My Mother’s Praised Chicken

My Mother’s Praised Chicken

This may well be – indeed is – the smell, the taste, the dish that says “family” to me and my siblings, and brings our long-absent mother back to the kitchen and the table with us. But the fact that I’ve cooked it more often and over more years than I’ve cooked anything else doesn’t make writing a recipe for it any easier. If anything, it makes it harder, much harder.

Relax: obviously, it’s not the reliability from a practical perspective that’s in question; rather, I cook this so often I know that one written-down version of it can’t take into account or begin to convey all its possible permutations. For example, you could toss in some pancetta cubes before you add the chicken and maybe use cider as your flavour-giving alcoholic beverage of choice; or you could add some ginger, freshly grated or sliced, along with the oil and use Chinese cooking wine or sake in place of the white wine or vermouth and put coriander stalks in, along with the parsley or instead, and add fresh, de-seeded red chilli, cut into fine almost-rings, as well as chopped coriander, at the end. At all times, you can play with the vegetables: fennel, if you’re a fennelphile, brings a beautiful aniseed fragrance, which, if you cared to, you could boost by adding a splosh of pastis in place of the wine; you can similarly think of adding parsnips and some chunks of squash or pumpkin, though these would probably be better added halfway, or even later in the cooking process. And very often, when all is heaped into the pan at the beginning, just before it is left to cook itself into aromatic succulence, I grate in the zest of 1 lemon, then squeeze in the juice and maybe add a sprinkling of dried mint, too. I could go on and on . . .

By its very nature, this symbolizes the very free-style form of cooking that a recipe seems to argue against. So, let me reassure you that really all you need to know is that you simply brown the chicken before adding vegetables and just enough liquid to cover, and cook them slowly before eating on top of rice. I like brown basmati here, and work on 75–100g per head before cooking, depending on the ages and appetites of the eaters. On the whole, I tend to go for the higher rather than lower number – no huge surprise, I’m sure – not because I think it’s all needed, but because one of my favourite uses of leftover meat is a variation of a salad I make with leftover turkey at Christmas: chunks or shreds of cold chicken stirred into cold brown basmati rice, with pomegranate seeds, sunflower seeds or any mixture of similar seeds, fresh dill, lemon juice, salt and 1–2 drops of gorgeously flavoured oil (a rich, mustardy yellow cold-pressed rapeseed being my favourite). But we’ll get to leftovers later and, obviously if you want, you can ditch the rice and think of serving steamed potatoes, instead. And if you can steam them above the chicken, so much the better. But rice it has to be in our house. Since I have a rice cooker, this also happens to be the easy option for me; though, most pressingly, it is part of the ritual for us. And, as I am presenting this in its role as a family favourite, my kitchen perennial, in fact, I feel I can allow myself to be bossier than normal, even telling you how you should eat it: by this I mean the Lawsonian familial practice of adding fresh fronds of dill and some English mustard – just a pinprick or great, sinus-clearing teaspoonfuls – as we greedily, gratefully eat.

For how many? Serves 4-8

Ingredients

  • 1 large chicken, preferably organic
  • 2 tsp garlic oil
  • 100ml white wine or dry white vermouth
  • 2–3 leeks, cleaned, trimmed, and cut into approx. 7cm logs
  • 2–3 carrots, peeled and cut into batons
  • 1–2 sticks celery, sliced
  • approx. 2 litres cold water
  • 1 bouquet garni or 1 teaspoon dried herbs
  • fresh parsley stalks or few sprigs, tied or banded together
  • 2 tsp sea salt flakes or 1 teaspoon pouring salt
  • 2 tsp red peppercorns, or good grinding pepper
  • To serve:
  • chopped leaves, from parsley stalks above
  • chopped fresh dill
  • English mustard

Instructions

Get out a large, flame-safe cooking pot (with a lid) in which the chicken can fit snugly: mine is about 28cm wide x 10cm deep.

On a washable board, un-truss the chicken, put it breast-side down and press down until you hear the breastbone crack. (As you may imagine, I like this.) Then press down again, so that the chicken is flattened slightly. Now cut off the ankle joints below the drumstick (but keep them); I find kitchen scissors up to the task.

Put the oil in the pan to heat, then brown the chicken for a few minutes breast-side down, and turn up the heat and turn over the ckicken, tossing in the feet as you do so. Still over a vigorous heat add the wine or vermouth to the pan and let it bubble down a little before adding the leeks, carrots and celery.

Pour in enough cold water to cover the chicken, though the very top of it may poke out, then pop in the bouquet garni or your herbs of choice, and the parsley stalks (if I have a bunch, I cut the stalks off to use here, but leave them tied in the rubber band) or parsley sprigs along with the salt and red peppercorns (I just love these beautiful red berries) or a good grinding of regular pepper. The chicken should be almost completely submerged by now and if not, do add some more cold water. You want it just about covered.

Bring to a bubble, clamp on the lid, turn the heat to very low and leave to cook for 1½–2 hours. I tend to give it 1½ hours, or 1 hour 40 minutes, then leave it to stand with the heat off, but the lid still on, for the remaining 20–30 minutes. 

Serve the chicken and accompanying vegetables with brown basmati rice, adding a ladleful or two of liquid over each shallow bowl, as you go, and putting fresh dill and mustard on the table for the eaters to add as they wish.

Freeze note - The cooked meat can be frozen, as soon as it is cool, in resealable bags or airtight containers for up to 2 months.

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