Key West Kitchen

The sun is out, the skies are a brilliant blue and the wind is doing a dance with the palm trees here in Key West, Fla. It is a glorious morning, almost a wee bit chilly.

Just another day at the office. (Kim O'Donnel)

Like a savvy bird, I flew south just hours before the snow arrived in Washington. I hate to rub it in, but I drank my coffee this morning out on the porch as the sun gently said hello.

Winter escapism aside, I am here primarily to visit my kid brother, Tim, who spent most of last fall in a Miami hospital. He's been home since mid-December, convalescing at an amazing pace, and already he's back to work part time.

The last time I saw Tim, he was heavily sedated and hooked up to a ventilator. We didn't know if he was going to survive. Once he woke up, our communication for the next two months would be exclusively by phone. To say the least, I was a bit nervous for my airport pickup. I had no idea what he'd looked like, how I'd feel, what we'd say.

He pulled up wearing a pair of toy "goofy droopy glasses" that I had sent him as part of a get-well package. The comic relief saved the day.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the sweet little bungalow that Tim shares with his friend, Ron, who is more like a brother. I immediately fell in love with the kitchen, with its custom cherry cabinets, horseshoe-shaped granite counters and big stainless-steel stove. Dinner that night was at a paper-plate joint serving local fish (more on dining options in tomorrow's blog), but by Sunday, I was ready to cook.

"So.... you wanna cook dinner together?" I asked him sheepishly, unsure if he was eager as much as I had been, ever since he was in the hospital.

"Yeah, sis, it's been a while," he replied. "Besides, we need to let your readers know I'm ready to be your co-pilot again." My heart burst at these words, and we settled on a whole chicken, butterflied, fried in a pan. It was a method that I had long wanted to try, and Tim remembered doing something similar with game hens when he worked at an Italian restaurant a zillion years ago.

Tim said he needed a refresher course on butterflying a chicken, which essentially means removing the backbone. With a pair of kitchen shears, I cut away on both sides of the spine, with a little help from the force of my hands. I did the first one, and he did the second one on his own. From there, we smashed garlic, chopped rosemary from the garden and prepared the bird for its brick fry.

After the flattened bird made contact with the hot oil, we both stood guard and waited for the first side to sear. With the weight of the brick (standing upright inside a saucepan), the butterflied bird was cooking at a quick clip, a new experience for me.

"Sis, it looks like the bird is sticking," Tim announced. "I'm gonna add a little cooking wine to deglaze." I agreed, and he went to work to loosen up the chicken in order to turn it over. We spoke like true collaborators, assessing the situation and allowing the other to make decisions. While we two worked and spoke our own language, Ron sat outside watching the Colts-Patriots game.

Tim threw some rice into the rice cooker and we prepared a bunch of green beans that we would saute with shallots and finish off with some soy sauce and sesame oil. In a little over an hour, we had two brick-fried chickens, with rice and veggies. The chicken was redolent of garlic and herbs, and as tender as could be. I can't remember the last time I hovered over a platter of meat like this, picking at scraps and inhaling our hard work.

I didn't cry, but I wanted to. My hopes were realized. Tim is alive, and he remains a damn good kitchen co-pilot.

Crisp Brick-Fried chicken With Rosemary and Whole Garlic Cloves
Adapted from "The Improvisational Cook" by Sally Schneider

1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds
1 tablespoon coarse salt
black pepper to taste
4 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
1-2 rosemary sprigs, needles removed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
ΒΌ cup white wine (optional)

Rinse chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Place chicken, breast side down, on work surface. Butterfly the bird: with kitchen shears, cut through bones along both sides of the backbone and remove it. Trim off any excess neck skin. Spread chicken open, skin side up, on the counter, and firmly press down against the breastbone with your palms and flatten it. Tuck wing tips back so they lay flat against breast.

If possible, season chicken one hour before cooking, with salt and pepper, on both sides. Combine rosemary and garlic and place under skin. Lather bird all over with 1 tablespoon of the oil.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add remaining oil and swirl to coat surface. Place chicken, skin side down, in pan and allow to sear. Place a weight directly on top of the chicken; this can be a smaller skillet or a smooth-bottomed pot, balanced on top and weighed down with a brick or a can. Cook chicken until underside is brown, about 10 minutes.

Remove weight from top of chicken and turn chicken over with a pair of tongs and metal turner, if necessary. Return weight and cook on second side for about 5 minutes. With tongs, remove chicken and place in a roasting pan and into the oven to finish cooking. Chicken is done when juices run clear and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the inner thigh reads 170 degrees.

Transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest at least five minutes. Carve and serve immediately.

Makes enough for dinner for two. Recipe may be doubled, using two small birds.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 22, 2007; 11:13 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Kitchen Musings
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I'm so happy to hear that your brother is better! And what a great meal to cook together. Roast chicken always makes me think of family dinners.

I've make a similar chicken dish, putting the rosemary and garlic under the skin, but just roasting it. I love it but it takes way too long to make on a week night. What's the approximate total cooking time for this?

The Herb Farm cookbook also has a recipe that uses fresh bay leaves under the skin--my little bay tree is finally getting big enough that I could harvest 10 leaves at a time. I think I'll try your recipe then try it with the bay leaves....

Posted by: seattle | January 22, 2007 12:47 PM

Kim, I love your blog for the same reason I love reading MFK Fisher. You both seem to write about the world and the people in it, using food and meals as the metaphor. I live in (far)western Pennsylvania. My political scientist boyfriend emails Post articles he thinks I should read, and I always stray away to find your blog.
I have some great ingredient sources in Pgh, about 40 traffic minutes away, so I keep your recipes in my head when I go to shop. My brother and I have made some great meals together, too - he is in Texas now, (today is his 50th BD!)and I miss him. Thanks for writing about more than food, and for yummy recipes,too.

Posted by: Di | January 22, 2007 1:15 PM

Thank you for your generosity of spirit in sharing Tim's return to health. We have been praying for all of you, and are grateful for the good news. We are grateful, too, for your willingness to share so personally the connection between family and cooking and meals and well-being.

Continued blessings to you all (even if you ARE gloating about the warm weather!).

Posted by: Meg | January 22, 2007 1:41 PM

Kim, what wonderful news about Tim! I'm thrilled for you.

Posted by: Judi Hershel | January 22, 2007 1:45 PM

I'm glad your brother is recovering!

For whatever reason, I almost always roast chickens upside down -- I have some kind of mental block about how to put them in the roasting pan.

Now I want to do this brick-fried chicken so it wouldn't matter if it was upside down. How big a skillet does it take to do this recipe?

Posted by: Kathryn | January 22, 2007 1:57 PM


While enjoying food in Key west, be sure to go to the Roof Top cafe, where my son brendan is the executive chef. Tell him his Mom sent you and he will take good care of you.


Posted by: Maureen Orr | January 22, 2007 3:18 PM

1) Great news about your brother's recovery!

2) I am soooooo jealous that you are in Key West. That is where my husband and I honeymooned three years ago, and we loooove it. If you get a chance to see Pete and Wayne at Sloppy Joe's, they are hi-larious.

3) I think I am going to do your chicken recipe tonight. Shortly after I got married, I moved to another city for a job, and my husband stayed behind. I travelled back and forth on weekends, but didn't want to take the whole kitchen with me to my temporary digs. I had a cast-iron skillet that was perfect for this dish. Definitely helped with the searing aspects...

Posted by: akmitc | January 22, 2007 3:39 PM

so glad to hear about your brother! Isn't cooking (and enjoying the fruits of your labor) with family or close friends the best!

Posted by: SSMD | January 22, 2007 4:09 PM


I am so glad to hear that your brother is on the road to recovery!

My brother is currently dealing with Cancer, but was able to make it out this weekend in between surgeries and chemo.

We spent a lot of time in the kitchen-- him mostly stealing goat cheese medallions and any spare pieces of avocado that I left on the cutting board unattended. It's amazing how preparing food with family or even having them watch in the kitchen with you makes the experience much more rewarding!

Posted by: MMZ | January 22, 2007 4:42 PM

Be sure to go to Sarabeth's and Seven Fish while in Key West. The food is wonderful at both places and Sarabeth's service is outstanding!

Posted by: bman | January 22, 2007 4:42 PM

Hi Kim -- I chimed in a while back 'cause I recognized you from Lower Merion, where I was a classmate of Tim. Just wanted to say that I'm glad to hear he is on the mend.

Posted by: Patricia | January 22, 2007 8:14 PM

Loved hearing from you, Kim, AND Tim! And the recipe sounds yummy---but I feel I need to try it in the Keys for the true culinary experience. Porch-side, of course.
Live it up,both of you! When life hands you zany glasses, wear them!

Posted by: seattle lrs | January 22, 2007 10:13 PM

I'm so glad to hear your brother is recovering and actually cooking again. This sounds like a celebratory meal for sure. Best wishes.

Posted by: Martha | January 23, 2007 7:03 AM

Kathryn, we used a 12-inch skillet and a three-pound chicken sat comfortably inside. The key, though, is to use a small bird; even a 5 or 6-pounder will be too large for this method.

Seattle, cooking time for the bird took about 35 minutes-- 10 minutes on the first side, 5ish on the second side, then 15ish in the oven. You could cook the bird the entire time on top of the stove, but I wanted to make room for other things. Cheers!
Tim thanks all of you for your warm wishes; and told me how good it feels to be alive.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 23, 2007 10:32 AM

Unrelated to cooking, but you have you visit the Butterfly Garden -- wonderful place to see butterflies up close and personal.

My friends and I were there Memorial Day weekend and ate the best Key Lime pie...Sadly, I forget the name of the place! It was on Duval St. and had an upper level (indoors) where we ate. We also had great seafood down one of the side streets, that was our "expensive" meal out.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 23, 2007 10:44 AM

Prayer does work and we are all happy about your brother's recovery. Sounds like you are having a wonderful time in Key West and we, here in DC, are so jealous and happy for you at the same time. Enjoy and be healthy.

Posted by: WAshington, DC | January 23, 2007 1:59 PM

You have described the process called "Spatchcocking" a chicken. Far as I can determine, the word has origins in English history... This is a fantastic way to prepare a whole chicken for cooking on the grill.

Posted by: Bill | January 24, 2007 2:07 PM

Hi Kim,
Can't help reading anything about Key West, and so checking out your blog, I read about your brother Tim. Turns out I know of this story, his roommate is a college friend of mine who we last saw down there 3 summers ago! Great news about your brother, especially coming from me - I was injured the very same way just this past summer, as I live on Kent Island but pretend to be in Key West. Spent time in shock trauma and and made it out fine, only to hear from friends about Ron's roommate. He's a lucky guy. Small world, though, boy. Those guys have the life down there, huh? Pass along my well-wishes, will you?

Posted by: Sean | January 24, 2007 7:49 PM

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