All You Need is Rub

fig. a:  grilled fennel-chile chicken

fig. a:  grilled fennel-chile chicken

It was that image of the steak that first got us.  When our copy of Saveur's summer grilling issue arrived, it carried the tantalizing image of a beautifully crusted, honking T-bone steak right on the cover.  As soon as we saw, we had to make it.  And we did.  And it was great.  

But when the article that accompanied the recipe mentioned that Andrea Reusing, the chef at Chapel Hill's acclaimed Lantern restaurant, and the one who brought it to Saveur's attention, uses the very same fennel-chile rub on just about anything, including chicken, we suddenly had a vision.  

A couple of days later, I mixed up another batch of the fennel-chile rub and we went out and got ourselves a nice, juicy chicken.  I spatchcocked it, dry-brined it, and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.  The next day I took the chicken out of the refrigerator about 3 hours before I wanted to grill it, and I rubbed it all over with the fennel-chile mixture.  About an hour before I wanted to grill, I started working on my fire.  When the coals were at their hottest, I went ahead and carefully grilled the vegetables I was planning to serve with the chicken:  summer squashes, scallions, etc.  When the vegetables were grilled and the fire had died down a bit (hot, not scorching hot), I placed my spatchcocked chicken on the grill, skin-side down, put the lid on the grill, and let it cook for 25 minutes without touching it, or moving it, or even lifting up the lid.  When the 25 minutes were up, and the aroma of the fennel, the chile, the black pepper, and the grilled chicken flesh were beginning to drive me nuts, I lifted the lid, flipped the bird (so to speak), and put the lid back on.  This time I grilled it for 20 minutes because it was a plump, good-sized bird.  When the time was up, I placed the chicken on a platter and let it rest, uncovered.

If you want to serve it hot, wait 15 minutes and carve it.  If the temperature is still nice and warm where you are and you're in no rush, I've served it as much as 2 hours later and it was beautiful:  juicy and still just a bit warm, bursting with flavour, perfect for a relaxed summer meal.  Doing so can free you up to squeeze in a late-season game of croquet.

fig. b:  Washington County Croquet Club

fig. b:  Washington County Croquet Club

Or just admire the sunset before dinner.

fig. c:  big sky country

fig. c:  big sky country

Tempted?  Here's the recipe for the rub:

Fennel-Chile Rub

1/4 cup whole fennel seeds

1/4 cup black pepper

1/2 cup crushed red chile flakes

Toast the fennel seeds and peppercorns in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until the seeds begin to pop, roughly 1-2 minutes.  Let cool slightly.  Working in batches, transfer to a spice grinder and pulse until coarsely ground.  Mix with chile flakes in a bowl and then transfer to an airtight container.  Use within a week or two, otherwise store the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

That's it, that's all.


It should go without stating, but use high-quality fennel seeds, black pepper, and red chile flakes whenever possible.  We've been using Lucknow fennel seeds, Malabar black pepper, and Pepperoncini di Abruzzi, all from Montreal's Épices de Cru, our preferred spice merchants.

When it comes to actually making the chicken, once again, use a high-quality chicken, preferably organic and/or naturally raised.  We made this recipe with 3-4 pound chickens from Misty Knoll Farms, our favourite producer, and there's no question that this made a huge difference.

If you've never dry-brined a chicken before, all you need to do is generously rub it all over with kosher salt, and sprinkle a little extra in the cavity, as well.  Then all you have to do is give the chicken time to let the brine work its magic.  I recommend 18-24 hours.

You love grilled chicken, but you've never spatchcocked a chicken before?  Watch this helpful instructional video, courtesy of the good people at the BBC's GoodFood.  It contains all the advice you need, and once you get the hang of it, it's easy, and it will open up all kinds of possibilities for you.

You're worried about a rub that contains 1/2 cup of chile flakes and 1/4 cup of black pepper ?  Take a walk on the wild side.  You'll be happy you did, because although this grilled chicken has flavour to spare, remarkably, it's not particularly spicy.  There's a bit of heat, for sure, but it's mostly a mellow, unbelievably delicious heat.  You don't have to be a chilehead to savour this recipe.

Okay, I think that's everything you need.  There's still a week and a half left to Summer 2015, and at least two months of prime Grilling Season left after that.  Make the most of it!