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All You Can Eat

Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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May 16, 2008 10:30 AM

Captain Bay-Schmith's gotta-make-it chicken

Posted by Nancy Leson

You haven't lived till you've tasted my husband's "famous" chicken:

He'll tell you, "It's not my chicken, it's Captain Bay-Schmith's," and then he'll tell you the story about the first time he tasted the best chicken he'd ever eaten. He won't be exaggerating either, because the Captain's recipe is also the best chicken I've ever eaten. Even better than the whole roasted chicken at Le Pichet, which I adore. And the chicken wrapped in proscuitto at Crow, pictured below, which I ate -- again -- last Friday night:

Captain Bay-Schmith -- a retired sea captain, taciturn Dane, talented artist, Mandolin player and lover of Gammel Dansk -- was Mac's next-door neighbor long before I moved into our house. One night, before I came on the scene, the Captain's wife, Mary, called and invited Mac to dinner. "Sorry," he said, "I just brought home some Thai food," "Save it," she insisted. "Jan's roasting a chicken." "What's so great about his chicken?" Mac asked. "Nobody makes a better chicken than Jan," she said. So Mac went. Turns out Mary was right. And in the nearly 20 years since, my husband has perfected the recipe, which I'll share with you because it's way too simple and entirely too delicous to keep to ourselves.

For this easy dinner you'll need a chicken. Or two. We always make two, using broiler/fryers:

I insist you make two because this is great "company" food, and because the leftovers are spectacular. You'll also need a medium onion, a lemon, several large lettuce leaves (Mac says iceberg works best, but whatever you've got on hand will do). And, oh yeah. The secret ingredient:

Hey! Don't knock it till you've tried it, OK?

Now, set up your barbecue grill. And forget about using a gas grill: It will seriously lose something in the translation. You'll need a generous chimney of coals, heated till they're white-hot:

While they're heating, prep your bird(s). Rinse them, pat them dry -- but not too dry -- and stuff the cavity with half an onion and half a lemon per chicken. Truss the legs with kitchen twine or use a couple of toothpicks to close the cavity. Then completely dust them with the Lawry's Seasoned Salt:

Let the chicken sit for a bit while you go out and prepare the grill. (The Lawry's will get somewhat pasty from being in contact with the moist chicken: that's the way it should be.) If you've got those little basket thingamajigs in your grill, great. If not, distribute the hot coals around the perimeter: the chicken requires indirect heat.

Mac always puts some "green" cuttings from our fruit trees (apple or cherry) in the baskets. It adds a distinctive smokiness and if you don't have any, go scavange for some!

Position the chicken(s) in the middle of the grill:

Then cover them with the lettuce leaves:

Put the lid on the grill, making certain the vent is open on both the top and the bottom. Now go have a beer, read a book, or do as I did and make some fresh buttermilk rolls. But don't disturb the birds. Let them roast in there for about 40 minutes before taking off the lid and removing the lettuce leaves. The chicken will still be kind of white, and where the lettuce wasn't covering the bird it'll have a deep, dark Coppertone tan. No biggie:

Toss the lettuce leaves and spin the individual birds (not the grate) 180-degrees; if there are hot or cold spots in the grill, that'll help even things out. Put the lid back on and and continue roasting. For a single bird, it should take about an hour and 10 minutes total roasting time, give or take, till the chicken's done:

Mac never uses a meat thermometer for Captain Bay-Schmith's chicken the way he does when he grill-roasts a turkey on Thanksgiving -- he just jiggles the leg. If the joints are loose, you're good to go, if not, keep on cooking till they wiggle freely. If you're making two birds, the roasting time will be about an hour and a half, and when you're done they should look like this:

If you're using a larger chicken (anything above, say, 3 3/4-pounds), you'll have to increase the time and keep checking. It may take closer to two hours for bigger birds like the Rosie and Rockys available around town.

Since the grill's already hot, once you've taken the birds off to rest before carving, you might throw some asparagus on the barbie. But here's another idea: there are young onions for sale everywhere this time of year, and they make a simple, easy and surprisingly delicious side dish. These are some plump scallions I picked up at 99 Ranch Market for about 35-cents a bunch. A little olive oil, some kosher salt and here's what you get:

Last Sunday, for Mother's Day, we invited Seattle Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero and her family (a.k.a. "the immediate family") over for dinner. Then we all sat down to Mac's chicken and raised a glass of wine -- and a fork -- to honor Captain Bay-Schmith, who's long since gone on to that vintage tugboat on the heavenly seas:

Too bad I forgot we still had a bottle of Gammel Dansk -- a gift from the dearly departed Bay-Schmiths, brought back years ago from Denmark -- or we'd have hoisted a snort of that, too:

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Posted by KAG

2:47 PM, May 16, 2008

I've got a gas grill or I can use my oven... what do you suggest I do -- will the recipe still work? (No, I can't afford to buy another grill!) If the recipe will work, I'll try it!

Oh, and the bread was delicious!

Posted by Chuck

11:08 PM, May 16, 2008

Hmmmm...interesting. I wonder what function the lettuce leaves serve? What if you were to omit them? Would it make a difference? I recently tried the Cook's Illustrated version of "Beer Can Chicken," where you first coat the bird with a dry rub and then plunk on top of a 2/3 full beer with some bay leaves and cook in the same manner as this recipe. I'm going to try this recipe tomorrow to compare. In the beer can version, you poke the skin several times with a skewer, which helps render the fat and creates a nice crispy skin. In terms of variables, I'm thinking that the application of something in the cavity (e.g. onions, lemon, steam from beer, etc.) is what contributes to keeping the meat moist.

Posted by Abbie

12:41 PM, May 19, 2008

I'm Nancy's BFF frequently mentioned over the years in her columns and blog!
I can testify that Mac's chicken is absolutely THE best roasted chicken I've ever had anywhere in the world. Looking at the photos of the chicken on the grill and on the table, I recognize Mac's talented hand, Nancy's familiar dinnerwear, and their table outside at which I've enjoyed many fabulous meals with friends. Made me wanna weep that I wasn't there to enjoy it all with them!
As for cooking those chickens, as they say in Spain "vale la pena" - worth the trouble!

Posted by Dick

7:12 AM, May 20, 2008

I LOVE this blog! My first read was the bread and the timing was perfect for me to bake and take to a friend in need. From then on, reading All You Can Eat has been a daily "first thing" when I crank up the computer in the morning. And now Mac's Chicken (which I'll call it since Bay-Schmith is too long) came at the perfect time. This coming weekend at our Lopez Island cabin we're hosting a group and Mac's Chicken is going to be the headliner!

Posted by Frank

2:35 PM, May 20, 2008

I know you say don't use a gas grill, but I'm going to give it a shot with gas, and still using indirect heat and smoke chips.

I do enjoy visiting your blog; so much great information!

Posted by Nancy Leson

3:17 PM, May 20, 2008

Frank: I'm dyin' to know how it comes out using the gas grill and indirect heat (and I'm sure KAG will be interested, too), so do let us know.

Dick: Have fun on Lopez -- jealous!

Chuck: the leaves are a necessity, trust me. As for that beer-can chicken, made famous years ago by barbecue maven Steve Raichlen (, here's a story. He once called my house and left a message, introducing himself as a friend of my pal Tom Sietsema's. I returned the call later with a message of my own: "Steve, my husband just shoved a Budweiser up a chicken's tuchis and grilled it as you directed -- so you, my friend, need no introduction." (P.S. We think Captain Bay-Schmitt's version beats the beer-can version.)

And Abbie: for you, my BFF, it's Mac's chicken with a side of proscuitto! Now get on a plane and get over here. (FYI: My pal Abbie recently moved back to the U.S. after a six-year sojourn in Saudi Arabia, where pork was not on the menu).

Posted by Dick

9:45 AM, May 28, 2008

Over Memorial Day weekend we had 2 chickens prepared just this way with charcoal BBQ, complete with apple cuttings. Fabulous! At the same time we did 2 more in the oven (big crowd) and did everything the same way (without apple cuttings). Also fabulous but the smoky taste from the BBQ was the clear taste winner. Both came out moist and tender. Must be the lettuce leaves - a surprising big improvement. Sandwiches the next day and chicken salad after that made for a perfect experience!

Posted by JMH

8:14 PM, Jul 02, 2008

Give us a printer friendly version of the recipe! I don't need all the pictures.

Posted by Johnny

9:20 PM, Jul 02, 2008

Thanks for all the photos! I read the article in the paper today and came to the blog to see more photos. I'm going to fire up my old Weber and make this for my family this weekend.

Posted by The Honorable Don Brocha

9:24 PM, Jul 02, 2008

Well I know what I'm going to cook this weekend.

Posted by Nancy Leson

8:03 AM, Jul 03, 2008

I did provide a printer-friendly recipe, JMH, in yesterday's paper and attached to the www.seattletimes version as a related link. Here it is for the blog-post, and your printing pleasure:

And again, in easy format, right here:

Captain Bay-Schmith's Chicken

(1 chicken makes 4 servings)

1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds

medium onion

fresh lemon

Lawry's Seasoned Salt

2 large lettuce leaves

1. Prepare the kettle-type grill to cook the chicken by indirect heat. (See complete instructions in accompanying article.)

2. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Stuff the cavity with an onion and a lemon.

3. Truss the chicken legs with kitchen twine and use wooden toothpicks to close the cavity. Completely dust the chicken with Lawry's Seasoned Salt.

4. When the charcoal is ready, place the chicken in the center of the grill and cover with lettuce leaves, close the lid and don't disturb. After 40 minutes, remove the lettuce leaves and replace lid and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Allow about 1 hour and 10 minutes cooking time total, depending on the weight of the chicken (larger birds take longer). Test for doneness the leg should wiggle and a thermometer placed in the thickest part of the bird should read 170 degrees.

Posted by Dyani Bartlett

6:02 PM, Jul 03, 2008

Okay Nancy and friends, The sun's peeping out in Edmonds after lions and tigers and bears fought it out all night and day among the thunder heads. PERFECT weather for grilling up a tasty bird. Reminds me of a few power outage Thanksgivings when the Weber saved the day by saving the meal. Pilgrims did progress to the great outdoors in thanks and the way my Captain Bay-Schmith's chicky is filling the air with hunger pangs, beating back lightening and thunder twangs, I think I am in for a great summer treat and giving THANKS neighbor!!!!

Posted by Kat

11:15 AM, Jul 14, 2008

I tried this recipe this weekend and it was amazing. We'll be having it quite often. I did hickory chips which added a great smokey flavor. (No recipe excapes my tampering, er, personal touch). The chicken was so moist and tender it almost melted in my mouth. I did have one glitch - I spread the charcoal out too thinly and it went out. I finished the chicken in a 350 oven. Luckily it was on the grill long enough to absorb the smokey flavor. Next time the hubby will do the grilling :).

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