I’ve long intended to poach a chicken. Many people whose opinions I trust keep telling me it’s a really good way to cook it. Easy, economical, and above all tasty. But until last week I’d never quite managed to summon the enthusiasm. Perhaps, having the surname Roach, it’s rhyme that’s always put me off. Maybe a deeply subconscious memory of the meaningless primary school playground taunt of ‘Roacher the Poacher lay behind my reluctance. Perhaps even now, so many years later, and so entirely irrelevantly, I still didn’t want to lend that taunt so much as a retrospective shred of meaning.
Rather more plausibly, it would have been because, for all that an Italian Bollito Misto, a French Pot au Feu or a Spanish Cocido are all very fine and deeply appealing things, and I love a good ham, I can’t quite get away from an instinctive feeling that there is something essentially unappetising about the idea of boiling meat. It just seems wrong, or at the very best a poor fourth choice, when you have the options to roast, grill or stew. And I know that stewing essentially involves cooking the meat by boiling, but come on, it’s not really the same, is it?
In particular, although undoubtedly intrinsically entwined with the more general aversion, I think the principle reason I’ve always fought shy of boiling my bird is that I do love the skin. Crispy, salty golden chicken skin is the best bit of a roast for me, or of fried chicken for that matter. Even when I casserole a chicken I always leave the skin on and brown it well before I add any fluid, so I know the crunchy bits are in there, underlaying the rich, sweet sauce. Any way of cooking a chicken where you just end up discarding the skin seems a waste, a missed opportunity.
Still, I do recognise that there are those of you who, for reasons of personal preference or dietary necessity disregard the chicken’s skin. I do not judge you for it. Really I don’t. Although, if I’m brutally honest, I cannot deny that there is a small, ungenerous, portion of my soul that can’t help but think somewhat disdainfully that you and your boiled chicken probably deserve each other.
On the other hand, call it poaching rather than boiling then not only does it sound a lot better, but also somehow more suitable for summer cooking. So when the good weather finally returned, having gone AWOL for most of the summer up till now, and that return coincided with an urge to eat chicken, it finally seemed like the right time to poach.
First thing to say is that poaching is without a doubt the easiest way to cook a whole chicken – short, perhaps of just leaving your shopping in the car, in the full sun on a summer’s day in, say, Seville. Which I probably wouldn’t recommend. Roasting a chicken is hardly going down a salt mine either, but with poaching you don’t even have any of that tiresome seasoning inside and out to slog your way through. And you really don’t need to worry about oven temperature or timings either.
Just chuck the bird in a pan big enough to contain it and allow you to cover it with water, throw in your veg – no hard and fast rule here, just carry on as it you’re making a stock from the carcass of a previously roast chicken. I used an onion, half a leek, a carrot, a stick of celery and – in a departure from my usual stock making practice, at the suggestion of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in his Meat book - a tomato. Cut them up or leave them whole, depending on your mood. Add aromatics – again, whatever you like/have to hand, peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary and/or thyme, some cloves of garlic, a lemon. Fill the pan with water to just cover the chicken and put it on a low heat, with a lid on. Let it come slowly to the gentlest of simmers (i.e. hardly simmering at all) and leave it there for an hour or so (maybe up to an hour and a half for a really big chicken. Turn off the heat. Leave the chicken to cool in its stock, or check for doneness by simply picking it up by the scaly end of one of its legs. If the rest of the chicken simply falls off the leg then it’s done. If not, leave it in the slowly cooling water and it will continue to gently cook away. If it is done, you can still leave it in the stock without needing to worry too much about overcooking it, because it can’t dry out. Take it out straight away and serve it hot, or leave it to cool either in or out of the pot – it’s all good, whatever suits you. Like I say - it’s easy.
I removed my chicken from the pot when it was, just about, cool enough to handle. This was roughly two hours, maybe a little more, after having first lit the gas under the pan of cold water. First thing to do was pull off the skin, the hardest part of which was trying not to imagine how crisp and golden and delicious it would have been had I roasted it. By all means then you could carve the meat from the carcass, but it’s easier, and somehow more appropriate, just to pull it away with a fork, or a spoon, or, as I did, just with fingers. It really is that soft and tender, and falls off the bone more readily than any roasted bird I’ve come across.
I pulled off about half the meat and tossed it, still warm, into a simple salad of leaves from the garden, served up with some courgette – also from the veg patch – just sliced and sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic, salt and pepper, and a potato salad that Becca had made earlier, of baby new potatoes, celery and spring onions, green olives and capers in a vinaigrette.
Compared to roast, the poaced chicken lacked in nothing – apart from that skin – indeed, as I’ve suggested, it was softer and more tender than any but the very softest, most tender roast chicken I’ve ever had. Also, perhaps more significantly different, was the extent to which the flesh was infused with the flavours of the aromatics from the pot – far more than a roast chicken will absorb its seasoning. Next time I poach - and there will definitely be a next time, probably soon – I’m going to try with a whole load of lemons, four or five, maybe half a dozen. I have a feeling that might just make the best, lemoniest, lemon chicken ever.
The rest of the meat filled sandwiches for lunch over the next couple of days, and, with some bacon and mushrooms, went into a sneaky creamy, parmesanny, sauce for some tagliatelle for a quick supper for myself (Becca was, like the cat, away, and I was the mouse, playing with dairy…).
Best of all, perhaps, it garnished some sorrel soup. The same sorrel soup I’d been intending to make, if not for quite as long as I’d been meaning to poach a chicken, but for long enough.
If not the best thing about poaching a chicken, then certainly the thing about it that most makes life easy, is that you are cooking your chicken, and making a stock from it’s carcass all at the same time. Incidentally, to further enhance its virtues of economy (not only financial, but of time, effort, energy and foodmass), I’m pretty sure you could make another batch of good stock from the bones once you’d stripped them bare, but my freezer is chocker at the moment, mainly with various stocks, so I’m ashamed to admit the bare bones of my chicken’s carcass went into the bin.
Anyway, I already a good quantity (about 3 litres) of really good tasty stock, so there seemed no excuse whatsoever not to make soup out of the (still) ongoing sorrel surplus. Particularly as, in the spirit of things, it’s almost ridiculously quick and easy. Just soften some onion, leeks or both, or both and some celery (I used one onion, half a leek - the white end of the same leek the green end of which had gone into the cooking pot with the chicken the day before - and a big stick of celery) in olive oil in a pan, with just a hint of garlic (one small clove, finely sliced), salt and pepper. Once soft, pour in a litre of stock. Bring to a gentle simmer for just a few minutes then turn off the heat. Add a big bunch (about 100g, very roughly) of sorrel (chopped, also very roughly) to the pan and blitz with a blender till smooth.
This soup was delicious, and a perfectly good lunch or starter on its own, but just to jazz it up, and make it a little more substantial for a late supper, I garnished it with some diced and sautéed chorizo and shredded chicken warmed through in the paprika-y oil from the chorizo. It was, if I say so myself, a nice touch.