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.
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
¼ 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.
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