Use your grill like an oven

Cast-iron skillets, roasting pans and baking sheets can transform a backyard grill into a makeshift oven, and few dishes are more suited to preparing outdoors than a roast chicken.
Cast-iron skillets, roasting pans and baking sheets can transform a backyard grill into a makeshift oven, and few dishes are more suited to preparing outdoors than a roast chicken. The New York Times

For my favorite roast chicken recipe — a splayed bird cooked in a cast-iron skillet — the grill works even better than the oven.

What I love about the recipe is the golden, brittle-crisp skin and supremely tender meat that I can achieve by splaying the chicken’s legs (popping the thigh bones out of their sockets) before pressing them flat into a sizzling, preheated pan to roast. This gives the thigh meat and drumsticks a jump start while letting the breast cook more slowly. Everything finishes at the same time, and you end up with juicy white meat, succulent dark meat and bronzed, crunchy skin.

A byproduct of the splayed-chicken recipe is that after the bird is cooked, I end up with a pan full of meaty, rich chicken drippings, in which I caramelize garlic and ramps to serve alongside the bird.

In this recipe, I use the drippings to quickly sauté spinach spiked with garlic, anchovies and fresh dill, then pile those velvety greens on top of ricotta-smeared crostini. But you can stick with garlic and ramps if you’d rather, or choose any other hardy green to sauté — kale, chard, mustard and the like.

One of the key factors in being able to use your grill like an oven is using indirect heat. For avid grillers, it’s a standard technique. You create two heat zones — a hot side of the grill and a cooler side. This allows you to cook larger, denser ingredients or slower-cooking things (like baked goods) over the unlit but still plenty hot side of the grill without scorching. If a sear is required, the pan can be slid over to the lit side for a fast and furious blast of heat.

But you can also use direct heat if you’ve got quicker cooking ingredients that will finish in minutes. Just plop your skillet or any other flame-proof pan onto your grill directly over the fire, cover the grill and use it for small items that would otherwise fall through the grates.

Cherry tomatoes work beautifully. Glossed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and surrounded by herbs, they become condensed and wonderfully sweet, picking up a smoky flavor and turning mahogany brown in spots. Toss them with pasta or a grain salad, stir them into a salsa or serve them as a side dish. Asparagus is another option, and you don’t have to worry about keeping the spears perpendicular to the grill grates, lest the skinny ones fall through.

Then for dessert, try grill-roasting sliced peaches. Toss them with butter and a little raw sugar, spread them out on a rimmed sheet pan, put the pan on the grill and let the peaches turn caramelized and syrupy — and perfect to spoon over ice cream.

Then eat it outside, under the stars.

Grilled roast chicken with spinach-ricotta crostini

Yield: 4 servings; total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus at least 4 hours’ marinating

2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon high-quality chile powder (ancho or New Mexican are nice)

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (save the zested lemon to juice over the crostini)

1 whole chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds), patted dry

Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 anchovies (optional)

Pinch red pepper flakes

1 pound mature spinach leaves, cleaned (12 cups)

1 cup chopped dill

4 slices crusty country-style bread, 1/2-inch thick

Fresh ricotta, for serving

In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, chile powder and lemon zest. Rub the chicken inside and out with salt mixture. Place chicken on a rack set over a baking pan to catch any drips, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Heat a gas grill, or light a charcoal grill for indirect heat (meaning pile the coals on one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty).

Place a cast-iron skillet on the grate directly over the coals. Cover the grill, and let the pan heat up for 10 minutes.

Remove chicken from the refrigerator. Use a sharp knife to cut the skin connecting the legs to the rest of the body. Use your hands to splay the thighs open until you feel the joint pop.

Rub chicken with oil and place it breast side down in the hot skillet. Cover grill and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until the breast is seared and golden and easily releases from the pan.

Using tongs and a spatula for balance, carefully flip chicken and cover the grill again. Continue cooking until the underside of the chicken is starting to brown, 10 to 20 minutes. Make sure the skin doesn’t get too dark; it will continue to brown even as it cooks over indirect heat. You’re looking for a medium golden color here, a shade or two lighter than what you ultimately want it to look like.

Move the skillet over to the unlit side of the charcoal grill, or turn off the burners on your gas grill that are underneath the pan. Cover grill and continue to cook until the bird is cooked through, 10 to 25 minutes longer. An instant-read thermometer should register 155 degrees in the breast. You’ll need to keep your eye on the grill heat as you cook. If you’ve got a thermometer on your grill cover, you’re looking for it to be at about 450 degrees. If it falls below 400 degrees or seems as if it’s not hot enough (i.e., your chicken is cooking too slowly), add more coals or turn up your burners. Use your intuition here.

Transfer chicken from the skillet to a cutting board, and tent with foil to rest.

Throw garlic, anchovies (if desired) and red pepper flakes into the skillet and cook, uncovered, until the garlic starts to sizzle and turn golden, about 20 seconds. Toss in spinach and dill and cook, stirring with your tongs, until just wilted, 2 minutes longer. If the spinach isn’t wilting quickly, push the pan back over the flame to direct heat. Season with salt.

Place bread slices on grill and cook until lightly charred, about 1 minute per side.

To serve, drizzle toasts with oil and slather with ricotta. Top with spinach mix and a little lemon juice. Serve alongside sliced chicken.