Cuisine of the Sun: Mediterranean Grilled Chicken

Cuisine of the Sun: Mediterranean Grilled Chicken

It happened again today, twice. I was seduced by light.

The first occurrence was late afternoon (17:40 to be precise), when I was mesmerized by a slanting sunbeam as it illuminated the rattan weavings beneath the glass of our mahogany coffee table, causing it to glow and come nearly to life. Finished with my writing work, I was reading on the couch when suddenly I became aware of the greater moment—as if someone or something had just quietly entered the room—and lay my book aside, reveling in the luminous ambience.

The second instance was just slightly later after supper­—out walking with the dogs in our new neighborhood—when I became entranced by the soft, powdery blue of the Pacific sky strewn with fluffy pink clouds. As the sun descended towards the welcoming arms of the sea, I stood enchanted, gazing up at the heavens and jagged green shards of the tropical mountains, while a soft breeze tousled my hair and rustled the nearby palm tree fronds. Two English Whippets tugged at their leads impatiently, eager to get on. What is he looking at?!?

When I lived in the high desert of New Mexico—long known for its remarkable quality of light, luring famous American artists like early Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams—late afternoon was a holy time for me. I would often stop whatever I was doing so that I could go outside and marvel at the display of illumination on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The “golden hour” was always stunning. Magical, even. Living in Santa Fe, if I was free in the late afternoon, I liked to go to a little tea house in an old adobe at the upper end of Canyon Road (a mile-long stretch of expensive galleries and ateliers), where I would sit on the patio with a cup of chai and savor the vividly painted moment as it enveloped my world.

The intensely captivating light show lasted only a few fleeting minutes, gracing each thing it touched as if somehow illumined from within. El fuego sagrado del Díos, I used to call it. The sacred fire of God.

I should have been a painter, I suppose. I’ve often thought it would be far preferable to have an unfinished work on canvas at the end of the day rather than orderly rows of tangled sentences, a jumble of half-polished words on a screen or paper. A painting seems far more tangible somehow. And yet I likely would have despaired at never being able to even come close to capturing with pigments the elusive quality of illumination that opens all my senses and stirs my soul. Instead, I simply lose myself in moments of light, feeling my heart flutter in my chest as if it had wings.

Rather than with an artist’s brush, I often chase fleeting moments of sensory inspiration through cooking. Perhaps they are not so different, painting and cooking (although one tastes decidedly better). Certainly, both can be creative, and good meals invoke a sensory revelation. Moreover, some food seems to celebrate the light itself.

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere and I wish to take you somewhere—someplace that words cannot adequately go. I want to give you a polysensory experience, with taste leading the way. I’m going to offer you a recipe for a simple meal, the kind that should be eaten outdoors. In the right frame of mind, the bright interplay of flavors can transport you to a shaded arbor of rustling grapevines somewhere near the shore, watching the play of sunlight and shadows on arid foothills and a flashing turquoise sea. This is rustic, unadorned food that speaks of bold, summer days as it feeds your soul.

Living on the Mediterranean is where I discovered that the taste of garlicky yogurt and olive oil is, well, addictive. For the ultimate mélange of flavors, the chicken should be grilled; there’s something incomparable that the element of fire adds to food. (If we were living in the Old World, we might be lucky enough to cook this in a wood-burning oven, very close to heaven.) Lacking a grill (or whichever sort), you can also pan sear it—the taste will still be delicious. If you don’t eat chicken or meat, you could substitute a variety of summer vegetables to grill instead. Brush them lightly with a good olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and grill until lightly charred on both sides.

I confess that I’m not one to follow recipes exactly. Far from it. Mostly I cook by feel and intuition. When I do need measurements, my choice is always to use metric as I find it a superior and easier system (you can take the man out of Europe but…). The entire world uses metric except Americans. <sigh> Here I give both metric and imperial measurements for convenience, but please take the amounts as merely guidelines and adapt as you deem appropriate.

If you can get organic ingredients and a free-range, non-frozen chicken, use them.


Grilled Chicken with Yogurt Sauce

Ingredients:

4 chicken breasts, skin on (preferably free-range and unfrozen)

1–2 teaspoons good quality sea salt, preferably coarse (see note below *)

juice of 1 lemon

½–1 teaspoon red chile flakes

1–2 teaspoons finely diced fresh rosemary (optional)

freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Yogurt Sauce:

1 cup (240 ml) thick Greek-style yogurt, plain

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

good pinch of sea salt

¼ cup (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil (or more to taste)

juice of half a lemon

As accompaniment:

three large handfuls of wild or baby arugula (“rocket,” roquette, etc.) or other small, garden fresh lettuce

a dozen ripe cherry tomatoes, halved

¼ cup (40g) toasted pumpkin seeds

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*Cook’s note: First, salt—good salt—is not the enemy as it has been made to be in America. A quality sea salt is rich in minerals and trace elements needed by our body, and has a far more complex taste than the conventional table salt (which is simply sodium chloride with anti-caking elements added so that it will pour easily). If there’s a single, easy thing to do to immediately improve the flavor of your cooking, toss that container of Morton’s in the rubbish bin and get some quality sea salt. Though it is expensive, almost exclusively I use Maldon, an exquisite, flaky salt from Essex, England. I’m also fond of grey Celtic sea salt from Brittany, France, and fleur de sel (“flower of salt”). Lighter, coarse, flaky salts (including kosher) are actually less “salty” than standard salt, and more can (should) be used in salting and brining. Cooks and chefs will debate this endlessly, both claiming science on their side, but in my experience salting meat or poultry early helps draw out the flavor whilst cooking and improves its taste and texture on subtle levels; whereas salting late or at the end of cooking generally just makes food taste salty.

Method:

At least three hours ahead of cooking, generously season the chicken breasts with sea salt (alternatively, brine them, if you’re knowledgeable about that technique). Let them rest in the fridge until about an hour before cooking, then bring to room temperature.

Brush off any excess salt. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and chile flakes (and rosemary, if using), along with some grindings of black pepper. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and massage it into the flesh.

For the sauce: put the yogurt into a small bowl and add the garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon. Mix well and allow it to sit for at least an hour at room temperature, giving an occasional stir to move the crushed garlic through the sauce and better infuse its flavor. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary, adding more olive oil if you prefer. (Note: a pinch of spice would not be out of place here—red chile, pimentón ahumado (smoked paprika),  ground chipotle, ras al hanout (Moroccan seasoning), Turkish chile flakes such as marash or urfa chiles—but the sauce also stands well on its own). Remove the garlic before serving.

Using a cast iron or heavy-weight pan, toast the pumpkin seeds over medium heat until golden and beginning to pop, shaking the pan often to keep them from burning. Remove from the hot pan (otherwise they’ll continue to cook and burn), sprinkle lightly with salt, and allow to cool. Set aside.

Preheat the grill. When hot, lay the chicken breasts skin-side down on the rack and cook for 5–8 minutes. Then turn and grill the other side. (Total cooking time will depend on your grill, whether using coals or propane, and the level of heat). The skin should be pleasantly charred in some places, with the flesh underneath still juicy and meltingly tender.

For the accompanying greens, you can either serve them plain, using the sauce as a dressing, or lightly dress with a simple vinaigrette. Top with the sliced cherry tomatoes and toasted pumpkin seeds. Serve the chicken alongside and spoon the yogurt sauce over.

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Finally…

If you’re a wine drinker, transport yourself to the Mediterranean and enjoy this with a pale, salmon-colored, dry Provençal rosé (Domaine Tempier is a nice, if expensive, choice) or a richer Tavel (from the southern Rhône region). Forget everything you think you know about rosé wine (which in the States is only just emerging, two decades later, from the influence of innocuous, mass produced, sweet pink wines like White Zinfandel). Summer is here… drink pink! Alternatively, serve a tall pitcher of fresh, organic lemonade made with sparkling water, infused with sprigs of fresh mint.

Now, take the plates outdoors where you can sit in the shade and dine al fresco, relishing the contrasts and complements of flavors in the summer light. Let yourself be seduced by a feast for the senses. Eat as a Soul Artist: dining slowly, opening to the ‘other-than-human’ world around you, savoring the moment. Share this rustic fare with good friends or someone you love, basking in the joie de vivre of the passing day and appreciating the gift of being alive.

Often it is the simplest things that are the most beautiful, rewarding, and special, especially when we celebrate them as nourishment for body and soul.