Thursday, May 15, 2014

String-Roasted Chicken

My experience in roasting over fire, admittedly limited, was with putting the meat on a spit and having someone sit around it for a while turning the spit.  Nice, fun to look at a demonstration, but tough to keep at it well.  Even the books I have read and the historical kitchens I've visited had spit roasting only.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I came across this book, The Magic of Fire by William Rubel at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. 
ISBN  1-58008-453-2
On page 62 is the introduction to String Roasting:
"When it comes to hearthside roasting, the elegant solution is to roast from a loop of cotton string hanging from a hook, a practice that lasted well into the nineteenth century.  Today, it is only in France that the system the French call a la ficelle -- on a string -- remains more than a historical curiosity."
I had a Cornish Game Hen that I wanted to try.  I reasoned I wanted a small one for my experiment so it wouldn't take too long to cook.

To summarize the instructions:

   You need a mature fire with a substantial bed of embers. 
   Truss the meat so it is as compact and as symmetrical as possible.
   Skewer the upper and lower thirds of the meat so that the skewers are parallel and at the center of   
       the meat.
On a stick!
   Hang a string from above the hearth or firepit and tie a loop in the end.  The length should get the
       meat pretty close to the embers.
   Make a loop of string and place on part on the skewer, pass the other end through the hanging loop,
       and then over the other side of the skewer.
   Adjust until the meat hangs vertically, without tilting.  Press the loops against the meat.
   Give the meat a spin.

A whirling dervish
   Put a drip pan under the bird and add 1 cup water.
   Baste the meat as needed.

Getting golden
   When the lower part looks done, flip the meat by moving the string to the lower skewer.


 Let the meat rest for 10 minutes when done.

 My Notes
I used a technique I learned a few years ago from Gervase Markham's The Complete Housewife (published in the late 1590s) for spit roasting:  he suggests you coat the bird with butter and then with dried bread crumbs.  At first you have to baste it with butter and the drippings but after a little while the bread crumbs have soaked up enough fat to take over the basting themselves.

So what I have here is a chicken that is self-turning and self-basting.  A Renaissance cook's dream come true!

This bird hung over the fire for about four hours.  It should have taken maybe one hour.  My fire was hot but I think the bird was too high above it to get enough heat to cook it to a decent internal temperature.

I liked that the outside was getting golden brown even at the top before it was flipped.  That kept me for worrying that the meat was going bad.

But after four hours I decided to finish it off in a Dutch oven.  I put it and the drippings into the oven with a bit of water then covered it.  Once over the fire I turned it occasionally until it was hot and cooked through.

The Verdict
This has to be labeled as a failure because I was not able to cook the bird completely even in four hours.  However I believe the fault was mine in not getting the fire hot enough or hanging the bird low enough over it.  This is the same error I made the first time I tried spit roasting a chicken -- and the second attempt with the needed corrections worked beautifully. 

So I will give it a failure rating but tell you that it was partially successful because the meat was tender and moist and flavorful.  I did not use any seasonings, just butter and breadcrumbs, and yet everyone who tried commented on how succulent and tasty it was.

I look forward to trying it again some time.  Now I have a better idea of what to do and how to do it.

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