Although cooking chicken under a brick dates back to Roman times, you’d think it was designed to meet all the hopes of a modern home cook for weeknight chicken. In the old days, partially boned or deboned chicken was placed in a shallow terracotta container reminiscent of a casserole, then topped with a terracotta brick called mattone (hence the name of the dish, mattone chicken). It was cooked over an open fire until the skin was crisp and the meat juicy.
The current versions are made on the grill, in the oven or on the stove. The weight of the brick creates cheek-to-cheek contact between the chicken and the skillet, speeding up the cooking process and creating blatantly crispy skin. And because the chicken is covered with this kind of lid, the typical splatters from frying chicken thighs no longer decorate your kitchen. All of these benefits make mattone chicken a tempting addition to your weekday skillet chicken routine, especially with a few tweaks.
The boneless chicken flattens it to provide a more even contact between the chicken and the pan, which means more uniform cooking and browning. But the procedure requires, at least for me, to see a YouTube tutorial first. I opt for bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs to avoid the nervous dance of making the meat white and dark, but not over the top. I then cut the skin down to the bone, which helps the thighs lie flat in the pan.
With such direct contact between the hot skillet and the skin of the chicken, there is a chance that it will burn. However, nothing that a little mayonnaise can’t stand. Mayo acts as a preventive coating for anything you’d like to brown, including grilled steaks, skillet chicken thighs, and grilled cheese. As mayonnaise cooks, its own (controversial) flavor dissipates, but because it’s such a great flavor carrier, any ingredient you add can cook and bloom without burning.
Take the recipe here: A chipotle lime mayo is spread over the skin of the chicken (another great attribute of mayo is that it clings to anything it touches). If I had just marinated the chipotle chicken in marinade and lime zest, those ingredients might have scorched, but not in the mayo. Because mayonnaise is oily, there is no need to grease the pan, further reducing splattering. As if the mayo didn’t do enough for us, you can use additional chipotle mayo to wash down the chicken pieces.
The glorious by-product of crispy skin is a drippy skillet, which feels more like a treat than the chicken itself. It is also the place to cook any side you want. Here, that’s crispy rice with broccoli and chives, a kind of schmaltzy fried rice, but it could also be carrot, broccoli, sweet potato, or even beans.
This efficient little recipe offers many avenues for improvisation. Salt and grill the chicken. Change up the mayonnaise personality, perhaps with grated green sauce, lemon and garlic, barbecue sauce, or miso. Use the melted fat in a salad dressing. Such inviting, crispy, tasty and fast chicken can serve as the base for many (centuries indeed) of dinners.
Brick Chicken Chipotle Mayo
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 2 pounds)
½ teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup of mayonnaise
3 chipotles in adobo, finely chopped, plus 1 teaspoon adobo sauce
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 lime, finely grated and cut in half
1 cup long grain white rice
6 cups broccoli, cut into florets, stems sliced ¼ inch thick (about 1 pound)
6 chives, thinly sliced
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Pat the chicken dry. Cut two bone-deep slits at the top of each thigh. Season with ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper.
In a medium bowl, combine mayonnaise, chipotles and adobo sauce, cumin, and lime zest. Pour about half of the chipotle mayo into a small bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Spread the remaining mayo on the skin of the chicken.
Place chicken skin side down in center of large cast iron skillet. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and cover the chicken with foil or parchment, pressing each thigh against the skillet. Place something heavy, like another cast iron skillet, some cans, or a brick, on top. Cook chicken until opaque almost to the sides, 20 to 25 minutes, checking halfway to make sure the skin doesn’t brown too quickly. (If so, lower the heat).
When the water boils, add 1 teaspoon of the salt and the rice. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes, then add the broccoli and cook for 3 more minutes, or until the rice is almost al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water and shake as dry as possible. Set aside while you finish the chicken.
Remove the brick and aluminum foil or parchment from the chicken. Add the lime halves, cut sides down, to the skillet. Flip chicken over and cook until cooked through and limes are charred, an additional 3 to 4 minutes. The internal temperature of the chicken should register 165 degrees on an instant read thermometer. If not, remove the lime to a plate and cook the chicken for 5 more minutes, then check again.
Transfer the chicken and limes to a plate, leaving the fat in the skillet. Add chives to skillet and stir, scraping up browned bits, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the rice and broccoli, stir to coat with the chicken fat, then apply an even layer. Cook until hot and starting to brown to the bottom, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper, if needed. Remove from heat and return chicken and lime to skillet.
Serve in the skillet, family style, squeezing the charred lime over the chicken, with the remaining chipotle mayo on the side.
Produce: 4 portions
Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days. Heat gently in a skillet over medium-low heat.