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Low and slow grilled chicken

JeanMarie Brownson
Dinner at Home

Chicken on a bedspring. The only summer camp meal I care to remember. The novelty of utilizing the metal bedsprings as a rack over the fire redeemed a nasty week of mosquito bites and homesick blues.

The aroma and flavors from cooking over hardwood shifted something in me — summer will forever be tied to wood-cooked chicken.

There was a time when I could grill a half-chicken in 30 minutes. Faster than a round trip to the local takeout store.

I haven't lost my touch. Chickens have simply gotten so much bigger that my timing is off.

The majority of chickens in North America are raised for either meat or eggs. We used to see them in the market labeled broiler/fryers, weighing between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 pounds. I regularly split these small birds down the back to grill to juicy tenderness in a half-hour. A few markets still stock this size bird, and I can order them from my local butcher.

But today, roaster chickens more commonly occupy the meat case. Weighing in at 5-plus pounds, these behemoths take more time and finesse to cook through without drying. (Note that cut-up parts from these birds are bigger too; therefore, timing in older recipes needs adjusting.)

This summer I decided to make my favorite lemon-and-herb-grilled half-chicken recipe with these readily available roasting chickens.

Because of their size and the amount of meat on the breast, I turned the heat down on the grill and turned up the patience. Indirect cooking on a covered grill proves the ticket to success.

By the way, I always cook two chickens; the only incremental time needed is to cut the chickens and herbs. Extra chicken transforms into sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes and soup garnishes all week long. Grilled chicken also can be frozen for an easy, smoky treat later in the summer.

Of course, the chicken can be cooked in a 325-degree oven for about the same amount of time. You'll just be missing smoke flavor and perhaps a little of the romance of summer, including the mosquitoes.

Grill-roasted chicken with lemon and herbs

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

If you're cooking with a gas grill, soak a few handfuls of wood chips in water and then wrap loosely in foil and place over the heat to create a smoky environment inside.

1 whole chicken, about 5 to 5 1/2 pounds

2 lemons

2 to 4 large sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves chopped, thick stems reserved

1/3 cup mixed chopped fresh herbs, such as oregano, thyme, tarragon (or, better yet, a combination)

2 to 3 teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt

1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1. Place the chicken on the work surface breast side down. Use kitchen shears to cut on either side of the backbone and remove it. Turn the chicken over; press down hard on the breastbone to flatten the chicken somewhat. Then use the kitchen shears to split the chicken in half through the breastbone.

2. Place the two chicken halves in a large, nonaluminum baking dish. Sprinkle grated zest of both lemons and squeezed juice of 1 lemon over all sides of the chicken. Mix chopped rosemary, 2 tablespoons of the mixed chopped herbs, salt and pepper in a small dish. Sprinkle evenly over all sides of chicken. Drizzle everything with the olive oil. Let stand while you prepare the grill or refrigerate covered up to 24 hours.

3. Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to high. When the coals are covered with a gray ash, arrange them on two sides of the grill, leaving the center empty. Place a drip pan on the bottom of the grill and place the cooking grate on top. If using a gas grill, turn off the burners in the center of the grill and turn the other burners to medium.

4. Transfer chicken, skin side up, to center of grill (not directly over the heat source). (Save the juices in the pan.) Cover the grill. Cook chicken (do not turn), 30 minutes. Baste with any of the lemon juices and herbs in the pan. Add the reserved rosemary sprigs to the coals or directly over the gas burners. Then continue to grill chicken covered, without turning, until thigh juices run clear when pierced with the tip of a knife, 30-45 minutes. (Total cooking time is 1 hour to 1 hour, 15 minutes.) Add coals if needed after 30minutes of grilling. Grill temperature should maintain about 325 degrees. (I use an oven thermometer to monitor temperature.)

5. Transfer chicken to a cutting board; tent with foil and let rest 10 minutes. Cut chicken breast and leg apart. Garnish with the remaining lemon, thinly sliced, and remaining chopped mixed fresh herbs. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Nutrition information per serving: 476 calories, 29 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 158 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 49 g protein, 788 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Grill-roasted, herb-infused beets

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 45 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

1 ½ pounds small beets, preferably a mixture of red and gold, well scrubbed

½ medium red onion, halved, thinly sliced

2 to 3 sprigs fresh herbs, such as thyme, oregano, tarragon

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt, freshly ground pepper

Drizzle of agave syrup or balsamic glaze, optional

1. Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium. When the coals are covered with a gray ash, arrange them on two sides of the grill leaving the center empty. If using a gas grill, turn off the burners in the center of the grill.

2. While the grill heats, cut two large sheets of heavy-duty foil; overlap them on the counter. Peel the beets and cut in half. (If the beets are larger, cut them into quarters.) Place the beets in the center of the foil. Top with the onion slices and herb sprigs. Drizzle with oil. Wrap carefully to enclose ingredients and make a leak-free package.

3. Place the foil package near (but not touching) the hot embers or place in the center of the gas grill (not over the heat source). Cook on medium (an oven thermometer should register about 325 degrees), turning packet over once, until beets are tender, 35-45 minutes. To check for tenderness, insert a small paring knife through the foil into a beet; however, use caution as the juices can now leak from this area.

4. Slide a baking sheet under the foil packet to remove it from the grill. Open the packet; dump the entire contents into a serving bowl. Carefully remove and discard herb sprigs. Season beets with salt and pepper. Drizzle very lightly with agave syrup or balsamic glaze if you like. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Nutrition information per serving: 91 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 84 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Grilling tips

•Seek out natural hardwood lump charcoal for the best smoke flavor with no chemical taste. I like the charcoal sold at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's; both ignite easily and burn steadily.

•Use a chimney starter for rapid coal heating; an electric starter makes a nice choice too. Avoid fluid and solid starters at all costs; they add a nasty taste and aroma to food. If you must use them, allow a full 30 minutes for them to burn off before adding food to a grill.

•Large chickens and roasts require indirect cooking to stay moist. To set up a charcoal grill for indirect cooking, heat a bunch of hardwood charcoal until the embers are white hot and covered with gray ash. Then use grill tongs to move the coals to two sides of the grill leaving the center empty. Place a drip pan on the bottom of the grill and place the cooking grate on top.

•To use indirect cooking on a gas grill, heat the gas grill to hot. Then, turn off the burners in the center of the grill. Reduce the other burners to medium. Position the food over the turned-off burners.

•Always cook on a clean grill grate; food will stick less. It's easiest to clean the cooking grate when hot; use a wire grill brush or a wadded up piece of foil to carefully scrub it clean.

•Use an oven thermometer on the grill to help maintain an even temperature.

•Resist the urge to open the grill too often as this causes the internal temperature to drop quite a bit.

•There's no need to turn and flip foods when cooking by the indirect method.

•Midway through the grilling, I like to add dampened herb sprigs to the coals (or directly over the lit gas burners) to infuse meat, seafood and vegetables with an herby aroma. Corncobs, dried in the sun for a few days, also can be added to hot embers for a smoky flavor.

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