Sixteen chickens ago, 10 Cornish hens ago, six poussins ago, four ducks ago, I began to spatchcock. Say it loud, and there's music playing. Say it soft, and it's almost like praying. Spatchcock: If you're a bird, if you taste good when grilled, get out of my way. I've got heavy-duty poultry shears, a good grip and I'm coming for you.
To spatchock is to butterfly, in a sense. Except spatchocking is made for those with mediocre knives and lousy knife skills. Take a chicken, turn it breast-side down on a cutting board. Put away the lightweight kitchen scissors for the next step. With poultry shears (about the strength of the garden clippers you use to prune azaleas) and a steady hand, cut along one side of the backbone, then cut along the other.
Lift out the backbone (you can throw it in the stockpot) and open up the bird like a book. Put the cut side down and with your hands on the skin side flatten the bird. Marinate it or rub it with spices and spread it out on the grill. The flattened bird cooks quickly and evenly, much faster than would a whole chicken and even faster than some big, bone-in chicken breasts. Even better, all of the chicken and its skin are exposed to the grill, so the whole bird is seared.
Steven Raichlen, author of the comprehensive "How to Grill" (Workman, $19.95) was introduced to spatchcocking in France, where he was served poulet en crapaudine -- "chicken in the style of a toad" -- since, in fact, the bird splayed out on the grill looks as if it is ready to do a frog kick.
Of the 18 different ways to grill a chicken that Raichlen demonstrates in his new book, spatchcocking is one. (Other classics include Beer Can Chicken and Chicken Under a Brick.) "It dramatically cuts down the time it takes to grill a whole chicken," says Raichlen, who admits he has spent the summer smelling of briquettes. Raichlen cooks his spatchcocked bird by the direct-heat method, meaning he puts the chicken directly over the fire, instead of to the side of it. "Twenty minutes on each side for a chicken, instead of 1 1/4 hours if you kept the bird whole."
Spatchcocked birds are not, by definition, always grilled, though they certainly take well to it. Raichlen remembers another spatchcocked bird, served to him at La Varenne, the French cooking school founded by Anne Willan, whose most recent book is "From My Chateau Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, $45). It was roasted, stuffed with bread crumbs and covered with mustard.
And they are different from butterflied birds, says Willan: "To butterfly is to cut a single slit more or less through the middle of a usually boneless piece of meat, poultry, fish, even a vegetable, so it can be opened up in the manner of butterfly wings," she says. "It may be cooked flat or stuffed and reshaped. To spatchcock is much more specific, applied only to poultry as far as I know, and almost always to small birds -- quail, pigeon, small chickens." And she adds, you don't need a fancy bird: "Supermarket chickens work fine."
You could sit around the office for days and try to guess where the term spatchcock originated but that could get dicey. Or you can turn to Alan Davidson's "The Oxford Companion to Food" (Oxford University Press, 1999). "Spatchcock is a culinary term, met in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries and revived toward the end of the 20th century, which is said to be of Irish origin," writes Davidson.
"The theory is that the word is an abbreviation of 'dispatch cock,' a phrase used to indicate a summary way of grilling a bird after splitting it open down the back and spreading the two halves out flat," writes Davidson. It also could be a variation of "spitchcock," he points out, a technique for grilling eels (though not on my grill).
The verb "to spatchcock" has evolved in some quarters into a noun. Australian and British restaurants, in particular, offer entrees such as Spatchcock Scented With Prosciutto and Sage, and what they're serving is a small chicken, hen or poussin that has been "spatchcocked."
I will always think of it as a verb, however: an active verb. Armed with a pair of poultry shears, for the last four weeks I have discovered that the technique works well for chickens and Cornish hens (whose small narrow backbones cut out quite easily). Removing a duck backbone will give you a workout, and even with an Asian marinade or glaze a five-pounder was a bit dried out from its extended stay on the grill over indirect heat.
In fact, though Raichlen's directions recommend the direct heat, he says the spatchcocked bird can also be cooked over indirect heat, the method I preferred by, oh, say, about the third Cornish hen. Using the indirect method, the skin of the bird is still nicely browned but not burned and the meat stays moist and tender.
If you have a charcoal grill, build the fire on one side of the grill, or around the sides of the grill, leaving an empty space in the middle. Place a disposable aluminum drip pan in between or beside the coals to catch the fat. Place the bird over the drip pan. For a gas grill, if it has controls for the left and right, heat one side and place the drip pan under the grate on the other side. Place the bird over the drip pan. If you have front and back burners, the bird should go in front and the heat on the back.
Though two recipes, modified for spatchcocked birds, are included at right, feel free to take your favorite marinade or rub for poultry and use it on a spatchcocked bird. If you buy a small chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), once it's cooked just cut it in half down the breast bone to serve two. If you choose Cornish hens or poussins (very young small chickens, generally about 1 pound each), one perfectly grilled bird is a juicy, moist entree for each diner.
And now I have to see a man about a turkey.