Saturday, June 25, 2022

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce on the Big Green Egg

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I have 70+ grilling-related cookbooks on my shelves, but there are only about a dozen that I go back to time after time. Steven Raichlen's classic Barbecue! Bible [Amazon Affiliate Link] is one of those. It has over 500 tried and true recipes with influences from around the world. I recently made the book's recipe for Afghan-Style Game Hens, which was phenomenal.

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce
Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce

The recipe has you marinate split game hens in a blend of yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, herbs, and spices, and then grill to perfection. The marinade results in vivid orange color, tangy flavor, and juicy meat. He suggests using a rotisserie or two-zone fire. I was using a Big Green Egg and decided to use the raised direct method to get a crispy crust.

Raised-Direct Grilling

Benefits of Raised-Direct Grilling

Raised-direct grilling is a time-tested technique, especially on kamado grills. Why do I like raised-direct grilling so much?

  • It combines the roasting aspects of indirect grilling and the radiant heat of direct grilling, only slightly tamed. 
  • It is more forgiving. Because your food is further from the coals, it is less likely to mess up your food from flame-ups and hot spots. 
  • It takes maximum advantage of the heat reflected downward by the ceramic dome lid of a kamado grill.
  • It provides a no-flip method for grilling whole spatchcocked chickens and game hens. You can flip in the last 5 minutes if you want to, but it isn't necessary.

How to Grill Raised-Direct

Raised-direct grilling involves using a rig to raise the grill grate from the typical 3-5 inches above the coals to 8 to 12 inches above the heat source. That rig can be 

How to grill raised-direct on the Big Green Egg
I used an Adjustable Rig from the Ceramic Grill Store for this cook. You can see I have a moderate fire going below in the Kick Ash Basket, no heat diffuser (thus the direct part), and I have my grate on the uppermost setting, about 10-12 inches from the coals.

Since this is a combination of direct and indirect, it should be no surprise that I like to use a medium heat fire for raised-direct grilling, somewhere between 350f and 425f.

My goal is to reach an equilibrium of heat by moving away from the intense heat of the coals and closer to the heat radiating off the ceramic dome lid. That's why you don't even have to flip the chicken. 

How the Cook Went

I guess you can tell from my social media that I have been swamped and haven't had much time to cook, even less time to post about it. So this cook was therapeutic for me. I needed this. 

Two tables for the Big Green Egg
I used my two large Eggs for this cook because I was also skillet roasting some potatoes. The table on the left is a Big Green Egg Modular Nest, and the one on the right is Challenger Designs

Note: There are several configurations in which I could have cooked both dishes on one large Egg. I just felt like using both grills on this day.

Putting a cast iron plate setter ConvEGGtor in a big green egg for indirect grilling
For my potatoes, I went with indirect heat at 425°f, so I used a cast-iron plate setter (aka ConvEGGtor) and a drip pan. Why cast iron? I don't think it cooks any better than the ceramic BGE ConvEGGtor. But both of my ceramic plate setters broke within a few years, and I have had this cast-iron one since 2015. Here's my full review of the cast-iron plate setter from back then.

Big Green Egg set up for Indirect cooking with a Craycort cast iron grate and cast iron plate setter
To finish the setup, I used a modular cast iron grate from Craycort. Any grate would work for this cook. I just like to use cast iron because 1) the extra thermal mass helps regulate heat, and 2) the best thing you can do for cast iron to keep it in good shape is frequent use.

I use a Thermoworks Square Dot for monitoring cooking temperatures
I used the Thermoworks Square Dot [Affiliate Link] to monitor my cooking temps because my BGE dome thermometer is shot and won't hold calibration anymore. I need to buy a couple new dome thermometers. I just haven't gotten around to it.

Griswold #8 skillet full of potatoes on a big green egg
I cut up some Yukon gold potatoes, tossed them with oil, salt, pepper, and garlic, and put them in my preheated 1930's era Griswold skillet. 

Middle eastern roasted skillet potatoes on a Big Green Egg
I roasted them for about 20 minutes and then flipped them around. Then I cooked them, flipping every 10 minutes until they were golden, crispy, and fork-tender, about 40-50 minutes.

Skillet roasted potatoes on the grill
When almost done, I gave the potatoes a fairly heavy shake of dried oregano.

Big Green Egg skillet potatoes
Skillet potatoes side well with so many things from the grill!

Now back to the game hens...

How I cook raised direct on a big green egg kamado grill
Here's a shot of my setup, but like I said, there are plenty of options to pull this off. I used an Adjustable Rig with the grill grate on the tallest setting. In this picture, you can also see that I placed my temperature probe at the same level where my chickens will be. That placement lets you know precisely at what temps your chicken is cooking.

Using my Thermoworks Smoke to monitor the cooking temp of the grill and the internal temperature of the chicken
I used my Thermoworks Smoke for this grill. The bottom probe was connected to the air temp probe and the upper probe was in the larger of the two chickens. 
Thermoworks Smoke [Affiliate Link]

Yogurt marinade for chicken on the Big Green Egg grill
Gallon zip-top bags are such a valuable tool for marinating your food. It lets you flip it back and forth and get the marinade into the nooks and crannies. We let it go for 18 hours which was fantastic.

I didn't exactly follow Raichlen's recipe for the marinade, primarily because of what I had on hand. Here's the recipe I used, but I'm putting that for my purposes.

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons fresh minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Olde Virden's Red Hot Sprinkle
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
I shook off most of the excess marinade. Too much will make it hard to form a crispy crust. 

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce
Laying the birds out in the "tanning booth" for a bit.

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce
I had the Egg running about 350°f, and at this temp, I was expecting 30 minutes, but it was more like 45-50 minutes. A whole chicken usually takes about an hour.

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce
When I cook spatchcocked chickens indirectly, I tuck their wingtips behind them. But for raised direct with the most intense heat below the food, I leave the wings untucked and on top of the bird. A subtle difference but one that I practice.

The yogurt marinade cooks onto the chicken and gives it a crust bursting with bright flavors and color.

I double-check the birds for doneness once the breast hits an internal temperature of 160°f. I give the leg quarters a twist to see if the joints are relaxed and have play in them. I use a Thermopen to verify internal temps of at least 160°f in the breasts and 175°f in the thighs. I pulled these right at 165°f, and they were perfect; the breast was juicy, and the leg quarters were amazing.

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce
I wanted to add a second pop of flavor, so right after I put the birds on the grill, I whipped up a quick harissa-yogurt sauce that went exceedingly well with the hens. Sure the chicken is from Afghanistan and the sauce from Africa but the flavors rocked together.

Harissa Yogurt Sauce

1 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons Morrocan harissa
1 tablespoon lemon juice
kosher salt to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon

Afghan-Style Game Hens with Harissa Yogurt Sauce
While we are mixing cultures, I made an Iranian Shirazi salad as a side. It all came together for a fantastic meal that I wouldn't hesitate to serve guests.

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