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Put a Brick on It

Cooking under the weight of a preheated brick gives chicken, artichokes, and potatoes great texture. A little bit of prep work allows you to leave the rest to the heat of the skillet and the weight of the brick.

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Pollo al mattone means chicken under a brick. Literally. Imagine what a brick, heated in the oven (or the embers of a fire) can do to sizzle the golden skin of a chicken. It’s an old Tuscan idea, and it’s a good one. You may have seen it on menus or in books—the dish usually features a half chicken or a spatchcocked whole chicken. Either a preheated brick or a cast iron pan with a heavy weight placed inside it does the trick. Part of the magic of cooking this way is that the intense heat and pressure of the weight increase the cooking speed of dark meat, which remains juicy under the crisp skin.

In the kitchen of California’s Chez Panisse Café, I learned to do this with the whole chicken leg. We deboned the legs as part of our prep shift, and then cooked them al mattone on the line. At first it seemed like a challenge, but it’s really a simple technique. We had a stack of cast iron skillets on the back of the stove, and we’d use them or a foil-wrapped brick, which we kept in the hot oven, to press the chicken when the orders came in.

Well, I took to this habit. Years later, I was a house sitter for my aunt and uncle in upstate New York. Once, after they returned home, I got a phone call: “Hi. Um, we’re just curious: What is the significance of the brick at the back of the stove?” I had made grilled cheese sandwiches and forgotten to move the brick. These days at my house, a foil-wrapped brick is a permanent fixture. We use it often, for grilled cheese and other panini, and of course chicken—the foil is replaced frequently after heavy use.

Lately, I’ve been playing around with vegetables cooked this way. I thought of the crisp, flattened and fried artichokes (carciofi all giudia) served in Roman trattorias, and Francis Mallmann’s smashed potatoes a la plancha. My simple versions took well to the brick treatment and came out crisp and brown on the outside, tender in the middle.

The artichokes are trimmed and then poached in a simple court bouillon, and can be left to cool in the liquid for up to 3 days. The potatoes can be boiled ahead anytime, or just before you want to fry them. And with a little bit of forethought, these and the chicken thighs can become a quick dinner.

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