My motto is “if you can eat it, you can grill it!” And, it came to me quite accidentally when I was teaching a rambunctious and enthusiastic group of Irish cooks at Darina Allen’s famed Ballymaloe cooking school in Country Cork.
I was filled with vim and vigor for my favorite American grill and barbecue recipes and the students were new to outdoor cooking and to the traditions of Southern barbecue. In an effort to get them to understand my philosophy of using an outdoor grill as an alternative heat source, I very simply said, “if you can eat it, you can grill it!” My way of saying that everything tastes better when cooked on the grill.
The 100 students seemed to understand what I meant and over the course of the next two days, I introduced them to my favorite backyard fare. And, although I love every single food that comes hot-off-my grill, this simple meal is what I always fall back on and was the class favorite as well. So, I think it is fitting that I start this column off with my go-to grilled menu that is stunningly simple, virtually foolproof to prepare and infinitely satisfying.
I think Beer-Can Chicken is the best way to prepare a roast chicken—bar none. The beer steams and deepens the flavor of the meat of the chicken leaving it juicy and flavorful while the vertical roasting of the bird allows the excess fat to render out of the skin leaving it crisp and golden brown. It is the kind of chicken that I have seen friends attack with their bare hands and eat with abandon on more than one occasion. And every time I teach it in a class or make it for new dinner guests, I am surprised how many people have never cooked it or even seen it made. Since I have made it more times than I can remember, I sometimes think it is old hat and passé but chicken this good should never become passé. It’s a classic dish made with a new-fangled technique.
Beer-can chicken can be served with any number of vegetables and side dishes but my favorite combination is with simple grilled asparagus, and sliced and grilled sweet potato “chips” preferably cut from a Garnet sweet potato. The bright green of the asparagus and rich orange of the sweet potatoes compliment the chicken and make a pretty plate as well. I often make a custardy creamed-corn cornbread to serve along side these three dishes from the grill and you can grill that or bake it in the oven—as you wish.
Because I am relying on my Grilling Trilogy™ and using only extra-virgin olive oil, Morton Kosher salt and pepper as seasonings, it is essential to buy the best quality raw ingredients you can find. You will discover that good ingredients don’t need a lot of fooling’ around with to taste great!
The chicken will take about 2-5 minutes to prep—depending on your kitchen skill and up to 1.5 hours to cook over indirect heat if you have a large 5lb bird. You can cook the sweet potato chips on the warming rack of your grill while the chicken is grill roasting—they will take about 40 minutes to cook through using indirect heat.
The asparagus will take 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness and you can cook that over direct heat just before the chicken is done or while it rests.
The beauty of this entire meal is that it can be prepped up to one day in advance and kept refrigerated in individual sealed containers or re-closeable plastic bags. If using plastic bags, be sure to use the freezer bags, which are thicker and heavy-duty.
Notes on Beer-Can Chicken: You can use a chicken sitter or use a beer can. The chicken sitter will give you more stability but a beer-can is fun and great dinnertime theatre. In each case, you want to make sure that the drumsticks are in front of the chicken—they will act like a tripod for the chicken and will insure that the chicken is steady and won’t topple over, as it gets “tipsy.”
Grilling Method: Indirect/Medium Heat
1 4-5 pound roasting chicken, preferably Amish
1 12-ounce can of beer, preferably Budweiser
3 tablespoons of your favorite dry spice rub recipe, divided or;
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Remove neck and giblets and rinse chicken inside and out if desired; pat dry with paper towels. Coat chicken lightly with oil and season with 2 tablespoons dry rub. Set aside. (Note: If you prefer a more classic roasted chicken flavor – omit the dry rub and use only kosher salt and black pepper.)
Open beer can, pour out about ¼ cup of the beer and make an extra hole in top of the can with church key can opener. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of the dry rub inside beer can. Place beer can in center of cooking grate and “sit” chicken on top of the beer can. The chicken will appear to be “sitting” on the grate.
Cook chicken for 1 – 1½ hours or until the internal temperature registers 165ºF in the breast area and 180ºF in the thigh. Remove from grill and let rest for 10 minutes before carving.
Note: When removing from grate, be careful not to spill contents of beer can, as it will be very hot.
Grilling Method: Combo/Medium Heat
2 medium sweet potatoes, preferably garnet (red-skinned) variety
Peel sweet potatoes and slice into ½-inch thick slices. Brush or spray lightly with olive oil. (If you are making these for a crowd–as I do a lot–put the potatoes in a recloseable plastic bag, add the oil and massage to coat all surfaces—this method works best and it the fastest and easiest to boot.) Just before putting on the grill, season liberally with salt. Place rounds directly on the cooking grate over direct heat and grill 3 minutes on each side or until well marked. They will still be raw and will need about 20-30 more minutes to cook through. Move to indirect heat to finish cooking, and turn halfway through cooking time.
When soft and tender, remove from grill, sprinkle with salt if necessary and serve immediately. They are best still hot, like French fries.
Grilling Method: Direct/ Medium Heat
1 pound fresh asparagus (Look for fat firm stalks with firm deep green or purplish tips. Also check the bottom of the spears. If they are dried up, chances are they have been sitting around for too long.)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt (use salt according to taste)
Trim off the tough bottom of the spear by grasping each end and bending it gently until it snaps at its natural point of tenderness—usually two-thirds of the way down the spear. If the spear is less than 6 inches long, chances are it has already been trimmed for you. Alternatively, you can cut the ends off with a knife. Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the outer skin of the lower half of the remaining stalk.
Coat each spear with olive oil by placing clean, dry spears in a reclosable plastic bag, pour in the oil and massage spears to coat each one with oil. Sprinkle with salt and massage again. Leave the asparagus in the bag until ready to cook.
Place on the cooking grate crosswise so it won’t fall through the grates. Grill for 10-15 minutes, turning occasionally to expose all sides to the heat. Asparagus should begin to brown in spots (indicating that its natural sugars are caramelizing) but should not be allowed to char.
Remove from grill and serve immediately–eating spears with your fingers enhances the experience.