Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Poul of Chicken

Voodoo. There, got your attention. Chickens are a culture-bridging fowl. Practically every tradition has space for it in some respect, and there has almost always been a spiritual element to it - whether in shamanic ritual, in symbolic atonement, in sacrifice. Or even in more everyday uses - waking us up, nourishing us, bringing us together around a table, making us feel part of a community or a family. It's a literal chicken and egg life cycle, a self contained allegory.

The relationship most cultures have with chicken as part of their gastronomic heritage is a firm one. Other than those following a herbivore conviction, of course. You cannot speak to anyone of their cultural cuisine without an almost religiously rooted chicken dish being mentioned: fried chicken - soul food; chicken soup - Jewish penicillin; chicken parmagiana - mama's cooking; Jerk chicken - the ultimate summer; coq au vin - wholesome rustic goodness; Tori katsu, teriyaki, yakitori - satisfying Japanese staples; Tandoori chicken - aromatic victory; chicken Paprikash - Balkan piquant delicacy. Numerous others, too many to mention! And of course - a chicken which has been roasted, in hundreds of variations.

For me, chicken has always been a stabilising food in times of crisis or just when life gets you down, in possession of almost mythical healing abilities. Whether psychosomatic, or truly medically beneficial, when I'm unwell I tend to crave it, then feel better almost immediately for having had it. But different dishes are called for different ailments: when it's any form of sniffles - chicken soup. How could anything feel more internally nurturing than that. When I've had a bowl of a clear, slightly fatty, rich broth, I immediately know I can sit back and let it work its wonders, relax and just be ill. And that in itself is half the way to recovery - after all, a neurotic like me isn't going to sit quietly and let illness take control. No! I will arm-wrestle it until, inevitably, I slump back, looking like a wrung rag, and with the horror of the realisation that I truly am sick, shuffle to the freezer and unleash a frozen tub of greenish-yellow ice, run it under the tap until it's loosened enough to plop into a pan and can be melted and brought to a gentle bubble on the stove.

A'mehaye (The Reviver)
To this end, there needs to be foresight and planning. If ever in a farmers market or a butchers, I tend to purchase a carcass, which is the perfect base for a fantastic broth. If a full roast bird has passed through my kitchen (more on that later on), the inedible bones, skin and other parts will not be wasted. Or, sometimes, feeling frivolously extravagant, I would use an actual piece or even a whole chicken to make the soup. But that really isn't necessary, as the meat itself, having cooked in the broth for a good couple of hours, becomes a little papery and crumbly. It loses the succulence which is preserved as a quicker slow-cooked dish; plus because of the long soak in the water, during which it renders all its flavour to the brew, it is left with none. Not that I wouldn't still pick any bits of meat left with zeal.

At any rate, once the chicken component is in a pot of water and has been brought to a rolling boiling point, turn the heat down, skim the top, and add all your veg - for me it's always aromatics - carrot, celery or celeriac, onion, a handful of parsley, a potato or two, courgette, and one tomato to give a lemony zing, plus bay leaves, whole peppercorns and plenty of salt. Leave on a low heat for a good hour and a half to two hours, skimming occasionally. Your poorly body will thank you.

There are some fascists out there, who, granted - make much nicer soup then me, demand that you throw away the vegetables you cooked the soup with, as they have served their purpose as flavouring, then add new ones for a fresher taste, cooked for a further 20 mins or so. Those people, brilliant chefs as they may be, are the enemies of everything that is basic frugal home economics, pushing luxury to an extent only employed by Michelin-aspiring restaurants, certainly not a whim my mum would ever have dreamed of indulging, and they should be stopped. Ok, they're not wrong, exactly... but personally, I really love the taste of my nutritionally devoid holy trinity et al. Unlike the chicken meat itself, of which any trace of flavour has been sucked dry, they function like fruit in a punch bowl - that secret kick at the bottom of your cup, when nobody seems to realise one half-strawberry has soaked more booze into it than the whole glass... a flavour explosion!

What am I, chopped liver?!...
Sometimes a general rundownness takes over - an overall exhaustion verging on ennui. At those times, chopped liver is the law. No, not Pâté, silly - only chopped liver will do. This is made with chicken livers which are sautéed, sometimes with a little red wine but traditionally with fat. They are "chopped", if you will, in a food processor, to a coarse consistency, or even roughly mashed with a fork, and mixed with caramelised onions, chopped hard boiled eggs, salt and lots and lots of pepper. The comforting savoury, chucky paste with its earthy umami and slight contrasting sweetness of the onions, on a slice of, well, anything really, doesn't need to come in large quantities. A small bowlful - which is invariably the amount produced per cooking batch - is more than enough to last a good two or three days.
When homesick, the big guns are required, the dish that speaks to the child in me, the essence of every kid who shares my culture - the chicken schnitzel. This, for whatever reason, is a dish that I will petulantly demand my mum make for me whenever I'm at home. It doesn't matter it's the easiest thing to cook in the WORLD, it doesn't matter that I'm an adult and she's possibly now older and wearier than the woman who tirelessly fried off mounds of golden escalopes of joy. The regression cannot be complete until I am 2 or 5 or 12 years old (who knows when I stopped behaving like a spoilt brat, if ever), stomp my foot and stubbornly proclaim 'I want schnitzel!'.

The correct serving portion of schnitzels per person
But really, it is so easy to make, almost embarrassingly so. Just take fine quality free-range - always free-range you fucking monsters! - chicken breasts, beat them slightly with some kind of butcher mallet or even a rolling pin, till they're flatter and wider, then dip them in flour, beaten egg seasoned with salt and pepper, and bread crumbs of any kind, then fry in semi-shallow very hot oil until golden on both sides. That's it. You can even zhouzh it all up with grated parmesan in the crumbs, herbs in the flour, chilli flakes, whatever! Or go Cordon Bleu stylee - only bastardised - by skipping the mallet part, instead slicing across the fat breast so you create a pocket, and stuffing it with cheese/ham/spinach/sautéed mushrooms/chorizo - again, your imagination is your limitation. Then flour-egg-crumbs it, fry as before, but finish it off in the oven as the plump parcel would take longer to cook all the way through. Never does a batch last longer than a day or two, at best. Trust me on this, they'll be hoovered up faster than a slingshot chicken.

And of course, the ultimate all-purpose remedy is the roast chicken. Now, there really are so many ways to cook this thing. The truth is that it's perfectly simple, regardless of what seasoning/brining/marinating/stuffing you decide to employ. For a 1.5k bird, heat the oven up to 220C, and put the room temperature anointed beast in, on a bed of vegetables if you so wish. Turn the heat down to 190C (170C fan) and leave in the oven undisturbed for an hour and twenty minutes. That's 1 hour 20 mins. Leave it! Then take it out and prick a metal spike into the fattest part of the thigh, and if the juices run clear - you're all good. Now, take the chicken out of the tray and leave to stand on a plate or board for about 20 minutes. Again, leave it! Don't pick at it or be tempted to eat the crispier bits. The juices that have run out while it stood, plus what's left in tray will make a beautiful gravy, various recipes for which can be found all over t'intermanet.
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's superman! No I was right the first time. It's a delicious bird.
 And now, all that's left to do is carve. That's a whole other messy affair... but when that's done, and the screams have died down, you've taken the sheeting off the floor and wiped the juices off the walls and ceiling, you're left with a few vaguely distinguishable chicken pieces, ready to eat with your vegetables, plus a perfectly beautiful carcass and the non-crispy skin at the back of the chicken which you can now use as... that's right, a base for chicken soup! And thus the circle of fowl is complete.

What's your must-have, soul-reviving chicken dish?


  1. Yasmin! this is all you, true to taste. Really enjoyed reading it, would like to try your chicken soup actually. fx