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brined grilled chicken

All Photos: Virginia Willis

6 hour brined grilled chicken

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Virginia Willis helps you serve up a juicy, fire-kissed Labor Day feast

The aroma of chicken on the grill is one of the most tempting smells of summer. Our attraction to the scent of meat cooking on fire is basic; the wafting gray smoke seems to awaken some sort of primordial urge buried deep in the recesses of our carnivorous brains. A mere whiff of that tantalizing smolder can trigger salivation and hunger.

Unfortunately, from time to time, food cooked over a hot grill can lose its moisture and result in dry and tasteless meat. What’s the solution? Well, an actual solution — made of salt and water used in a technique known as brining.

Brined poultry loses only half as much moisture during cooking. There are scientific methods working behind the scenes here. Salt causes the food proteins to form a complex mesh that traps the brine so the muscle fibers absorb additional liquid during the brining period. Some of this liquid is lost during cooking, but since the meat has absorbed so much liquid to begin with, it cooks up juicier at the end.

The size of the salt grains used in brine is important. Grains of table salt are very fine, while those of kosher salt are larger. The crystals of the two most widely available brands of kosher salt, Morton’s and Diamond Crystal, differ. Half a cup of table salt is equal to 1 cup of Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 3/4 cup Morton’s kosher salt. My recipes call for Diamond Crystal because the conversion is easy at 2:1.
The brining solution takes care of the dryness and for flavor, I spritz the chicken while it’s cooking with a potent vinegar bath, a recipe from my grandfather, whom I called Dede. Apple cider vinegar is slightly diluted with water and combined with Worcestershire, hot sauce and oil. It produces a pungent, meaty odor and sends out billowing clouds of steam and smoke as it chars on the grill.

When I am grilling out, I generally take the opportunity to grill some vegetables, as well. (If you need some cool summer sides take a look here.) Towards the end of cooking, I scoot the chicken towards the edges of the cast iron grate and grill slices of eggplant and summer squash until tender. Then, once I pull the chicken and vegetables from the grill, I increase the heat to high and pop the okra on the grill for a few minutes until it’s just crisp tender.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
– Virginia Willis

Apple Cider Grilled Chicken
Note: My grandmother washed her chickens inside and out before cooking them, removing every last bit of fat, overlooked feathers, and any bruise, blemish or bloodspot. That bird was sanitized — or so she thought. I would never argue with my grandmother, but according to the USDA washing chicken is not necessary. If the bird is contaminated, dangerous bacteria are not going to be affected by cold tap water! Washing the chicken actually increases the chance of cross contamination by splashing around water that has touched the chicken into the sink. So, don’t wash the chicken and simply pat it dry with paper towels.

Serves: 8 to 10
Hands-on time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 7 1/2 hours

Ingredients
Brine
1 gallon hot water
1 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
8 cups ice, plus more if needed
2 whole chickens, cut into pieces or 20 pieces of chicken of your choice such as thighs, drumsticks, and breasts

Cider Spritz
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup canola oil, plus more for the grate
2 tablespoons hot sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning the chicken
Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions
To make the brine: Combine the hot water, salt, and brown sugar in a large plastic container and stir to dissolve. Add the ice and make sure the brine is well-chilled. Add the chicken pieces; cover and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours.

To make the cider spritz: Once the chicken has finished brining, combine water, vinegar, oil, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and salt in a food-safe spray bottle. Set aside.

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Apply some oil to the grill grate. Place the chicken on the grill, leaving plenty of space between each piece. Grill until seared, 1 to 2 minutes per side for legs and thighs, and 3 or so minutes for breasts. Move the chicken to medium-low heat or reduce the heat to medium; continue to grill, turning occasionally and squirting with the marinade, until the juices run clear when pierced and an instant read thermometer registers 165 degrees, about 35 minutes total. Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final squirt of sauce for flavor and serve immediately.

Grilled Squash and Eggplant
Note: Eggplant is one of summer’s most luscious and sensuous vegetables and has always been one of my favorites both to eat and to grow. And, while eggplant readily belongs in both Italian and Far Eastern cuisine, it suits our hot Southern climate, as well.

Serves: 8 to 10
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes

Ingredients
6 summer squash, sliced 1/4-inch thick
6 eggplant, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cherry or Sungold tomatoes, for serving
1/4 cup parsley leaves, for serving
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped oregano

Instructions
Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the squash and eggplant slices on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the olive oil on both sides and season with salt and pepper.

Working in batches, if necessary, grill eggplant and zucchini slices, covered with grill lid, until slightly charred and tender, 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Remove to a platter and sprinkle over the cherry tomatoes and parsley leaves.

Grilled Okra
Note: I like okra every which way — raw, boiled, steamed, fried — you name it, I love it. Not everyone does. Grilled or broiled okra is a revelation. Many recipes suggest soaking bamboo skewers in water to use on the grill. This never seems to work well enough for me, and they always burn to a crisp. My suggestion is to buy some stainless-steel skewers and be done with it.

Serves: 8 to 10
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
3 pounds okra, stems trimmed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions
Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Thread the okra crosswise onto 2 skewers, building a ladder of sorts so the okra won’t spin on the skewer.

Brush with canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the grill and cook until bright green and tender, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove from the grill and serve immediately.


Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Virginia's newest cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table," is currently available for here. Her previous book, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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