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Sep 28, 2010
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Wine With . . . Poulet on a [Wine] Can

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

The popular notion that grilling a whole chicken over a can of beer results in juicy, appetizing meat has become so entrenched that we wouldn’t dream of challenging it.  What we did set out to do, however, was to give this all-American culinary icon (known in some circles as “beer butt chicken”) a wine-friendly French twist.  We hoped that by using wine instead of beer for the basting liquid, along with the classic flavorings of Poulet Rôti (butter, lemon peel, thyme, rosemary and parsley), we’d end up with an even more flavorful dish.  And so we did.   

For conveying a French accent to any dish, the obvious first step is to begin with the best possible primary ingredients.  So we needed the kind of fowl that the outrageously opinionated chef Anthony Bourdain describes as “a good-looking chicken, of noble birth and upbringing”.  (We certainly steered clear of the sort of chicken which, in Bourdain’s unforgettable words, is ”a drugged-up supermarket bird that’s spent its whole life jammed into a pen with a bunch of similarly unhealthy specimens, eating its neighbors droppings…”  Yech!)  So we trotted off to the farmers’ market one recent Sunday morning to purchase what we trusted was a bird of noble because free-range birth.  Back home, we blended fresh herbs into a generous lump of butter and massaged our bird with the mixture.  We filled an empty soup can with white wine and strategically jostled it up into the bird’s cavity (goosing the chicken, as it were), then set on the whole thing on the grill.  During the cooking process the wine bubbled up to baste the chicken, sending up increasingly mouthwatering aromas.  The final results were resoundingly successful, with both white and dark meats moist, juicy, and remarkably tasty.  As we had hoped, this chicken was an exceptionally fine partner for a range of different types and styles of wine.

Poulet on a Can

Serves 2- 4

To serve more than 2-4 people, used two small chickens rather than a single large bird, since anything over four pounds will overwhelm the can.  To achieve maximum flavor, rub the herb-butter mixture into the chicken at least two hours before cooking.  We cooked our “poulet on a can” on the grill, but there’s no reason it can’t be just as successfully oven-roasted. 

One small chicken (3 – 4 pounds)

2 tablespoons softened butter

1 teaspoon each finely minced fresh thyme, rosemary and parsley, plus one handful of each of the herbs

½  fresh lemon

Red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

1 soup or beer can, three-quarters filled with wine*

Using your fingers, carefully separate the skin from the chicken’s breast, legs and thighs as much as possible, taking care not to rip it.  Mix together the butter and fresh herbs.  Stuff the remainder of the herbs into the chicken’s cavity.  Grate about 1 teaspoon of lemon peel into the butter mixture, then place the lemon half in the cavity with the herbs.  Working with your fingers, gently rub the herbed butter mixture into the flesh of the chicken under the skin, distributing it as evenly and over as much surface as possible.  Position the chicken on top of the can, with its legs pointing downward like a ballerina’s.  Grill over medium, indirect heat until done. 

*There’s nothing magical about a beer can -- any other appropriately sized can will do.  When we found ourselves with no canned beer in the house, we used a soup can.  We also used white wine, but suspect that red would work just as well.

  t   t   t

Unlike dishes with wine-infused sauces, this recipe uses wine to provide moisture rather than a specific taste.  As a result, the chicken does not really favor one sort of wine over another.  We found that red, white, and pink wines all worked well, and that the dish could accommodate a wide variety of vinous flavors -- everything from primary fruit to spicy oak to earthy secondary notes.  No wonder many chefs (and wine and food enthusiasts) have long touted roast chicken as the perfect wine partner!  We also found that the wine you choose need not be expensive.  We deliberately tried wines costing $25 or less, and were pleased to note that our favorites often were among the least pricey.



Approx. Price





Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Valley (Washington) Pinot Gris 2009




The apple and pear flavors in this medium-bodied yet somewhat fleshy white melded nicely with the chicken, and the wine had just enough heft to hold its own with even the dark meat.  We continue to be impressed with the fine value being offered by many bottles of West Coast Pinot Gris.



Foppiano Vineyards, Russian River Valley (California) Pinot Noir “Estate Bottled” 2008





The most expensive wine we’re recommending, yet still a good value given the high prices being charged for Pinot Noir these days, this wine offered bright but not overly sweet cherry fruit flavor, enhanced by a hint of savory spice in the finish.



Kendall-Jackson, Monterey and Sonoma Counties (California) Chardonnay “Grand Reserve” 2008







The oak influence in this wine, an element that might well prove distracting with a lighter, more delicate chicken dish, added interest and intrigue with this one.  The wine’s spicy, vanilla-tinged finish gave it added depth, and its long finish proved particularly enjoyable.



Perrin et Fils, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages (France) 2007

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)






Showing the peppery, almost meaty character that distinguishes many red wines from the southern Rhône Valley, this wine made the chicken taste earthier and more rustic than the other wines did.  Medium-bodied, without forceful tannins, it in no sense seemed too big or powerful.







Valley of the Moon, Sonoma County (California) “Rosato di Sangiovese” 2009






Weightier (and darker in color) than most rosés, this Sangiovese-based wine tasted of dark cherries and strawberries, with a hint of sweet spice.  Zesty and fun, it made the chicken seem much the same – exactly the opposite effect of the Côtes-du-Rhône.  Both, though, were delicious pairings.