bi-level fire and place the foil wrapped bricks directly over the coals.
10. Oil the grill well and place the chicken with the breast nearest the edge of the bed of coals—but not directly over the coals.
11. Place the bricks on top of the chicken and close the grill lid.
12. Grill for fifteen minutes and then turn the chicken over and point the legs slightly over the coals. Replace the bricks.
Tip: Be careful when you are releasing the chicken skin from the grill bars. You do not want to tear the skin.
13. Insert a constant-read meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and set it to 160º F.
14. When the alarm rings, remove the bricks and place the bird, skin side down directly over the coals. Increase the temperature on the meat thermometer to 165º F.
15. When the alarm rings again, transfer the chicken to a platter and cover it with aluminum foil.
16. Let the meat rest for 10 minutes, to redistribute the juices.
17. Garnish with whole basil leaves and serve.