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Anna Del Conte’s classic chicken dish is ‘devillish’

Why this dish is called devilled chicken I cannot make out. Pellegrino Artusi, the great nineteenth-century writer, called it ‘Pollo al Diavolo’ and gave this amusing explanation. ‘It is so called because it should be dressed with a lot of cayenne pepper and served with a very piquant sauce, so that whoever eats it, when his mouth is on fire, would like to send the chicken and the cook to hell.’ Marcella Hazan is also of the opinion that it is so called because of ‘the diabolical quantity of black pepper’. Whatever the name, the recipe is quick and easy, and the result excellent.

Here is the Tuscan version, which uses chilli instead of black pepper as in Rome. I prefer to buy a poussin (Cornish hen) for this dish. Being small, they are easier to handle and they cook more quickly without becoming too dry.

Grilled Devilled Chicken

Serves 2

 A fresh poussin (Cornish hen) of about 700 g/1½ lb

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

3 tbsp lemon juice

2 good pinches of chilli powder

Salt

2 garlic cloves, bruised

Ask your butcher to split the bird open from the back and pound it flat. If you are doing this yourself, place the poussin on a work top, breast-side down. Split it open along the backbone with a large chopping knife or a cleaver. Crack the breastbone and open the chicken up flat, using the palm of your hands. Now pound the poussin as flat as you can, using a meat mallet.

Mix together with a fork the oil and 2 tbsp of lemon juice to form an emulsion.

Add the chilli powder and salt and mix again.

Lay the chicken on a dish, pour over the oil mixture and then add the garlic.

Leave to marinate for about 2 hours. Turn the chicken over and baste it from time to time.

Preheat a cast-iron frying pan (skillet) until very hot. Place the poussin in it, skin-side down, and cook over high heat until brown, not just golden, pressing it down against the bottom of the pan with a fish slice (spatula).

Now turn the bird over and brown the underside.

Choose a lid that is smaller than the pan so that it drops inside the pan and sits on the bird. Turn the heat down. Add the marinade, cover with the lid and place a weight on the lid. Cook for about 15 minutes. Turn the bird over and continue cooking, covered, until done, another 10 minutes or thereabouts. When the chicken is ready drizzle over a few drops of fresh lemon juice and serve.

If you prefer to cook over charcoal, light the fire in good time and, once browned, turn the bird frequently until it is cooked, basting it with the marinade, or, if you have run out of marinade before the poussin is cooked, with a little extra-virgin olive oil.

The featured recipe is from Anna Del Conte’s Classic Food of Northern Italy