For most of its history, America has been a beef-eating nation. In 1960, we consumed over 60 pounds of beef per capita compared to 28 pounds of chicken.
That has now changed dramatically. In 2015, Americans each consumed about 50 pounds of beef and 90 pounds of chicken.
We are now the world’s largest producer of broiler chickens and the largest consumer of them.
But more significantly is the form in which we purchase our chicken. In 1960, 83 percent of the chicken was purchased whole, 15 percent cut up and 2 percent processed. In 2015, 12 percent was purchased whole, 42 percent cut up and 46 percent processed. That’s a lot of chicken fingers.
I am proud to have been a “retro chef” for my whole career, eschewing processed foods for those that are fresh and grown close to home. Chicken is no exception.
Buying whole fresh chickens is the least processed form, and when cooked whole they result in a nutritious, flavorful meal. During the warm months it is also nice to cook outside instead of using a hot oven in the house, but barbecuing whole chickens present some challenges: How do you get it cooked evenly without becoming dry and how do you prevent burning from the coals?
Whole Spatchcocked Chicken: Under a Brick
Remove the giblets from a whole 4-pound chicken and rinse it under cold water.
Place the chicken breast-side-down on a cutting board and remove the backbone. This can be done by cutting along each side of it with poultry shears or by using a boning knife. Start at the neck end and cut close to the bone, going a little wider as you approach the thigh.
Set the backbone aside and lay out the chicken flat, skin side down. Make a small notch in the middle of the breast bone and bend the chicken back to expose the hard keel bone. Pull this out with your fingers. Now the chicken will lie perfectly flat.
Remove the wing tips for a better look and place the chicken in a shallow casserole.
Make a marinade by combining the zest and juice of 2 lemons, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 2 tablespoons thyme leaves, 1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, 1 chopped red onion, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 cup canola oil. Pour this over the chicken and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Prepare the charcoal grill, wait until it reaches about 500 degrees and rub the grill with an oil-soaked paper towel.
Wipe the marinade off the chicken and spray with no-stick.
Wrap 2 bricks in heavy foil. Place the chicken on the hot grill skin side down, spray the bricks with no-stick and place them on top of the chicken. Close the lid and cook for 15 minutes before turning.
Turn the chicken over, brush with some of the marinade and place the bricks back on top. Let cook another 30 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reads 165 degrees. Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before cutting into serving pieces.
Beer Can Chicken
Remove the giblets from a whole 4-pound chicken and rinse it under cold water. Trim off the wing tips and any fat.
Prepare a rub by combining 1 teaspoon brown sugar, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon dry mustard and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Rub this all over the chicken, under the skin and in the cavity. Let rest for at least 30 minutes.
Open a 12-ounce can of beer and pour half into a small bowl. Stir 2 tablespoons canola oil and 2 tablespoons cider vinegar into the bowl and set aside. (I put this mixture into a spray bottle to make for easy basting.)
Light your charcoal (or gas) grill. Let the coals turn white.
Place the chicken over the can of open beer with the legs pointing down. Set it on the grill, letting the can of beer and the legs support the chicken.
Place the cover on the grill and cook at about 400 degrees for 30 minutes, basting with the beer solution every 10 minutes or so.
Carefully transfer the chicken — without removing the beer can — to a shallow pan and place it back on the fire as before. Cover and continue cooking and basting another 30 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.
Remove and let rest 15 minutes before carving.
Hawaiian-Style Cornish Game Hen
Remove the giblets from a 2-pound Cornish game hen, trim the wing tips and rinse.
Buy a six-pack of small (6-ounce) cans of pineapple juice.
Make a marinade by combining 1/4 cup pineapple juice, 1/4 cup ketchup, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon minced ginger, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and 2 tablespoons canola oil.
Place the game hen and the marinade in a zip-lock bag and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Prepare a charcoal (or gas) grill, letting the coals turn white.
Remove the chicken from its marinade and place on a cutting board. Remove the label from the can of pineapple juice that you used for the marinade, leaving the remaining juice in the can. Place the game hen over the can with the legs pointing down. Put this on the grill, brush with the marinade and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. During this time, baste with the marinade every 15 minutes.
Brush a few fresh pineapple rings with the marinade and grill along with the game hen.
Serve with steamed rice, some greens and the grilled pineapple.
Note: The beer can recipe may sound like a gimmick, but I was amazed at how juicy and tender it came out. The Cornish game hen made a great dinner for two.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. For contact information, go to his website, www.chefjohnross.com.