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Caveman’s Delight

With summer upon us, it’s time to get primitive with rotisserie

by B.A. Nilsson on May 24, 2012

While there’s something satisfying—deeply, primordially satisfying—about food cooking on a grill, it achieves a deeper gustatory beauty when it’s moving slowly in front of the fire. Rotisseries have been around as long as we’ve been cooking over an open flame and had the patience (or servants) to turn it slowly. Because the meat weeps out juices as it cooks, those rotisserie revolutions allow it to baste itself. Chicken and other fowl seem to have been invented especially for this purpose, although cuts of pig and cow do very nicely on the spit.

South America seems to favor it, giving us restaurants from Ecuador, Peru and, especially, Brazil that prepare meat this way. Slabs of beef and lamb (and lots of fat) piled on a vertical spit give us gyro (Greek) or doner (Turkish) slices for those excellent pita-wrapped sandwiches. And supermarkets long ago discovered the appeal of having floor-standing ovens filled with aromatically roasting birds for your grab-and-go convenience.

But now that it’s grilling season, you’ll want to add this to your backyard repertory (although I’m going to drag you back indoors toward the end of this piece).

I don’t doubt your ingenuity, but convenience is appealing when we’re talking about leisure-time cooking. You can rig your own slowly-turning spit, perhaps reviving the historic method of putting a dog on a treadmill to turn it, but why not get something you can plug in? Although I have long since established my preference for charcoal when it comes to grill types, my gas grill has the convenience of pre-drilled mounting holes and a spit-bar space where lid meets bottom. Master Forge (a Lowes brand) offers a 40-inch rotisserie kit in regular ($30) and stainless ($60) varieties that should hug your grill without any drilling—but be sure to check. Weber grills, for instance, march to their own design tune, but Weber also offers its own line of rotisserie kits, including one for the kettle grill.

If it’s a chicken dinner you’re after, pat the bird dry and season it inside and out. I like to use za’atar in my rub, a Middle Eastern blend that features roasted thyme. It’s important to truss the chicken, which can be done by looping a single length of string into a pair of crisscrossing loops, firmly binding wings and legs. You don’t want anything flopping around as it’s turning.

When I have extra spears available on the rotisserie, I’ll impale foil-wrapped potatoes – but keep an eye on them. As they cook, they loosen.

Keep the heat as low as possible. With a multi-burner grill, kill any heat in the center. Give it about an hour, but use a meat thermometer to determine doneness. Keep checking in throughout the cooking process. Grill flames have minds of their own and I’ve sent my dinner into char-land through neglect.

A rotisserie alternative that streamlines (and foolproofs) the process is a self-contained tabletop unit. Several brands are available, including models by Cuisinart, Meco and DeLonghi, but I’ve been enjoying the very economical Ronco Showtime rotisserie—yes, that Ronco—the smallest of which ($100) has room for a large (five-pound) chicken or a good-sized pork roast. (The largest size promises to accommodate a 15-pound turkey.) It comes with a two-piece drip pan, on top of which you could roast a vegetable or two if whatever’s rotating doesn’t get in the way, and there’s an optional steaming tray that fits on top of the unit to take advantage of the high heat that radiates through. (I toast hamburger buns on the top—be vigilant!)

Again, prep is nothing more than seasoning and trussing the meat, then impaling it on the pair of spears that sticks out from one of the two gear-toothed rotator discs and is capped by the other. Slide it into place inside the oven, close the transparent door and set the timer. But keep that meat thermometer at hand!

Despite repeated oven tries, I’ve been having a tough time cooking the kind of pork roast I like best, where the outer fat is crackly and dark and the meat is white and wet to the touch. Rotisserie grilling turns out to be the way, and the tabletop unit again turns out an exceptional roast. The unit also comes with a wire basket that slides over the rotisserie spears and has room for burgers, sausages, hot dogs, fish—whatever fits. And there are optional kebab spears that fit around the gear-disc perimeters that give a far more even result than anything but the most careful open-fire grilling.

So, while I tend to scoff at “set-and-forget” claims, this one actually delivers. And the sight of the slowly, inexorably browning chicken is yet another of those food moments that awakens our most primal recollections, promising comfort and safety as well as a good meal.


Table scraps: Explore the affinities of wine and chocolate at the Chocolate Bar (4 Front St., Hudson) from 5 to 7 PM on Saturday (May 26) with such John Kelly Chocolates specialties as truffle fudge bites with caramel and hawaiian red-alaea sea salt and dark chocolate truffles with a pinch of French Grey Sea Salt. These will be paired with selected wines from Fairview Wines and Liquors. The next such event will be from 5 to 7 PM on June 9, when Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers chocolate and dipped fresh fruit will be featured. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.