Friday, 23 March 2012

Yes, Spring Chicken

I realise, to my shame, that a month has past since my last post.  I could claim to have been away, and while that would not have been a lie, it might legitimately be accused of being misleading, since I was only away for a long weekend out of that month.  Anyway, I’m back now, and need to stop slacking.

In the month that’s passed since last I wrote, we seem to have passed from a scarcely arrived winter to a well on its way spring.  The purple sprouting broccoli season is in full swing and (British) asparagus will be on us before we know it - indeed the social network  (Twitter in fact, but I don’t seem to be able to embed a link to Twitter, weirdly) tells me that at Hix Oyster and Chop House it’s already here.  Hoorah!  Doesn’t seem to have reached Dalston yet, but what price Broadway Market on Saturday?

Anyway, and in the mean time, at this time of the year, as winter slides, skips, or bounds into Spring, with the occasional leap sideways or back (let’s not forget we’re still some way short of the end of March – it could snow again yet…) it seems to me that chicken comes into its own.  And not because of any seasonal variation in the ripeness, freshness, quantity or quality of the chickens themselves, obviously – nor for the sake of food miles or the other ethical/philosophical reasons for advocating local sourcing and seasonality (and not buying Peruvian asparagus all year round).  No, mainly because you don’t really know what the weather’s going to be doing from one day to the next, and chicken is so versatile – equally well adapted to making a heart warming casserole or a light, uplifting salad.  Even in it’s simplest (which is not necessarily to suggest that it can’t also be it’s finest) incarnation – as plain roast chicken - only the finest of last minute adjustments need be made to tailor the meal to suit a bleak, wintry day, a glum autumnal one, or one that’s bursting with the bright promise of high summer – all of which we’ve had in the few weeks since last I wrote.

The other great thing about the versatility of chicken is that it’s ideal for a situation where you might have people coming over for lunch on Sunday, but plans are fluid, and you know it’s equally likely that they won’t.  Which, oddly enough, has happened a couple of times in the past month or so.

The first time was, in fact, just before I last posted, back when we had a brief but bitter cold spell, and actual snow on the ground, which proved the final nail in the coffin of the plans for Sunday lunch while providing the perfect setting for a big pot of coq au vin, served up with billowy mash.  One of the many virtues of coq au vin is that making enough for four, and finding you are only two for dinner, is not just no hardship, let alone any kind of a waste, it’s a positive bonus.

Coq au vin, at least the way I do it (which I’m sure would be scorned by purists, but let’s not re-open that old wound), really is ridiculously easy to do, and (by its own virtues, not mine) provides such a perfect balance of indulgent luxury and basic simplicity that it feels equally appropriate to serve up as a dinner party main course, or just for the two of you to eat on the sofa snugly watching TV as the snow falls outside.  It also happens to be what I was cooking for a party of twenty odd, at the moment that Sami, Mark Hix’s head chef at the Rivington at the time, called me to talk about my coming to do a trial shift with them.  So I feel it’s a dish that played its part in my becoming a chef in the first place.  That doesn’t necessarily put it in an entirely unambiguous place in my heart, but still.  It’s significant.

Coq au vin (for 4 this time, for a change)

1 good sized chicken (portioned but not boned) or 8 thighs and drumsticks*
4 rashers streaky bacon (or thick cut pancetta, or similar weight of lardons)
400g shallots
200g chesnut mushrooms
Garlic (8-16 cloves depending on big the cloves and how garlicky you like it)
1 fresh red chilli
1 lemon or orange (optional)
Olive oil
250ml red wine
250ml chicken stock

*  By all means buy a whole chicken and portion it yourself (or get the butcher to do that for you), but I find it’s both easier and arguably even preferable to just buy chicken thighs, or those packs of mixed thighs and drumsticks you get from the supermarket – I know, and the chef in me cringes to recommend such a thing, but really, it’s not just the convenience, for coq au vin, or indeed any chicken casserole, the leg meat is best, the breast tends to blandness and overcooking.

First marinade your chicken (if you don’t have time, you can skip this, but it’s always worth marinading your meat).  Finely chop or crush (this is about the one thing I use a garlic crusher for) 4 cloves of garlic and about a thumbnail’s length of red chilli and rub it into the chicken, along with a good pinch of thyme leaves, plenty of salt and pepper, and enough olive oil to make a paste of all your seasonings and generously coat the chicken.  By all means add the zest and juice of a lemon or half an orange to the marinade if you want.  Ideally leave the chicken to marinate, covered, for at least an hour – or more in the fridge.

Peel your shallots – allow 4 or 5 per person and leave them whole.  If you can get mushrooms that are small enough, leave them whole too, otherwise halve or quarter them depending on size.  Peel the remaining cloves of garlic, and finely slice another thumbnail’s length of chilli.  Slice your bacon into broad ribbons – say, large postage stamp sized. Put your wine and stock in a pan to heat  up.

When your chicken’s marinated, heat a good sized, heavy bottomed casserole, brown the chicken pieces on all sides and set them aside.

Add the bacon  and gently fry till colouring, then add the shallots, the whole garlic cloves, the chilli and a sprinkling of thyme leaves – you may need to add a splash of olive oil at this point, or it may not be necessary.  Cook for about  7-10 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook for a minute or two more before adding back the chicken.  Again, give it a couple of minutes, then pour over the stock and wine.  If you need more liquid, top it up with a bit more wine – but don’t drown the dish. 

Bring it all to a gentle simmer and cook for a long time.  I’m deliberately vague here, because although I think it probably best and easiest transferred to the oven, say at 150 for two, two and half hours, or even better, lower and longer, it will also cook perfectly happily, and probably marginally quicker just covered on the stove top at the lowest simmer you can achieve.  Or if you’re in a hurry, raise the simmer and you can have something perfectly fine in an hour or so.  One of the joys of this dish (and the benefits of using only leg meat, as opposed to breast which can overcook and dry out) is that it really isn’t fussy.  Another example of it’s inherent versatility and a reason why it’s as good an option for a supper for two as a dinner party for twenty.

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