I’ve known for some time that baking whole fish in a salt crust is a super-duper prize idea: It’s easy, it’s dramatic, and best of all, it results in foolproofishly (get it?) soft, tender fish. It wasn’t until I offered to write a recipe for these lovely people that I began to realize the sheer possibilities of salt crusts.
It’s really down to J. Kenji López-Alt, who knows what the fish fingers he’s talking about. His recipe series, The Food Lab, delves deeply into the chemistry of what makes a dish tick. He experiments with food from all possible angles, providing pictures along the way. In doing so, he illuminates the reasons why something works, and just as importantly, why something doesn’t work. I’ve learned a lot from this man.
In perusing an article he wrote on salt crusts, I came across his recipe for salt-crust chicken. It just makes sense. The salt traps moisture, and gently flavors the chicken in cooking. While you don’t achieve the crispy skin of a roasted chicken, you do come away with meat that’s impossibly soft and juicy, even the breast meat. You can basically use any herb/aromatic combination you like, so this preparation becomes endlessly adaptable as well.
If you ask the Frenchman, he’ll tell you I only ever order one dish when we go out to dinner: chicken. This isn’t true of course, but I will admit that chicken is my backup dish, my reliable mainstay amongst the flotsam and jetsam of an uninspiring menu. (It doesn’t hurt that chicken dishes typically arrive with some kind of saucy vegetable and potato arrangement, but that is neither here nor there.)
Last week we had friends visiting from France, and so I used the opportunity to knock a restaurant or two off my Must Try list. (It’s a long list, alas.) One evening, we dined in a restaurant where every hostess was certainly a model. I’d read an article about the owner; he raised chickens (well, not he, but people he employed) on a devastatingly bucolic farm somewhere upstate in order to supply the restaurant with high-quality poultry. This kind of information is like catnip to me; of course, I had to try it.
I am not going to lie to you—my grilling skills are fairly nonexistent. Blame it on a lack of experience. Still, I harbor dreams of summers spent throwing everything on the grill, from peaches to pork chops, sardines to salad greens. Because let’s face it—grilling is cool. It requires knowledge of fire, how to build it and how to control it. A man (or woman) wielding tongs, intuitively determining when that rainbow trout is perfectly done—crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside—is impressive.
Fortunately for me, I have a few friends who know what they’re doing, and during a recent catch-up weekend my grilling fantasies were entertained at nearly every meal. For two days, my responsibilities were limited to languorous stretches in the pool, lengthy al fresco repasts and short trots to the fridge for another cold one. Not bad at all.
I also managed to come away with a new recipe, thanks to my friend Sonia and her excellent yogurt marinade. The dish is awesome, not just because it is delectable, and smells great, and is almost endlessly adaptable; but because it is totally forgiving for the novice grill master among us. The yogurt forms a moist seal around the chicken, and prevents it from drying out. I asked her for the recipe, and she amply provided: