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HISTORY REPEATING

In praise of chicken under a brick, the little black dress of cooking

Lemon chicken from Oleana, 2013.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Lemon chicken from Oleana, 2013.

Maeda, Wendy Globe Staff /file

Chicken under a brick from Caffe Umbra, 2002.

Boston is changing. What might have seemed peculiar a decade ago is now simple fact. Whitey Bulger is in prison. People are scrambling to live in a place that used to be known as Slummerville. The restaurant scene is different now, too. A few years ago, who could have guessed that Fort Point, once a hardscrabble grid of artists’ lofts, would house the swankiest boites in town? Or that Anthony’s Pier 4 could be reduced to rubble?

A moment, then, for chicken under a brick. No matter what our culinary flirtations — from molecular gastronomy to locavorean feasts presented on salvaged wooden tables — the submissive crispy bird endures.

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Why the attraction? Delicious simplicity. Variations of the recipe originate in Tuscany and Eastern Europe, where a chicken is flavored with native spices like rosemary or paprika, weighted down, and roasted or grilled. Chefs can get creative: The Tuscans typically use bricks, but rocks or a heavy skillet are respectable options. Regardless, the weight of choice flattens the meat, helps it to retain moisture, and ensures even cooking. The result is a chicken flush with juices, crackly on the outside and tender within. A spritz of lemon, and you’re set.

Trends come and go; chicken under a brick does not. The expression is literal. After all, the hapless chicken is legitimately trapped, sizzling beneath a heavy object. But the actual dish isn’t going anywhere, either. Eleven years ago, Caffe Umbra in the South End served it up with arugula panzanella salad. And only a few weeks ago, the Globe photographed the flattened lemon chicken, in all its golden glory, at Oleana in Cambridge, one of our most inventive Mediterranean restaurants. Globe restaurant critic Devra First described it as “impossibly juicy” in her 3-star review.

It’s the ultimate egalitarian recipe. Everyone from Martha Stewart to Mark Bittman has a variation. (“It’s one of my all-time favorites,” enthused Bittman, who crowed about the dish in his New York Times Minimalist column back in 1997.) Done right, chicken under a brick is the gastronomic equivalent of the little black dress. It’s always appropriate, and it never goes out of style. Edgy it’s not, but as any marathon runner or lifelong chef might tell you, endurance sometimes trumps flash.

And so, against a culinary backdrop festooned with foams and infusions and hybrid donuts—in an era where so little is certain — let us praise the persistence of poultry. Flattened, crispy, and forever juicy.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com
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