The bolletjie braai
Aka the chicken braai
The bolletjie braai was always a chicken braai, though sometimes there’d be pork bangers, nicely browned with the odd spot of char and still hot enough to melt the butter in crusty roll.
The big question with chicken, cooked in a pan or on a braai, is whether it is done. This is my method for making sure it is properly cooked through, but just to the point of done, not dry.
Here are the take-homes followed up with the ‘why’ below.
Buy a whole chicken and portion it yourself.
Protect the white meat in centre of the grid.
Prioritise the chicken breast timing.
Buy a whole chicken and portion it yourself
Cooking an off-the-bone, skin-on chicken breast and keeping it juicy is often easier than being faced with a bone-in chicken breast. It can be tricky to gauge whether the heat has penetrated the meat close to the bone, especially over coals.
Then there are the thighs, which are quite luxurious deboned but awkward to eat as a bone-in piece. Portioning a whole chicken yields breasts off the bone (easier to cook) and elegant thigh cuts with just one bone running a clean line through the centre (easier to eat).
Plus there’s the added advantage of saving what remains after portioning for making stock.
Protect the white meat
Arranging the chicken breasts in the centre of the grid, surrounded by the other portions, helps prevent them overcooking. (I cook the chicken pieces in a grid that closes and can be turned, and place that on top of the grid that is part of the braai.)
It’s also a neat use of space because the chicken breasts come off first and if you also choose to cook bangers, you’re replacing the chicken breasts with the sausages before continuing to cook the wings, legs, and thighs.
Prioritise the chicken breast timing
The aim is tender meat with a nicely browned, crisped-up exterior. Timing is everything for the chicken breast portions so pay close attention to them – they come off first and need to rest. The wings, legs, and thighs cook for longer and are far more forgiving of an extra minute here or there.
These ‘bolletjies’, as we dubbed them, are the fruit bodies of the Spider gum tree (Eucalyptus conferruminata), which comes from West Australia. When these fruits become dried seeds pods, they turn a dark brownish black and look a lot like coals – which is what they are good for.
There happened to be Spider gums growing where we would braai so to source them, we simply had to scour the ground at the base of the trees looking for bolletjies that had broken off the branches in strong winds. The drier they are, the better they burn.
The bolletjie changes character completely with each stage. As a bud it looks like a greenish-brown spider with a multitude of plump protruding legs (not eight but around 15 to 20), which is how the tree got its name.
When flowering, long filament-like stamens emerge to resemble a brush or an acid-green powder puff. And when the stamens drop off, the fruit looks like a knobbly, waxy ball and as it dries becomes dark and woody. This final stage is the bolletjie, which means little ball.
The Spider gum is invasive and managed according to regulations, but it can be spotted around the Cape coast and sometimes in suburban neighbourhoods.
My father builds a bolletjie braai in layers: sand, newspaper, kindling, wood, and finally, the bolletjies. The last time we made a bolletjie braai we lit the fire and added most of the bolletjies after the fire had burned for 20 minutes. We then added a few more after it had burned for 35 minutes, with a total burn-down time of 40 minutes.
The reason for the second addition is to create smoke from a few burning bolletjies that will infuse the meat with a certain aroma. ‘Eucalyptus has a menthol smell but the burning bolletjies smell almost sweet to me,’ says dad. ‘They have such a characteristic smell and I think it adds a special flavour to the braai.’
Rub the chicken portions with sea salt and freshly ground white (or black) pepper. Open the grid and arrange the portions so they sit snug side-by-side with the chicken breasts in middle and the wings, legs, and thighs around the outside.
Naturally it depends on how your fire is behaving but the timing looks like this:
Cook for 7 minutes skin-side down and 7 minutes skin-side up (with the chicken with breasts in the centre). Turn skin-side down for 1 minute to crisp up the breast portions before taking them off.
Remove the chicken breasts and set aside to rest while continuing the cooking. Arrange the bangers in the space where the chicken breasts came out or, if not cooking bangers, rearrange the wings, legs, and thighs to be centred on the grid.
Cook for another 15 minutes in total, cooking for the same amount of time on each side, and finishing on the skin side – around halfway through re-rake the coals to create more heat or lower the grid, if necessary.
If the bangers look like they need another 5 minutes, remove the chicken pieces and finish off the bangers.
Portioning a whole chicken
Place the chicken, breast-side up, on a large board. Have a plate ready for the portions to keep the board clear.
Using your hand that isn’t holding the knife, hold the closest leg and pull it away from the body. Using the blade of a sharp knife, cut through the skin between the breast and the leg and keep going slightly under the body until locating the thigh joint.
Using your free hand, bend the thigh up and back down towards the board to release the joint from the socket – this should happen quite easily – and finish the cut between the thigh and body to release the thigh and leg piece.
Place the thigh and leg on the board, skin-side down. Feel for the joint connecting leg to thigh and cut down on it firmly to separate leg from thigh – this should also happen quite easily.
Repeat the with the other leg and thigh.
To remove the breast portions, slice to one side of the breastbone starting at the neck end and following the line. Cut down and away from the breastbone, following the curve of the rib cage and keeping as close to it as possible, until a final cut releases the whole breast piece from the body.
Repeat with the other breast portion.
In the same way the thighs were released (bending back and down), cut off the wings at the shoulder joint – releasing each from the socket and cutting it away from the body.
Slip what’s left of the chicken into a bag, seal and freeze for making stock.