Ancient Roman grilling, in a fresco at Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
Recipe below: Grilled Peperoncino Chicken with Spice and Herb Yogurt Salsa
Grilled fat smells really good to me. Sizzle chicken skin over red-blue charcoal, and it will crisp up to form a coating that tastes fantastic, feels good going down, and protects the juicy meat it encloses. I think back on the barbecues of my childhood, in our little New York backyard, the sagging green awning over the grill catching all the smoke, our eyes burning (we could have moved the grill out from under, but no one ever did, because, who knows, it could start to rain), a big wheel of luganega inevitably starting the show (a light appetizer, to my father’s way of thinking).
For years and years that theatrical sausage, held together with wooden skewers, and its aroma defined our family cookouts. But lately, messing around on my own grill. I’ve found that chicken brings back my most intense flavor memories. My father, the grill master of my childhood, is long gone, so now it’s up to me to keep that fire burning. Chicken, my father always said, is “a tricky son of a bitch.” You had to pay real attention to hit the perfect midpoint between “blackened to death,” as my mother called it, and raw. Each piece of chicken had to be repeatedly evaluated, more red wine consumed, a thigh moved around or turned, a drumstick taken off early, others left to cook longer, to avoid “bloody at the bone,” which nobody could tolerate. The worst was blackened to death and still bloody at the bone. We’ve probably all been there at some point. It’s complicated.
At my new upstate cottage, I’m getting myself reacquainted with the grill. I first cooked shrimp, a whole sea bass, steak, and lamb kebabs. All went smoothly. Last week I tried chicken, using only dark meat. (Breast meat is easy to dry out, which is one reason my father’s chicken got unnecessarily complicated, so I avoid it.) Even so, I felt his little grill dance begin in my head, working its way down to my tongs and spatula. I began moving pieces around. Some were darkening too fast, others looked flabby. At least my mother wasn’t around to supervise. So up to the warming rack some pieces went, while others got shoved to the side, away from the direct flame. The red wine flowed. Things started to come together. And, I have to report, my chicken eventually came out just about perfect—crisp, not too black, juicy inside, and spicy with fresh peperoncino, the way my father often seasoned it. Playing daddy is fun.
I’ve paired this diavolo chicken with something my father would never have thought to make, a North Africa-inspired spice and herb yogurt. I’m now growing dozens of herbs upstate, way more than I had room for on my city windowsills, and I try to come up with new ways to use them as often as I can. For this salsa I chose spearmint and lemon thyme; if you like cilantro, use that in place of the thyme. Italian parsley or basil would be good, too.
For the yogurt salsa:
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1½ cups full-fat Greek yogurt
1 summer garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12 big sprigs spearmint, the leaves well chopped
6 or so large sprigs lemon thyme, the leaves chopped, plus a palmful of small sprigs to garnish the chicken
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
For the chicken:
6 whole chicken legs, cut into thighs and drumsticks
4 summer garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
1 tablespoon za’atar spice mix
1 fresh red peperoncino, minced
1 teaspoon pimenton de la vera (Spanish paprika), or another medium-spicy smoked paprika
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 shot cognac or grappa
1 teaspoon warm, runny honey
4 chopped scallions, for garnish
Toast the cardamom, coriander, and cumin seeds over low flame just until their aroma rises up from the pan. They shouldn’t color. Stick them in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle, and grind well. Put the yogurt in a small bowl. Add the garlic and the ground spices, and whisk in the olive oil. Add the spearmint and lemon thyme and some sea salt. Add enough lemon juice to give it all a light kick. Stir everything well. Now thin the sauce with a little warm water. (It should be liquid enough to run off a spoon into a thick puddle on your plate, but still thick.) Let sit while you prepare the chicken.
Put the chicken in a big bowl and add all the other “for the chicken” ingredients except the scallions. Toss well, and let sit at room temperature while you start up your grill.
I use charcoal, so I need about a half hour to get to glowing coals with no wicked flames. Whenever your grill is ready, place the chicken on it, presentation side up. If it flames up, cover the top until the flame dies down. Grill until the skin is well browned and crispy but not the dreaded black that drove my mother crazy. Give the pieces a turn, and crisp up their other side. Then move them to the edge of the grill, to let them cook through without taking on too much more color. This whole process should take about a half hour, and since you’re using all dark meat, the pieces should cook through evenly in about that time. If you find that the thighs need a little longer, move the drumsticks to the warming rack. Test for doneness by pressing on the thigh meat or the thickest part of the drum stick. It should be firm but still have a little spring to it.
Pile the chicken up on a big platter. Scatter on the scallions and the palmful of lemon thyme. I always add a little more sea salt after grilling, since a lot of it will have been grilled off, but that’s up to you.
Serve with the yogurt salsa.