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For moist bird, toss brick on it

Chef Michael Stebner subscribes to a no-nonsense food philosophy: A carrot should taste like a carrot.

“I don’t try to change a food but rather bring out its natural flavor,” says the new chef at Fox Restaurant Concept’s The Greene House in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Easier done with carrots than chicken. Anyone who has ever grilled, baked or sautéed chicken knows how easy it is to turn out a bird that tastes as dry as a breakfast cereal.

Stebner’s solution: Cook with a brick.

This centuries-old Italian cooking method – pollo al mattone – produces a chicken with crisp, crackling skin and juicy breast and thigh meat. Chicken – like other dense proteins – gets its moisture from natural juices, not fat. And juice disappears more quickly than animal fat.

But when you cook with a brick, its weight holds in the natural juices by cutting cooking time in half, trapping moisture before it has time to evaporate. It also flattens the chicken, which shortens the cooking time as well.

“There’s nothing worse than dry chicken, and nothing better than moist chicken. A brick is your insurance against dry chicken,” Stebner says.

Simply cover a brick – about 60 cents at home-improvement stores – with foil and preheat in oven or on the grill. The easiest way to cook chicken with bricks is on an outdoor grill, but an old-fashioned cast-iron pan also works. The grill or pan and bricks must be hot before cooking the chicken. You also can put the brick on top of any sauce that you typically would use.

Brick cooking also works well with sandwiches and other dense, sturdy proteins like swordfish. On the other hand, brick cooking does not work for beef or delicate seafood. The fat in beef keeps it from drying out, and seafood would crumble under the weight of the brick.

Although far from new, brick cooking is being rediscovered by chefs and cooks looking for a foolproof and simple way to bake or grill chicken.

Swordfish with Polenta and Pepper Salad

6 ounces polenta

salt and pepper, to taste

4 pieces of swordfish (6 ounces each), cut thick

1 pasilla chile, seeded and sliced thin

1 Anaheim chile, seeded and sliced thin

1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced thin

1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1 bunch fresh basil, torn

1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, torn

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling on the fish

4 half-size (half-thickness) bricks wrapped in foil

Prepare polenta according to package directions and season with salt and pepper. Reserve hot while you cook the fish.

Preheat grill with bricks inside. Season steaks with salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Place steaks on grill and cover each with a brick. Cook for approximately five minutes for medium-well fish. To check for doneness, look for small white bubbles of moisture that will be pressed out of the sides of the steaks. Bubbles should be opaque and firm.

For the salad, combine peppers, and tomatoes. Combine oil and vinegar with herbs to make the salad dressing. To serve, pour polenta onto the plate and place swordfish on top. Spoon salad and vinaigrette over fish and polenta.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: The Greene House, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Chicken with Asparagus and Potatoes

1 brick wrapped in foil

1 pound baby potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

1/2 pound large asparagus

1 lemon, sliced thin, seeds removed

8 sage leaves

1 garlic clove, crushed

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use

sea salt and pepper, to taste

1 natural chicken breast, split, skin on

1/2 cup nicoise and picholine olives

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees, with a brick inside a heavy pan.

In a bowl, mix potatoes, asparagus, 4 lemon slices, sage leaves, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, until everything is coated with oil and seasonings.

Pour vegetables onto a roasting pan or baking sheet and cook in preheated oven for 12 minutes or until potatoes are easily pierced with a knife.

Meanwhile, preheat a heavy, ovenproof sauté pan on the stovetop on medium-high heat.

Season chicken liberally on both sides with salt and pepper.

Once the sauté pan is very hot, add 2 teaspoons olive oil and carefully place the chicken, skin side down, in the pan.

Remove the hot pan, with the brick inside, from the oven. Place the brick on top of the chicken

Place the pan, with chicken and brick, into the oven and bake for 10 minutes.

Remove pan from the oven and place it back on the stovetop over high heat until chicken skin is brown. Remove the brick from the chicken and check for doneness.

Serve the chicken over the vegetables and drizzle with sherry vinegar and olive oil.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: The Greene House, Scottsdale Ariz.

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