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August 2, 2012

'Now trust me on this ...'


---- — The Crier doesn’t have a food column, but I’ve shared a few recipes with you over the years. Perhaps you’ll remember “Cooking Your Own Goose,” and the varied formulae for a Fly Creek martini. Well, 10 summers ago I shared a barbecued grilled chicken that’s become a staple for Anne and me when we get into really hot weather around here — like now. And so, here it is again.

I don’t claim to have created the recipe.  Friends in Canandaigua, knowing Anne and I both like puttering in the kitchen, sent us a subscription to “Cook’s  Illustrated.” The quarterly’s editor is obsessed with finding the very best way to do anything connected with preparing food. 

He runs endless tedious experiments, slightly changing this ingredient or that, raising the oven temperature five degrees, lengthening cooking time by 40 seconds — all to find perfection in cream biscuits, homemade tomato sauce, apple strudel, etc.  His resulting magazine’s a kind of “Consumer Reports” for cooks.

Anyway, this culinary zealot (and I do hope he has other things in his life) gave over part of the summer issue to the world’s best covered-grill barbecued chicken.  Well, we tried it.  He’s right.  The recipe’s bizarre, but the result’s over the moon.

You’ll need a covered grill, a broiler-sized bird, kosher salt, and a can of beer. Plus some spices.

First, soak the chicken in heavy brine: Put a cup of kosher salt in enough water to cover the bird, and set the whole thing in the refrigerator for an hour.

Next step, fire up the grill, arranging the charcoal to both sides, leaving a cool spot in the center.  (The bird roasts by convection.) If you’re using a gas grill, light only one burner; or, if the unit has three burners, light the two outside ones. Leave the grill to heat, and get to work on the chicken.

You need a 3½ pound roaster.  (The right size is, as you’ll see, essential.) Rub the bird, inside and out, with dry spices. The zealot’s formula is: 2 Tsp ground cumin, 2 Tsp curry powder, 2 Tsp chili powder, 1 Tsp allspice, 1 Tsp ground black pepper, 1 tsp ground cinnamon. (Yep, they’re all tablespoons except the last.)  This is enough mix for a couple of birds. It keeps.

Get the bird out of the brine and dry it off. Rub the spice mixture all over the bird, inside and out — even under the skin of the breast.

O.K., now comes the part that may strain our relationship.

Take a can of beer (cheap is fine), and pour off or drink off a quarter cup.  Punch a few extra holes around the top.  Then — trust me! — put the beer, can and all, inside the chicken.

I’ll admit I felt squeamish the first time I did this.  It just seemed like a terrible final indignity to a bird that had already been through a lot. But the recipe did ease things.  It didn’t say “Shove the beer can into. . .” No. It said, “Slide chicken over can so that drumsticks reach down to bottom of can and chicken stands upright.”

Upright. That’s how you place it on the grill.  Standing, as it were, on tiptoe, supported by the drumstick ends and the can’s bottom. The first time, I thought it looked poignant; as if the bird, wings folded under, were about to attempt a pirouette. I felt touched as I lowered the grill lid.

But when I raised it 45 minutes later, that bird was already a golden brown. It looked delicious.  As directed, I rotated it a half-turn and closed the grill again. (Keep the grill temperature, by the way, around 350 if you can.) In another 45 minutes, the instant thermometer registered 175 degrees in the thigh’s thickness. Done, said the editor. 

With Anne’s help and a big wad of paper towels, I extricated the beer can, cooled the chicken a bit, and carved. Whoa! What a bird!

Actress Amanda Paige, visiting home in Fly Creek, was with us for the meal. She pronounced it delicious.  And she even gave the recipe a name — far better, I thought, than the editor’s. “Call it,” said Amanda, “Beer-Butt Chicken.”

It just says it all, doesn’t it?         

Ten years ago, that recipe drew a lot of reaction. In Fly Creek, our General Store had a run on cheap beer. And the recipe’s name has entered the local vocabulary, right along with “geezer bench.”

I had calls and emails from all over the place; from San Francisco, mind you — and even Manlius. These were from folk who’d pushed themselves past squeamishness. They’d tried the recipe. And loved it.

Just about all the calls and e-mails I mentioned were positive, as were comments from people who’ve stopped me in stores and on the sidewalk.

One man was uneasy about the beer’s alcohol; but that’s all steamed away, I imagine, in the cooking process.  (Besides, I’d hardly advise drinking any beer left in the can. . .) If you’re a teetotaler, though, “Cook’s Illustrated” did say you could substitute a soda can filled with lemonade. Do it if you must; but I make no promises about the result.

A lady did corner me in a store and lecture me severely about urging people to cook with aluminum.  “Aren’t you worried about what’s transferred to the chicken from the metal can?” she asked darkly.

 “Well,” I said, “after I’ve cooked the bird and pulled out the beer can, I look inside the cavity. If the recipe’s worked, I can read “Milwaukee’s Best” on the inside of the rib cage.”

I thought that was pretty funny.  She didn’t.

Well, anyway, it’s a great recipe. And, come to think of it, I haven’t told you still another advantage of Beer-Butt Chicken: It’s a great way to entertain barbecue guests. 

Just have the chickens all brined, spiced, and beer-canned when the guests arrive. Explain the process and let them watch you set up the birds on the grill. Then, after forty-five minutes, invite them to stand around for a quick peek as you raise the lid and rotate the chickens a quarter-turn.  The birds will already be golden brown and smell delicious, and you’ll hear gratifying ohs and ahs.

Send the guests back to the hors d’oeuvres, but bring them back in another forty-five minutes to watch removal from the grill and the uncanning. They’ll cringe, but they’ll love it. This time you’ll hear lots of ughs and yucks.

But after you’ve carved the birds and served them, it’ll be all mmmmm’s.

In the last ten years, the recipe’s become very popular, and, of course, marketers have found a way to make some extra bucks on it.

You can now buy a stainless-steel rig, basically two concentric circles. The lower one is about seven inches across. It sits on your grill to provide a more stable base for the bird and even has two little foot-pads for the tips of the drumsticks.

The upper circle, just a bit wider than a beer can, is where you put the can, centering its bottom in the larger circle below.

Then you lower the bird over both the top of the can —and its surrounding, slightly larger ring. This does put a certain strain on the bird’s nether end, but it’s long past caring.

I guess some will like this refinement since it keeps the beer can from touching the chicken. But, shoot; it takes a lot of the fun and art out of the process!

I figure that, if you can’t balance that bird on its drumsticks and its beer can, then maybe you don’t deserve this delicious chicken. Maybe you should just go see Colonel Sanders.