Throwing a whole chicken on the BBQ can be a wonderful thing if done right, though there is no ONE right way to cook a bird. I have been experimenting with some different methods and have found what I think works the best. The single most important factor here, is the bird you choose. There truly is a world of difference in flavor between the common industrial bird and an organic/sustainable family farmed bird, who lived on a balanced diet and can roam freely, eat bugs, feel the sun on it's back and do other...chickeny things. What the bird eats, how it lives, how healthy and happy it is during its life will determine how much nutrition you get out of it and how good it tastes.
I recently had the pleasure of picking up a Bauer Family Farms bird from the Whole Foods store in San Mateo. The cool thing about Whole Foods is they tell you where the animal is from so that you can check it out for yourself. The label card said it was Organic, Local and Free Range, all the things I was looking for. So, 12 bucks later I was out the door and ready to get this bird cooking. I BBQed it over some mesquite hardwood natural coals (recipe below) and it was perfect. Now I really can't take credit for how good it tasted because I didn't do much to it. Normally I would buy a chicken a day in advance so that I could brine it and then leave it in the fridge for a night, so that the skin gets dry and cooks up crispy. I didn't have time for any of that, so I just looked around at what I had, stuffed it with some fruit, vegetables and butter and got it on the grill. The chicken just tasted good by itself. If I had done nothing to it, I am convinced that this particular bird would have been just as juicy and tasted just as chickeny (which should be a new word included in the dictionary, because it is the only way to describe the taste difference between a bird of this caliber and an industrial one).
Well, after enjoying it so much, I used the bones a second time to make a broth, which I then turned into an amazing Split Pea Soup, which is why I call it the meal that keeps on giving.
I looked up the Bauer Family Farms website and gave them a ring to compliment them on their animal. Turns out the phone number on their website is just their family home phone number. I was greeted with "Hello?" to which I replied,
"Uh, is this the Bauer Family Farms?"
"Yeah, this is Mitchell Bauer. What can I do for you?"
A good sign from the outset, no corporate phone tree, no mumbo jumbo and most importantly, no flim flam, just a real family farm.
Mitchell spoke very generously with me for about 30 minutes. He didn't think it strange at all that I called and actually seemed very excited and proud to speak about his family's farming practices. He told me how his grandfather has started the farm in 1952 in Snelling, CA. He told me how they had been a turkey ranch, up until 2006, when they decided to go all organic. They got a deal with Central Coast Farms to distribute their birds to Whole Foods. They took the deal and have been organic chicken farmers ever since. He explained to me how his Grandfather (who still walks the ranch a few times a week) thought it was funny when they switched to all organic. His Grandpa said that it was like they were just going back to the old way of doing things, before all the pesticides and antibiotics were introduced and he welcomed the positive change. Nowadays they use ladybugs to ward off pests and pull weeds manually.
Mitchell went on to tell me how their chickens live in a building about the size of a football field and a half and the area that they have free access to outside is even bigger. Outside the chickens have mini shelters to hide from the sun if they want, hay bales to pick at, grass to snip at and plenty of bugs to nibble on. They feed them an all vegetarian diet of whole grains, corn and oregano. He told me how oregano is one of the reasons they don't have to use antibiotics, because it keeps the birds so healthy, in conjunction with their otherwise healthy lifestyle. They also grow almonds, strawberries and a whole lot of other produce. He invited me to bring my kids up in the spring and see the farm first hand (which I will be doing). He said that would be the best time to visit because we could see the young chicks and taste, what he made sound like, the best strawberries in California. He thanked me for my call and said he hoped to see me come up and visit.
Now can you imagine this level of transparency and customer service from Tyson foods or Foster Farms? No. Not a chance. That is because those big industrial companies are afraid of what he public would think if we could see inside of their buildings. The secret to good cooking is good ingredients, plain and simple. Here is what I did with that succulent bird.
1 whole organic/free range local chicken.
1 stick of butter, sliced up in pats.
1 leek, chopped.
1/2 apple (I used a Gravestein but you can use whatever suits you).
2 cloves of garlic, minced.
Salt and Pepper
1/2 stick of melted butter.
A few splashes of white wine.
1 Tbsp. of chopped dill.
1 pinch of dried Thyme.
None of this is set in stone, nor was it planned out before hand. This is just one example of a way to do it. The process is what will always be similar, but the ingredients will change based on whatever is in season at the time, and whatever I happen to have in the house at the time. Like I mentioned before, I normally brine and then dry out the skin of a chicken before I BBQ it, but I am starting to think that if you get a tasty, healthy chicken, then those steps may actually be a detriment to the finished product as you are really just filling the bird with water, making it "juicier" seeming, though not necessarily tastier. Leaving the Chicken out on a raised cooling rack in the fridge overnight still might be worth doing, but only if you are planning on eating the skin, which I normally don't.
I get the coals hot and then spread them out. I then spread a second layer of coals on top of the first. Wait until the second batch catches and then I cover it up and bring the heat down by closing up the vents until they just have a crack of air going in.
Chop up the ingredients and shove them inside the bird. Reserve some of it to cram under the skin of the chicken as much as you can. All of the butter gets shoved under the skin so that it will melt and leak all over the bird as it cooks. Make sure you get a lot of the chopped leaks under the skin. It will create some space between the skin and the flesh. Salt and pepper the skin. Do not rub oil or butter on the outside of the skin, we will do that at the end.
Place the chicken on the hot rack of the bbq and cover it up. I put the breast up first. Let it cook for about 30 minutes undisturbed. You can check it every now and then to make sure the skin is not burning, but once you know where to set the vents and control the heat, you won't need to check it. Flip the bird and cook it for another 20 minutes on the breast side. Take the cover off the bbq and the coals will start to heat up again. Brush on the butter/wine/dill/thyme mixture and flip the bird over with some long tongs. Brush the other side and repeat the flipping and brushing until all the sauce is gone. Pull it off and let it rest for a few minutes before carving it up.
Enjoy with a glass of your favorite wine and some fresh or roasted vegetables on the side.