Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grilled Chicken with Lavender Herbs

Our across-the-road neighbour is good Wimmera stock. As a little girl, she rode five miles every morning with her siblings to the neighbour's house. He drove them another ten miles to meet the town taxi; and the taxi took them the last leg to school. In the afternoon they'd do it all in reverse. She tells the story with a twinkle and a grin; to her credit, she has never used it against me and my soft daughters when we grizzle about the walk to school.

As an adult, she trained as a midwife and spent years delivering babies under palm trees in the Middle East. After that, she came back to work as a nurse on the children's hospital helicopter ambulance. Nothing fazes her.

Now actively retired, she lives in urban Brunswick and loves it. But every now and then, even after so many years and adventures, the country girl peeps out.

The other night she was leaning against the doorjamb, gazing at our pet hens and reminiscing about the taste of roast chicken. 'It's been years,' she said, 'since I had a proper roast chicken. Let me know when one of them stops laying and I'll show you how to kill it properly.'

My daughters looked at her, eyes and mouths rounded in shock, as she went on to explain how to chop right through the neck and hold the body down until it had stopped twitching, how to gut and pluck it, and how to let it rest a day before roasting. 'There's nothing like it,' she said. 'Except maybe rabbit – have you ever thought of keeping rabbits in your front garden? They're easy to keep, good breeders of course, and absolutely delicious.'

I thought of her lush green lawn across the street, untouched by rabbits or chickens or any other livestock except the multitude of young children who come to visit, and thought to myself, You keep rabbits, then! – and I grinned as I reflected how my grumpier neighbours would respond if I turned the garden into a slaughterhouse. Tempting, yes.

As delicious as roast chicken and rabbit casserole may be, we rarely cook meat; and when we do, it's on the grill alongside slabs of marinated tofu for the vegetarians. A cast-iron grill is a fantastic piece of kitchen equipment and should be at the top of your Christmas list. There is a certain sort of man who buys fancy kitchen equipment for his wife to emphasise that she should continue to cook for him. Well, I turned that one on its head: I bought a grill for my husband's birthday several years ago. He loves the taste of grilled fish and sourdough, and it was a promise that I would make them at home for him – and so I have.

A grill is very easy to use. Heat it over a medium flame until it is evenly hot (sudden high heat can crack it). Brush your food with a little oil and pop it on. Don't fiddle, but leave the food to develop those no doubt carcinogenic char lines. If you fancy neat diagonals, rotate it 90° once and once only; any more, and you'll just have a brown mess. When the food looks halfway cooked, flip it and let it cook through. The time it takes will of course depend on the thickness and type of food and how hot you have set the burners under the grill – use your eyes, your nose and your brain.

Serve bruschetta or grilled cheese sandwiches as soon as they are cooked. Grilled vegetables are best tepid; and meat particularly benefits from a short rest so place it on a board, wipe down the grill with a paper towel or a more sustainable alternative, then serve.

Don't ever scrub the grill. The blackening seasons the metal and stops food from sticking. If you feel you absolutely must clean it – say, you cooked salmon on it then didn't wipe it down properly and you don't want your grilled cheese sandwich to taste of fish – wash the grill gently, not vigorously, in hot soapy water to remove the smell, replace it on the stove, warm it until it is absolutely dry, then rub it with a little oil before putting it away.

It may not be freshly slaughtered and roasted, but chicken on the grill is very good: tender, juicy and richly flavoured. It's one of our simple standbys when we have visitors. The easiest way is to marinate it with lemon juice, garlic, marjoram and olive oil, but I also love to herb it up.

The second marinade, with lavender, rosemary and lemon thyme, is spectacularly good. The lavender gives it a floral sweetness, the thyme provides an earthy base note, and the lemon zest sings. One bite of this is like a little party in your mouth: absolutely delicious.

Grilled Chicken with Lavender Herbs

- some boned chicken pieces. Thigh fillets are my preference as they are much thinner than the breast, so they absorb the marinade better; also, they are slightly and deliciously fattier. However, breast pieces grill well, look prettier and may be sliced very elegantly along the grain which makes it easy to serve small people who want only a sliver or two.

- olive oil - good salt

And either: - a squeeze of lemon juice

- a few cloves of garlic, bashed with the side of a knife and the papery bits flicked off

- a handful of fresh marjoram or thyme or whichever herb that takes your fancy, leaves picked and coarsely chopped

Or: - equal quantities of lavender blossoms, rosemary needles and thyme (lemon thyme for preference but any thyme is good), about 1 tablespoon of each

- the zest and juice of a lemon

- ¼ cup olive oil

- a good pinch of salt

If you are using the first marinade, just toss the ingredients in with the chicken pieces, cover and refrigerate.

If you are using the lavender herbs, chop the lavender, rosemary, thyme and lemon zest, then combine them with the salt, the olive oil, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

Remove a tablespoon of the marinade, squeeze in an extra tablespoon of lemon juice, and reserve. Toss the rest of the marinade with the chicken pieces and refrigerate for many hours. I usually put this together after breakfast, so it sits all day; the longer the meat marinates, the better it tastes.

Close to dinnertime, heat the grill. Place the chicken on the grill and cook for five minutes or so, then rotate it by 90°; chicken looks best with diagonals. Cook without fiddling again until the flesh has whitened halfway up the piece.

Flip the chicken and repeat the process until it's cooked, which can take up to 15 minutes. To check, slip a knife into the thickest part and ensure there is no sign of pink.

Place the meat on a board to rest while you wipe down the grill. Drizzle the reserved marinade – or some extra herbs – over the chicken, and serve. You might continue the floral theme and serve it alongside a blossom salad, sans tuna!

Adapted from a recipe by Jerry Traunfeld in The Herbal Kitchen.

(Local: olive oil, all the herbs, and occasionally even the chicken. Not so local: salt.)

The Herbal Kitchen

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