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Originally published July 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 2, 2008 at 4:37 AM

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Nancy Leson

Girl meets grill and gets the best out of the birds

Several years ago, I bought my husband, Mac, a fabulous Father's Day gift: a new Weber grill. It's one of those dome-top kettles with the...

Seattle Times food writer

Nancy Leson on KPLU

THE SEATTLE TIMES writer's commentaries on food and restaurants can be heard on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays.

This week: The thrill of the grill

Several years ago, I bought my husband, Mac, a fabulous Father's Day gift: a new Weber grill. It's one of those dome-top kettles with the handy countertop attachment. Like some Dad's Day gifts — including last year's Le Creuset skillet, and the previous year's cast-iron griddle — Mom gets more use out of the gifts than Dad does.

But while I can cook up a stack of hotcakes on "his" griddle, and sauté a mean chicken breast (with a proper sauce reduction) in that heavy-bottomed skillet, when it comes to the Weber, I can only eat the products of my husband's labor. That's because I've never deigned do the dirty work. Why should I, when he's always willing to do it? Well, I'll tell you why:

Because he's not always around to do the job. And because there's a vast difference in taste between food prepared on a propane-fueled gas grill (we've got one of those, too) and food grilled over a charcoal fire. As for that "dirty job," I've finally decided it's one well worth having in my culinary skills-kit, so I asked Mac to give me a lesson and figured I'd pass his tips to you — just in time for the July 4 weekend. That's when I intend to bring a pair of grill-roasted chickens (and my husband's "barbecue" specialty, made by my own loving hand) to our annual neighborhood barbecue.

Mac's version of "Captain Bay-Schmith's Chicken" is named for our dearly departed next-door neighbor — who was a taciturn sea captain, a daring Dane and a heck of a lot of fun after he knocked back a few snorts of Gammel Dansk. The captain turned Mac on to his recipe 20 years ago, and I'm convinced it's the best chicken I've ever eaten. I posted the recipe, complete with step-by-step photos and directions for grilling it, on my All You Can Eat blog May 16, and I'll give you the recipe here. But first, let's discuss the dirtiest of the dirty work: preparing the grill.

If there's leftover charcoal in it from the last use, reuse it. Add the old coals — set over a couple of sheets of wadded-up newspaper — to your chimney-starter, filling it to the top with fresh charcoal. Set the chimney on the grill's grate and light it from the bottom. If you don't own a chimney starter, go buy one. They're cheap (about $10) and work like a charm. Besides: They save you from having to buy (and douse) the charcoal with nasty lighter fluid, but you weren't going to do that anyway, right?

Regarding charcoal: Mac insists on using briquettes for long-cooked items like whole birds and roasts. He's partial to original Kingsford, sold in double-bags full at Costco, though he has good things to say about Stubb's 100% All Natural Bar-B-Q briquettes, widely available around town. Mesquite, he says, works best for quick grill work if you're making burgers, steaks or chops. But for Captain Bay-Schmith's Chicken — or anything else that needs indirect heat — mesquite burns too hot and too fast.

Mac told me it was important to brush the residual ash off the sides and bottom of the grill, and he uses a brush kept solely for the purpose. (He also keeps a pair of sturdy "sanitary gloves" for grilling — his joke, they're filthy.) It's a pain in the ash to get all the ash out, but if you don't, whatever you're cooking gets covered with a fine coat of soot: not so good.

During the 20 minutes or so that the coals are heating in the chimney starter — you want them to be white-hot — go inside and prep the chicken. For this amazingly simple recipe, you'll need a chicken, or two. We buy broiler/fryers and always make two because it's great "company" food, because that way we don't have to fight over who gets the drumsticks and who gets the thighs, and because the leftovers are spectacular. You'll also need a medium onion, a lemon, several large lettuce leaves and the secret ingredient: Lawry's Seasoned Salt.

To prep your bird(s), rinse them, pat them dry and stuff the cavity with half an onion and half a lemon per chicken. Truss the legs with kitchen twine and use a couple of toothpicks to close the cavity. Then completely dust them with the Lawry's. Let the chicken sit for a bit while you go out and finish preparing the grill.

Mac didn't have to tell me to clean the filthy grate before putting the chicken on it (best done once it's hot). And I don't have to offer up this tip, but I will: I regularly haunt dollar-stores to stock up on cheap grill brushes. At 99 cents each, you can throw them away when they get too funky: something you're not likely to do too often if you've spent $4.99 (or more!) on a grill brush.

If you've got those little basket thingamajigs in your grill — like the ones that came with our Weber — great. If not, distribute the hot coals around the perimeter. As I said, the chicken requires indirect heat. Mac always puts some "green" cuttings from our fruit trees (apple or cherry) in with the charcoal. It adds a distinctive smokiness, and if you don't have any, go scavenge for some!

Some grillmeisters — like Steve Raichlen, whose "How to Grill" (Workman Publishing) is a terrific tome, if you're looking for a reference book on the subject — use a drip pan to catch grease, tucking it between the coal-baskets. But Mac's convinced it blocks the flow of air and affects the taste of his chicken.

Now that you've got your grill hot and ready, position the chicken in the center of the grate and cover with the lettuce leaves. Put the lid back on, making certain the vent is open on both the top and the bottom. Now go have a beer, read a book or throw balls for the dog. But don't disturb the birds.

Let them roast for about 40 minutes before removing the lettuce leaves. The chicken will still be kind of white, and where the lettuce wasn't covering the bird it'll have a deep, dark Coppertone tan — as well it should. Spin the birds (not the grate) 180 degrees — Mac's "sanitary gloves" come in handy for this. If there are hot or cold spots in the grill, that helps even things out. Put the lid back on and continue roasting.

For a single bird, it should take about an hour and 10 minutes total roasting time, give or take, till the chicken's done. If you're making two, the roasting time will be about an hour and a half. And if you're using a larger chicken (more than 3 ¾ pounds), you'll have to increase the time and keep checking. It may take closer to two hours for bigger birds. Mac never uses a meat thermometer for Captain Bay-Schmith's chicken the way he does when he grill-roasts his Thanksgiving turkey — he just jiggles the leg. If the joints are loose, you're good to go, if not, keep on cooking till they wiggle freely. (If you're thermometer-centric, make sure it reads 170 in the thickest part of the chicken.)

Since the grill's already hot, once you've taken the chicken off to rest before carving, consider throwing some asparagus, scallions or a head of escarole on the barbie. A little olive oil, some kosher salt and you've got an easy meal.

Then pat yourself on the back, as I plan to do this weekend after I hoist my bronzed beauties onto a pretty platter and show them off to my neighbors at our Fourth of July barbecue. Then, I plan to raise a glass of something cold — and a smoky, juicy drumstick — in honor of our old pal Captain Bay-Schmith.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nancy Leson
Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants. Check her latest thoughts in her All You Can Eat blog. Her column appears each Wednesday. Her restaurant roundups appear monthly, on Fridays, in the Restaurants and Entertainment sections.
nancyleson@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8838 | Blog

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