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It’s roasting outside

Times Staff Writer

BEFORE there was the stove, there was the rotisserie. And although there’s no denying that progress has its advantages -- can you imagine spending a summer afternoon tending a live fire in your kitchen? -- there’s no disputing that there also has been a cost. Put simply, there is no better way to roast meat than on a rotisserie.

Cook a chicken in the oven and it’s fixed in place, tight within the claustrophobic confines of a steamy metal box. Roast it on a rotisserie and the bird slowly revolves, alternately drying in the open air and basting itself both inside and out with all of those lovely juices.

The superiority of the rotisserie has long been known. In “The Epicurean,” Charles Ranhofer’s seminal 1893 book on fine American cooking, he has pages of diagrams of rotisserie contraptions, complicated-looking arrangements of chains and pulleys and counterweights that were the heating heart of every 19th century restaurant. “In large kitchens [it is] the only roaster possible,” he concluded.

About 100 years later, in “Chez Panisse Cooking,” Paul Bertolli goes so far as to say of the rotisserie: “There is no better way to cook whole animals, large roasts, and poultry. With a well-made fire and a spit that turns with a slow regular rhythm, heat penetrates gradually and consistently, producing self-basted meat that is moist, redolent of burning oak or fruit wood, and cooked evenly from the center to the exterior.”

On a more prosaic level, consider the number of rotisserie chickens sold in supermarkets these days. Any cooking method so foolproof that it can be done well by grocery chains certainly has something to recommend it (now, if they’d just start using better chickens).

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A better bird

Indeed, it was the quest for a better bird that drew me to the rotisserie. It was one of the first things I picked up after I bought my last charcoal grill. (For some reason, the rotisserie for my basic Weber kettle grill costs as much as the grill itself -- about $100. No matter, it’s well worth it.)

As soon as I got the rotisserie home, I hooked it up, started a fire, skewered a chicken and trussed it tight, then roasted it, seasoned with just a little salt and pepper. The bird was golden brown and so moist that when I stuck the thermometer in its thigh to check whether it was done, the juice spurted several inches.

In a lifetime of roast chickens, this was a keeper. But, I thought, maybe I could do better. The next night I repeated the process, tossing in a couple of chunks of hickory. This one was even better, the wood smoke lightly perfuming the meat.

And so it has gone for more than two years. I’ve done legs of lamb, beef loins, boned-and-tied pork shoulders and turkeys, all of them wonderful. I can honestly say that in a cooking career fraught with its share of disasters, my rotisserie is one tool that has never disappointed.

It would be flattering to attribute this to some special genius on my part. But in truth, a rotisserie is nearly foolproof, requiring only a minimum of attention. Salt and pepper the meat. Secure it to the spit. Put it over the fire. Then set a timer to wake you from your nap a few minutes before you think the meat will be ready.

You can make it more complicated, but you can’t make it better. Try some different wood chunks if you like. Most supermarkets now stock a variety, usually oak (the California classic) and hickory (the choice of the old South). For long-term smoking, it’s best to soak these before using them. With the rotisserie, I just toss them on the fire.

Along the same lines, barbecue cultists make a big deal about using real charcoal in place of briquettes, which are made from ground charcoal and binders and other additives. But I have to say that given the relatively short time it takes to cook meat on the rotisserie, I can’t tell the difference in flavor. It does seem that charcoal might burn a little hotter.

If you use charcoal, look for a product specifically labeled “lump.” I picked up a bag a couple of weeks ago without that label and what I found inside looked like carbonized construction scraps, mostly thin lathing. It burned so quickly that within half an hour there was nothing left but a couple of sticks.

Another time, I bought a bag that turned out to contain chunks nearly as big as tree trunks. They burned a long time but took a while to get to a good temperature. My advice is to find a brand you like and stick with it. Lately, I’ve been using Best of the West 100% Lump Hardwood Charcoal.

Because the meat you cook on the rotisserie is so much bigger than what you grill on a grate, it’s best to arrange the coals for indirect heat. This means leaving an open space, directly under the meat, free of fire. You can buy specially made baskets to hold the coals on either side to accomplish this. Or you can do what I do: Pick out your most beat-up loaf pan and use it to keep the center clear. It will also catch any fat that drips from the meat, reducing the chance of flare-ups.

You’ll quickly find there is another hidden advantage to roasting over a live fire. It is much easier to avoid overcooking. In an oven, the heat is constant and you finish roasting at the same temperature at which you started. With coals, the heat gradually diminishes as cooking progresses. The cooler the temperature in the final cooking, the longer the meat can roast without becoming overdone.

The easy way around

As far as seasonings go, I’m a big fan of the simpler the better. This seems to be a minority position among outdoor cooks. Somehow, grilling brings out the inner aromatherapist in a lot of people. They assemble endlessly complicated marinades as if they are planning on soothing and calming that pork chop instead of grilling it. But let’s face it, after an hour on the fire, how many levels of nuance can you taste?

Furthermore, most marinades only flavor the outside one-eighth of an inch of the meat. This isn’t important when you’re talking about steaks and chops. They’re so thin that you’re just about guaranteed to get some of the exterior with every bite. But with the larger cuts of meat that work so well on the rotisserie, the effect is diminished.

There are a couple of exceptions. The first and most important is brining. By now, every cook should know about brining pork and poultry, but here’s a refresher: A brine is a salt and liquid solution that makes meat moister and more tender. The simplest brine is made with water, but particularly with pork you can use other liquids. I’m especially partial to apple cider.

Beyond salt and liquid, you can add all kinds of seasonings. The most effective are dried spices, such as cloves or cinnamon or chile flakes. Simmer them for a minute to infuse the liquid with their flavor.

Many brines call for sugar, but I find the mere hint of sweetness you get with cider to be plenty. Much more and it starts tasting like luncheon meat.

Far more important than fancy seasoning is making sure the meat is tightly bound -- not only to the spit, but also to itself. The rotisserie will come with a pair of pronged brackets that will take care of the first. Simply secure the meat in the center and tighten down the thumbscrews.

For the second, you’ll need some unwaxed cotton twine for trussing the meat into a neat cylindrical shape. For some reason, this string can be tough to find these days. Check kitchen supply stores or ask your local butcher. In fact, the butcher probably already will have trussed most cuts of meat, including loins and such other large-boned cuts as legs of lamb.

The only thing you’ll probably need to truss yourself is poultry. When you’re roasting a bird in the oven, it’s not so important if the legs flop wantonly askew during the cooking. The heat is contained and equidistant.

On a rotisserie, though, unbound legs and wings will dangle perilously close to the lively fire, particularly after cooking has begun to soften up the joints. That’s a sure recipe for scorching and burning.

The object of trussing is to turn a chicken into a tightly bound football-shaped package. It’s far simpler to do than to describe. The easiest method is to loop the two drumsticks together at their final knob. Turn the chicken over and cross the twine in back. Keep the string pulled tight, drawing the legs up tight against the body. Turn the chicken back breast-side up and tie the twine on top, securing the wings to the breast. It sounds complicated, but do it once and it will become second nature

That’s the way it goes with rotisserie cooking: It seems that the less you do, the better off you are. Save those complicated recipes for winter. Can you imagine a better way to while away a summer afternoon than watching a roast lazily revolving over an open fire? Just be thankful it’s outdoors.

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Lamb marinated in yogurt, garlic and rosemary

Total time: 10 minutes, plus overnight marinating and 1 1/2 hours on the rotisserie

Servings: 10 to 12 servings

8 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

1/4cup olive oil

1 1/2teaspoons salt

1 cup plain yogurt

1 (4 to 4 1/2-pound) boneless leg of lamb, rolled and tied

1. In a mortar and pestle or food processor, mince the garlic. Add the rosemary, olive oil and salt and grind or process to a thick paste. Add the yogurt and mix well.

2. Place the lamb in a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag and pour in the yogurt mixture. Squeeze out any air and seal the bag tightly. Rub through the bag to make sure the yogurt covers as much of the lamb as possible. Refrigerate overnight.

3. The next day, start a fire with 10 pounds of charcoal. Remove the lamb from the bag and wipe off any excess marinade. Skewer the lamb on the spit and secure it tightly.

4. When the coals are covered in gray ash and the fire has settled to the point that you can hold your hand at skewer level for 3 to 4 seconds, begin roasting the lamb over indirect heat. It will take about 1 1/2 hours to reach 130 degrees, which is slightly on the medium side of medium-rare. When sliced, the lamb will be pink and moist but the fibers will be set and tender.

5. Remove the lamb to a platter and set aside for 10 minutes to finish cooking and to allow the juices to redistribute. Remove the lamb from the spit, slice one-half- to three-quarters-inch thick and serve along with its juices.

Each serving: 248 calories; 35 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 11 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 109 mg. cholesterol; 164 mg. sodium.

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Pork brined in apple cider and balsamic vinegar

Total time: 30 minutes, plus overnight marinating and 1 hour on the rotisserie

Servings: 8 to 10

4 cups apple cider

1/4cup salt

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

4 whole allspice

1 (3- to 3 1/2-pound) pork loin, tied

1. In a medium saucepan, bring the cider, salt, vinegar, pepper flakes and allspice to a simmer. Stir to dissolve the salt completely, then remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

2. Place the pork loin in a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag and pour the cider mixture over the top. Squeeze out any air and seal the bag tightly. Refrigerate overnight.

3. The next day, start a fire with 10 pounds of charcoal. Remove the pork from the bag and pat it dry. Skewer the pork on the spit and secure it tightly.

4. When the coals are covered in gray ash and the fire has settled to the point that you can hold your hand at skewer level for 3 to 4 seconds, begin roasting the pork over indirect heat. It will take about 1 hour for the pork to reach 155 degrees.

5. Remove the pork to a platter and set aside for 10 minutes to finish cooking and to allow the juices to redistribute. Remove the pork from the spit, slice one-fourth- to one-half-inch thick and serve along with its juices. The pork may be slightly pink inside, but it will be thoroughly cooked.

Each serving: 301 calories; 33 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 16 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 97 mg. cholesterol; 757 mg. sodium.

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Chicken with Chimayo chile rub

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Servings: 2 to 4

3 tablespoons red chile powder, preferably Chimayo or other New Mexican

1 tablespoon salt

1 1/2teaspoons garlic powder

1/2teaspoon thyme leaves

1/4teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2teaspoon powdered oregano

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken

1. In a spice grinder or small food processor, pound or process the chile powder, salt, garlic powder, thyme leaves, cumin seeds and oregano to a fine powder.

2. Start a fire with 10 pounds of charcoal. Skewer the chicken on the spit. Truss moderately tightly with cotton twine. Dust it liberally with the spicing mixture.

3. When the coals are covered in gray ash and the fire has settled to the point that you can hold your hand at skewer level for 3 to 4 seconds, begin roasting the chicken over indirect heat. It will take about 1 hour for the chicken to reach 160 degrees.

4. Remove the chicken to a platter and set aside for 10 minutes to finish cooking and to allow the juices to redistribute. Remove the chicken from the spit and cut into serving pieces. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 547 calories; 57 grams protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 33 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 179 mg. cholesterol; 1975 mg. sodium.


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