I love the Italian “pollo al mattone” (which means “chicken cooked with a brick”), and although I am given to believe it is Italo-American rather than old-country authentic, I have been recently admonished and told it is in fact a dish that originates with the Etruscans. Hmm. Does it matter? It is a glorious creation: salty, lemony, and either fiercely peppery or afire with crushed red pepper flakes. The particular pollo al mattone I love dearly is the incredibly tender, melting-fleshed, super-lemony, and thyme-scented version served at Sfoglia, in New York. Inspired by a recent visit, I knew I had to make it my own, and this is what I’m now giving you. In a domestic oven, I feel this works best, with 2 Cornish hens rather than one chicken, which makes it not quite chicken under a brick, but you get the gist. This is not an instant recipe by any means, but it is a very simple one. It is certainly streamlined from the original, if that counts. And even if it doesn’t, I wouldn’t feel happy keeping it from you.
- Cut along the backbone of each Cornish hen to open them out flat: you can do this with a pair of strong kitchen scissors.
- Zest and juice the lemons into a large resealable bag, then pull off the thyme leaves, dropping them in too.
- Sprinkle in the salt and either grind in the pepper or shake in the red pepper flakes, then pour the oil into the bag, and, finally, grate in (or mince and add) the garlic. Add the spatchcocked Cornish hens, then seal the bag before squidging the marinade all over the flattened birds as efficiently (and agreeably) as you can. Put the bag of birds on a dish and pop it into the refrigerator and leave for a day or overnight.
- When you are ready to cook the Cornish hens, preheat the oven to 400°F, and let them come to room temperature.
- Heat a grill pan or roasting pan that can go into the oven and on the stovetop. Then take the birds out of the marinade (reserving it for later) and place them skin-side down on the grill pan or in the roasting pan.
- Place the bricks on top of the birds and let them cook over a moderate heat for 5 minutes. Immediately place the Cornish hens in the oven, bricks still on top, and cook for 15 minutes.
- Take the pan out of the oven and, wearing oven mitts, carefully remove the bricks before turning the Cornish hens over. Pour the reserved marinade over the flattened birds, then put the bricks back on top and roast in the oven for another 15 minutes, until the juices run clear. Take the Cornish hens out of the oven, carefully remove the hot bricks, then carve each bird into 4 pieces, drizzling with any intense pan juices. Bread and a green salad is all I need on the side.