Kaukasis: Zahir's Stoned Chicken
The following recipe is excerpted from Kaukasis: A Culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan Beyond by Olia Hercules (Weldon Owen, 2017)
Chef Zahir is one of the most-friendly yet serious chefs I have ever met. He has worked at Xanlar, a restaurant in the city of Qebele in Azerbaijan, since he was 14 years old. Zahir’s boss was determined to re-create a truly ancient method of cooking meat, whereby two heavy stones were heated and a piece of meat or vegetables with essential kurdyuk fat (see page 232) were squashed between the stones, so he built a special stove that makes the technique possible. Fired by wood at the base, a huge slab of limestone is heated to the maximum, with another piece of limestone placed on top. We were getting impatient at the thought of chicken and vegetables pressed against each other cooking in young lamb fat. It all felt so primordially delicious.
Re-creating this approach at home is more of a challenge, but it’s not impossible. If lamb fat is not your thing or you can’t find the good stuff, try lard or lardo (Italian cured pigs’ fat). Chicken will never have tasted so good.
50g (1¾oz) lamb fat (or use lard, lardo or a thick piece of pancetta)
2 green chillies, left whole
1 green pepper, cored, deseeded and sliced into large chunks
3 medium potatoes, unpeeled and sliced into thin rounds
1 medium aubergine, sliced into 1cm (½-inch) rounds
2 poussins or 1 small organic chicken
2 flavoursome tomatoes, sliced on the equator (optional)
sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
You will also need 2 roasting trays, one slightly larger than the other, and a heavy weight such as 2 bricks wrapped in foil or a heavy, heat-resistant pestle and mortar
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Place the oven shelf at the very bottom of the oven, and remove all the other shelves, as you need space to put your weight on top.
When all the vegetables are prepped, spatchcock your poussins or chicken. Place the bird breast side down on a chopping board, and, using sharp kitchen scissors or a knife, cut along either side of the backbone. Then turn the bird over and flatten with the palm of your hand.
Heat the animal fat in the larger roasting tray in the oven until sizzling. Heat the other smaller roasting tray and your heavy weight at the same time.
Carefully add the poussins or chicken cut side down on top of the fat in the larger tray and layer the vegetables all around (except the tomatoes). Season with salt and pepper, then cover everything with greaseproof paper and top with the smaller tray.
Put the whole thing into your super-hot oven and place the hot weight on top of the smaller sheet pan, then roast for 40 minutes for the poussin, or about an hour if you are using a chicken. If using the tomatoes, add them 7 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
Remove the weight, small sheet pan, and paper, then tuck the at breads underneath the chicken and cook for a further 5 minutes. Check that the chicken is done by pulling at one of the legs – it should pull away easily and the juices should run clear.
I like to serve everything on a platter, with a little plain yogurt, whole bunches of herbs and whole radishes and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice.
Tip If I can find them, I would always substitute Spanish Padrón peppers for the green bell pepper and chiles in this recipe, as they work so well here and you might get a surprise spicy kick.