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Flavour Guy: Charred chicken vs. suburban BBQ wagons

A simple question: why does Montreal have so many places—restaurants and restaurant chains—featuring barbecued chicken? We have St. Hubert BBQ, Chalet BBQ, Côte St Luc BBQ, dozens of Portuguese chicken rotisseries. Scores, and a score of others.

Chicken is an easy dish to make at home and there are hundreds of ways to cook it. It is featured in every kind of cuisine, excepting vegan, vegetarian and tunatarian. We do not have chicken restaurants devoted to chicken gumbo, chicken potpie, chicken cutlets, chicken carbonara, or chicken Kiev—although these might be good ideas. We have PFK (or KFC if you are reading this outside Quebec), but that’s about it.

On the other hand, we have dads. Dads know it’s easy to cook chicken on a barbecue. All you do is light the barbecue, wait until it is really hot, put the chicken on and open a beer. There may even be a hockey game, which gives the chicken an added flavour boost, known as inattention.

But don’t blame Dad if something goes wrong. Weber’s law is at work here: the attention given to the food is inversely proportional to the attention given to setting up the barbecue. There is a feeling of solid accomplishment when it is finally set up, especially without those few parts that Dad is sure the manufacturer included as extras.

Anyway, after a few minutes, Dad comes back, notices that one side of the chicken is charred and flips the bird. The plan is now to get the second side toasty brown, with hopes that nobody will notice the first side. Then Dad returns, checks the inside and finds that it is still raw. So Dad cooks it some more, ensuring a requisite, even char.

Char tastes good on a hamburger or steak. There is even a style called Pittsburgh or “black and blue”: very rare on the inside, charred on the outside. It works nicely with a thick cut of beef. Char is even permissible on a whole fish, particularly if the skin won’t be eaten. However, it does not work well on chicken where the taste of burnt skin goes right into the meat.

So the answer to my question, about why we have all these barbecue places, is because at the same time that Dad is working on his crematory skills, Mom is calling for takeout. I imagine that this might change now that we finally have food trucks in Montreal. But why restrict them to the city? On weekends, they could be driving through suburbs. And rather than gourmet-style wagons, these would be specialized BBQ wagons. They would have assigned routes, as there used to be for milk trucks. Then, in the late afternoon and early evening, they would circle through neighbourhoods, spotting plumes from backyard burnt offerings, and making pit stops. The doorbell would ring and a nice young person would come to the door and say, “I believe that your husband is outside in the back. Could we interest you in something properly prepared from the front?”

Chicken à la Flavourguy

The Flavourguy likes to cook a whole chicken by splitting it along the backbone, pressing it flat, and grilling it as if it were a large steak, so that it cooks evenly. Rub it thoroughly on both sides with salt and pepper.

Make a medium-hot fire and have a thick layer of the coals at least 8 inches from the chicken, pushed to the sides if possible, to prevent flare-up. When the coals are white, put the chicken on the grill breast side up. With a gas grill, keep the flame low once the grill is preheated to about 425F (220C). Put a cover or lid over the barbecue.

It should take about 45 minutes to cook a chicken. Baste halfway through with a simple vinaigrette, not a commercial salad dressing or barbecue sauce. Both of these usually have sugar, which burns easily. Turn the chicken after 30 minutes.

If you like a sauce, brush it on both sides in the last couple of minutes. The chicken is ready if you poke into the thickest parts of the thigh and breast and the juices run clear. Or use an instant-read thermometer and take the chicken off the grill when it reads 160F. Let it rest 5 minutes before carving.

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