Fear of Broilers

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My favorite childhood movie was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” which most people know as a book, but I only know (and insist on knowing) as a movie. Milo, the young protagonist, must travel through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis to make his way to the Castle in the Air to rescue Rhyme and Reason. Only, whenever he says the words “the castle in the air” thunder claps and the sky explodes with lightning.

Which is precisely what happens in my head whenever a recipe says: “use a broiler.”

Why am I so scared of broilers?

It’s not a safety concern or a health concern or anything like that; it’s more an issue of control. When I follow a recipe, say, and it says, “Bake in the oven for 45 minutes” there’s great comfort in the fact that if the recipe is slightly off or if my oven isn’t properly calibrated, the dish will still–mostly–turn out ok and edible.

Not so with broilers. Broilers are the kitchen equivalent of cooking over a campfire–and how many of you have innocently placed a marshmallow on a stick, held it over a crackling fire only to have the marshmallow ignite, its fluffy goodness smoldering in fierce, unforgiving flames, your dreams of a S’more forever squashed?

That’s what a broiler wants to do to your food. It wants to catch it on fire, it wants to destroy it and you and your self-confidence and your appetite and your family and all your accomplishments. This is why I am scared of broilers.

Recently, however, I met a chef who couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful the broiler is; how it’s a chef’s best friend in a kitchen. The direct heat of the broiler does for the home cook what a flaming grill does for an outdoor cook: it quickly brings all the sugars to the surface, producing crackly, golden exteriors and moist, flavorful interiors. The broiler is the answer to my complaint about not being able to grill in a New York apartment: that flame at the top of your oven (or, in my case, below my oven) is your oven’s attempt to turn you into Bobby Flay. And last week, I let my oven cast the spell.

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The recipe I chose was from Elise’s site: Honey Mint Glazed Chicken.

I turned my broiler on and followed Elise’s steps. I cut up a whole chicken and marinated it in a mixture of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Then, I laid the chicken pieces on a tray and sprinkled them generously with salt and pepper:

The big moment came. “The broiler!” (Thunderclap, lightning.)

I inserted the chicken and expected my whole kitchen to explode. The kitchen didn’t explode. I heard some sizzling after a few minutes and, following Elise’s instructions, I removed the tray after 7 minutes to flip the pieces over. They were definitely starting to brown in a very good way.

Another 7 minutes passed (you’re supposed to flip every 7 minutes) and the chicken was starting to look extraordinary. At the 21 minute mark, the chicken was in the running for best chicken every cooked at home.

And just when the chicken was about to be done (I cut in to see), I brushed on Elise’s honey mint glaze: literally, just a mixture of honey, chopped up mint and hot water. Under the broiler it went again and this is what came out:

You can’t really tell in the picture, but this is dream chicken. This is the kind of chicken they serve at restaurants, where the outside is perfectly crispy and charred (and in this case, also sweetly complex with that honey and mint). I knew I’d reached a new stage of cooking consciousness; my fear of broilers had morphed into quite the opposite–an awestruck adulation of broilers. No more thunderclaps, just clapping–a huge audience clapping for my broiler.

Look at the final plate, with instant polenta (made with homemade chicken stock) and sauteed spinach:

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See that chicken? Don’t you want that? I mean don’t you really really want that? Why does that look so good?

The direct heat! The broiler!

Isn’t it amazing when something that’s always been at your disposal suddenly emerges as this wonderful thing that you’ve always overlooked? Like in “Clueless” when Cher realizes she should date her brother? Or how I recently realized if I vigorously brush my cat she will (a) look much, much better and (b) won’t get cat hair all over the apartment?

Such is the case with my broiler; it’s my ruby slippers, I’ve always been wearing them, but I never clicked my heels together. If only I’d known sooner, all my chicken would’ve looked that good. And now that I know, I will be afraid no more. To quote Scarlett O’Hara: “I shall never not broil again.”

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