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Friday, 26 April 2013

the chicken post #2- the one with the recipe

I was glad to see last week's impassioned (crazed...?) rant hit a nerve. It's not that I enjoy riling readers up (or ruining their dinners, as was the case with my auntie... sorry about that), more that I was pleased to hear that one or two people might pause to think about what they're buying in future. And I hope I don't come across as too smug when I say that- like my good friend Lucy remarked, none of my post came as any surprise, it's just that it's all so very easy to ignore what you already know. Unless you happen to be best mates with a chicken obsessed food blogger like me, that is. Lucky girl.

So now you know what chicken you should buy, what the hell do you do with a whole one? It's easy to see why people are so tempted by breasts (of the poultry variety, obviously). Anyway... Yes. Breasts. They're boneless, a fairly uniform shape, pale (I'm still flummoxed as to why some people find the dark, juicy parts of the chicken repulsive), and easy to dice. They're also, for the most part, dry and tasteless. Especially when cooked away from the rest of the bird. A whole chicken can seem daunting- there might be the lingering concern you're going to kill someone, and they can seem tricky to carve. But this recipe should convince you that a decent roast chicken is as easy as pie, and possibly tastier. Until I decide to do a pie post, that is.

As you could imagine, I'm going to tell you to buy a decent chicken. Mine was a Traditional Free Range bird, and cost me £16.50 for two kilos. It wasn't cheap, but it will feed five to six hungry people, with the possibility of a chicken sandwich or two the next day. If you can't justify spending that amount on a bit of poultry, then you can get a Free Range equivalent for around a tenner, or an RSPCA Freedom Food bird for £6.50 onwards. Any lower, and it starts getting mean. An RSPCA bird ensures you a guilt-free dinner.

On a completely unrelated note, I went to a local farm to grab some milk yesterday. It struck me as quite a fun place, and it was nice (and cheaper) to cut out the middle man, and buy all my milk, cream and eggs directly from the farmers themselves. It's not something I'll be able to do everyday, but I will be making a concerted effort to pop by once a week, if only to remind myself that there are some benefits to living outside London... Anyway, the upshot of this, is that there are a lots of farm, egg, and chicken related photos in this post, so I've tried to keep the recipe down to its bare bones for sake of brevity. So here it is:

The feather was there already- I didn't add it for aestheitics.

Butter Stuffed Chicken

Not as indulgent as it sounds, but then you know my thoughts on butter. If you don't, see here.

What You Need:

  • 2kg high welfare chicken
  • 1 leek, trimmed. Or, if there are still some around, perhaps some baby leeks.
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 4-5 decent sized cloves of garlic
  • New potatoes, scrubbed and halved
  • A couple of shallots, finely chopped
  • A handful of mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • A handful of parsley
  • A sizeable knob of room-temperature butter (similar in proportions to a child's fist- that's the most apt description I can think of right this minute) for the chicken, and as much as you think you'll need to coat the potatoes.
  • Watercress and peashoots
  • A few stems of fresh tarragon
  • A small glass of white wine
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper

What You Do:

1. Remove your chicken from the fridge about an hour before you want to cook it. This allows the meat to reach a level temperature throughout, and means it will cook more evenly- just remember to keep it away from the cat. Preheat your oven to 240 degrees, or as hot as it will go. 

2. Bash your garlic cloves (peeled) with the zest of two of your lemons and a hefty pinch of  salt until it's a coarse paste. Add your finely chopped parsley, and beat furiously into your room temperature butter.

3. Remove all string from your bird, and score on the underside (see photo) so you can create 'pockets' between the skin and the flesh across the thighs, and on the topside underneath both breasts. Make these pockets carefully, ensuring you don't rip the skin if you can. If you do, it's no real biggie. It just means you'll lose the butter as it melts in the oven. Stuff with your butter mixture, smearing any excess across a couple of well placed gashes you might want to add on non-stuffed parts of the chicken. 

Gashes on the underside of the bird...
4. Slice one of your zested lemons in half, and place inside the cavity of the birds with your tarragon. I've chosen this particular herb because it's fresh, clean, and faintly aniseed-y, so works beautifully when the sun's out. But you can stuff anything you like in here- bay, thyme, and onions all work equally well. Quarter your remaining lemon, and scatter across the bottom of a (very) snug-fitting oven tray.

5. Slice your leek lengthways, creating long ribbons about half an inch thick. Don't forget, the white part is the tastiest. Layer these around the lemons in your oven tray, and place your chicken on top. Drizzle the skin with olive oil and indecent amounts of salt and pepper.

6. Place your chicken in the middle of your oven, and cook at this temperature for twenty minutes. After which, turn down to 200 degrees, opening the door to speed up the process. Your chicken skin should have already turned an enticing golden-brown colour. Don't be tempted (like me) to poke it to see if it's crispy. It will be, and you will burn yourself.

7. Cook for a further hour and fifteen minutes, putting the kettle on for the potatoes after an hour. Get the water boiling, and pour into a pan with a handful (yes- and handful, NOT a pinch) of table salt. Boil your new potatoes until tender, and drain. Leave to steam dry in a sieve or a bowl somewhere while you return the pan to a low flame with a knob of butter, your shallots and your mint leaves. Soften and infuse gently, before adding your potatoes to coat thoroughly.

8. Remove your chicken from the oven, and transfer to a plate with a utensil big enough to handle it... two forks will not work. Pierce the fattest part of the breast with a sharp knife, and check the juices run clear. Skim the fat from the oven tray and remove the lemons without squeezing (the remaining juice will be quite bitter), and test for taste. Feel free to add and cook off a bit of wine, salt and pepper to taste. Pour into an attractive vessel.

9. Rest the bird for ten minutes or so, uncovered. If you cover it, the steam will soften the skin. If you rest it for much longer, it won't stay warm. Now for the carving: place your chicken on a board, and gently tug the legs away from the body. Carve along this fleshy part, and place onto an attractive serving platter of some sort. Now cut along the breastbone, one side or the other. Gently carve the breast away from the body- it should be moist and tender, not tough and dry.

10. Dig your fingers in to strip the carcass of the rest of the meat. Fight over who gets the oysters (the slippery, most tender pieces at the back of the bird, above the thigh), and then sulk when you lose the wishbone-pulling. Pile onto your platter with heaps of watercress and peashoots, dressed with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve with your gravy-esque juice, and don't judge anyone who adds a dollop of Hellmans. Where there's a New Potato in sight, it simply has to be done.

Don't forget to keep hold of your carcass- chuck it into a pan of simmering water for a couple of hours with some herbs, a couple of carrots and an onion, and hey presto- stock. Freeze it into an ice cube tray, and pop it out as and when you need it.

The chicken sandwiches are on me,

mrs hunt.x


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

the chicken post

It's just occurred to me that the daily act of feeding myself has turned into an ethical minefield; the list of everyday commodities that come tainted by child-slavery, carcinogens or stomach-turning welfare standards is now as long as my arm, and short of going all Good Life on you (admittedly tricky to do, in a two bedroom flat with no garden...) I'm unlikely to get through the day unscathed. But, like good ol' Gwyneth Paltrow, who this week declared life was about finding a balance- somewhere 'between cigarettes and tofu'- I've decided to pick my battles. Which means that, theoretically, I'm OK to sip on a Diet Coke (courtesy of evil conglomerate Coca Cola, purveyor of aspartame-laden soft drinks, and an empire with a human rights record that would make the late Kim Jong Il blush), while I rant about the perils of chicken consumption without feeling like too much of a hypocrite.

Garden: obligatory.

I have a love/hate relationship with chicken. In a restaurant, it's rarely anything other than a dry, overcooked bit of breast meat that's been thrown haphazardly into an unimaginative, bland-looking dish. I judge those who order chicken out quite harshly. I can't help it- I'm a bad person, who's screaming on the inside- 'BE. MORE. INTERESTING.' Which, I appreciate, is grossly unfair. Chicken at home however, is another matter. Given a bit of love, time and attention, it's juicy, flavoursome, and has the potential to be infinitely more interesting. Regardless- chicken has become part of our nation's staple diet- it's cheap, familiar, and versatile. But with its popularity comes a vague, gnawing unease- an awareness that the three quid chicken we find in our supermarket chiller cabinet probably has a more sinister past than we'd care to consider. How many of us have actually stopped to question how an animal can be reared, slaughtered and sold for £3 at a profit? It's an uncomfortable notion, because deep down, we know the deal... the only way this is economically viable is by employing the lowest welfare standards imaginable, and fiddling with the meat a bit along the way. Chickens, you see, are at an unfortunate evolutionary disadvantage: there are limits to how poorly you can treat a cow- how many you can squeeze into a single square foot (none, presumably), and how low the standards you adhere to can be before their meat becomes inedible. Chickens, on the other hand, are conveniently 'stackable', and the regard for their welfare seems to fall of the radar a little. Perhaps there's something fundamentally less 'human' about them that de-sensitizes us to their maltreatment?

However, I do like to think that the great British public are becoming more aware of their food provenance. Since the dawning realisation that a 99p box of burgers might contain one or two (hundred) things that aren't that good for you, there seems to have been a shift in attitudes to food- and it's well overdue. So I'm going to take full advantage, and hope that people will be a bit more receptive than they ordinarily would to the following:

Things You Probably Already Know About Chicken, But Are Choosing To Ignore

...something that may well come across as a deeply pious, occasionally smug rant about bad poultry.

First up, I feel I ought to clarify something. I am not rich. I do not have endless reserves of cash to fritter away on luxury ingredients for seven meals a week. I'm a 26 year old, trying to eke out a career in an unforgiving, over-worked and under-paid industry, who still has to rely on a part-time waitressing job to pay the bills (and for the food shop). So for anyone reading this that thinks having an ethical backbone, or buying quality ingredients to make better-tasting food is only the reserve of the financially secure, you're wrong. It's about making choices- I buy my meat from a butchers. It is, after all, what they're there for. Yes, it's probably more expensive, but I can look at it properly, and ask questions about where it's come from. And if I can avoid putting another penny in Tesco's pocket by doing so, then all the better. In short, if you're on a tight budget consider spending just a bit more on your cut of meat, and then use your leftovers more imaginativley (old blog post plug #1) or go vegetarian for a meal or two (old blog post plug #2).

Now that's out the way, let's get down to the first, and biggest, hurdle to buying decent chicken- the jargon. It's ridiculous. 'Free range'... 'organic'... 'welfare assured'... Which, if any, will leave you with a clear conscience? With a bit of (thoroughly depressing) research, I've cobbled together this- a glossary, of sorts, to help you decode your poultry.

1. Traditional Free-Range/ Total Freedom Chicken:

A happy chicken.
This is as reassuring as it sounds. The chicken breeds will have been chosen for their slow growth, and will only have been put away at night, because having your entire flock decimated by the neighbourhood fox clearly defeats the purpose. These chickens will have lived for at least 80 days before being slaughtered (more than twice as long as it takes intensively farmed chickens to reach market weight), have been in limited flock sizes, and will have been fed proper food. They will also have been dry plucked and hung to improve flavour (more on that in a minute).

2. Free Range:

A confusing term, and not necessarily as happy as it sounds. It's not as strong a guarantee of welfare as Traditional Free Range is, but birds must have been allowed to roam outside for at least half their life. They must have been fed grain, and will have reached at least 58 days in age, in limited flock sizes. So, not bad. There's worse to come.

3. Freedom Foods:

Established by the RSPCA, this label has three standards: free range, organic, and indoor. All are protected by rules that ensure a good diet, comfortable housing, freedom from pain, discomfort and mental suffering, and the ability to display natural behaviour. Like flapping.

4. Organic:

From 'organic' certified farms. This label is no guarantee of decent welfare standards, but sounds posh and considered enough to make you think it is.

Sad Chickens. No amount of Instagram-ing could make them
look happy.
5. Red Tractor:

90% of our chickens are Red Tractor certified. These birds have been subject to independent investigations, and they offer a degree of traceability. But that's as much reassurance as this friendly little logo can provide. Most of these, and all other intensively farmed birds, have never seen daylight- and certainly not outside the confines of their overcrowded 'barns.' I use the inverted commas because the very word 'barn' has the strange habit of conjuring up a delightfully quaint image- one that sadly has no place in this discussion. These birds are kept in flocks approaching 5000 in number (allowing them less than an A4 page of paper in room to manoeuvre) and their wings and beaks are clipped to prevent them from killing one another, as they are naturally inclined to do in such stressful, over-crowded conditions. They are fed on a diet of poor quality grain and antibiotics, and spent most of their time lying in their own excrement- unable to move because they are grossly overweight, and have deformed or broken legs. Besides which, there's not really anywhere for them to go. You know the brown splodges you see on chicken legs if you buy a bird whole? Yeah, they're ammonia burns.

6. Corn Fed:

Don't even get me started. The most that can be said for Corn Fed chickens is that they tend to be free range... but what good is that when you've been forced to eat so much grain that your legs have broken underneath you? 

So, now you're suitably informed (not to mention disgusted, and possibly a little depressed...), what should you be looking for in a good bird?

Skin: Chicken skin should be dry, and a creamy yellow colour. This means the bird has been dry-plucked and hung. Slimy, wet skin indicates the bird has been wet-plucked- as have 95% of all British poultry. Feathers have been ripped from the body with jets of water, which then leave moisture-filled holes that are a haven for bacteria. This, in turn, means the bird cannot be hung, for fear of contamination. Dry-plucked, well-hung (snigger) birds mean crispy skin, and tasty, tender flesh.

Meat: The flesh should be a golden yellow colour (not the jaundiced, sickly yellow of a corn-fed bird, or the pink and wet of an intensively farmed chicken). It should be free from purple splodges, as these only occur when an animal has been traumatised and the blood capillaries burst. If you're OK with the idea of eating a terrified chicken so long as it tastes alright, then you should know that this results in a flesh that's as tough and chewy as old boots. There should also be a decent layer of fat under the skin.

Feet: These need to look well-worked (a good indication that they've actually ventured outside), and free from those delightful brown splodges we talked about.

Eggs: Because they come from chickens. Pale yellow yolks mean a sad chicken, with a miserable diet. Buy local, if you can.

Bones: These should be dense, not weak and splintery.

Size: Talking about breasts, specifically. If they're the size of dearly departed Lolo Ferrari's, we can be fairly certain something untoward has occurred- either gross over-feeding, added water or, most likely, both.

That's it- I'm done. This isn't supposed to be a one-woman crusade, and I'm under no illusions that I'm about to single-handedly alter the mindset of the chicken-eating masses. You'll notice I haven't included dozens of grisly, harrowing photographs; I'm not trying to scaremonger, just enlighten. And if you can't have a whinge on something as self-indulgent as your own food blog, when can you, eh? Besides, if my self-satisfied rantings get just one person to think twice the next time they pick up a 79p box of eggs, or a packet of slimy 'Economy' chicken breasts, then I'm enough of a martyr to say it's been worthwhile ;)

In a couple of days, I'll have a good roast chicken recipe for you, but in the meantime, here's your reward for staying with me on this one... Enjoy.

mrs hunt.x

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

a very british spring

So, the weather's shit.

Thanks to the combined efforts of both the Daily Mail and my Facebook news feed (along with the actual weather), this isn't something that's escaped my notice. And it seems we've all been left feeling rather cheated- I mean, we know the deal. Our grim, overcast little corner of the world is hardly famed for its balmy climes, but I think we collectively draw the line at freak April snow storms and sub-zero wind-chill factors. My own personal grievance with this disgusting excuse for a Spring resides more in the fact that 90% of my wardrobe is comprised of flimsy sun dresses that I'd probably be sectioned for wearing outside (only because of the temperature, not because a large number of them feature cats and polka dots quite heavily). But, every cloud has a silver lining- even these bastards. Mine just happens to be risotto.

Cats and Polka Dots
I like risotto. I don't love it- nine times out of ten, if I'm going for starch, I'll opt for pasta instead. I suppose I've always felt there's an inherent conflict at work within dishes like risotto: they pair magically with all of the fresh flavours we associate so heavily with Spring and Summer (courgettes, broad beans, asparagus...), but its very nature means that it's the last thing you'll find me craving on a warm day. If we ever bloody get one. But at times like this- when we're getting the first few Spring vegetables through (well, give it a couple of weeks), but the weather's still abysmal (or teasing us with blue skies, sunshine and two degree temperatures), it couldn't suit my mood better.
Luke-  a man that spends too
much time on his hair, and
too little learning to cook
for himself.

Its seasonal suitability aside, my reasons for cobbling together a risotto were threefold. Firstly, the house was almost entirely bereft of food, and quite simply, I couldn't be arsed to venture out to buy more. It would have involved both getting dressed and braving the aforementioned rubbish weather conditions. Secondly, I had a jug of damn tasty chicken stock languishing in the fridge that was in danger of being either thrown out by my husband, or mistaken for soup. I figured I really ought to put it to some use. Finally, on the Monday, I received a particularly vitriolic and threatening message from my good friend Luke, that went something like this:

'So, your blog inspired me to make a risotto this evening, except I'm terrible at cooking risotto, which means you fucked up my dinner. You owe me one risotto. You have 24 hours to respond.'

I chose to ignore the fact that, at no point in the course of our friendship have I ever proffered any risotto-cooking advice that would then result in my culpability when it went tits up, but instead decided to use it as an opportunity to put this together:

A Fail Safe Guide To Risotto Cooking That Even Tools Like Luke Can't Cock Up

The beauty of this recipe is that it serves as a stodgy, starchy base for anything seasonal/to hand that you'd care to throw in. It goes without saying that some things work infinitely better than others, and I personally tend to keep my risottos vegetarian (with the occasional exception made for a decent shellfish version). I find that clumps of meat tend to screw with the otherwise uniform, velvety texture of the dish, and Italian cuisine has always been a dab hand at making you forget there's no meat involved. It was something British soldiers often remarked upon in Naples during WW2- the complexity of flavour in seemingly simple dishes such as this disguise the lack of protein, which is fortunate when the only protein you can get your hands on is rats and dogs, as was the case in heavily-rationed southern Italy. And we thought horse meat was bad.

A basic risotto won't cost you much cash, or need flash, hard-to-procure ingredients. All it takes is patience and decent seasoning. It's one of the easiest dishes in the world to concoct- unless, of course, you begin by boiling your risotto rice. Which, as it turns out, was where Luke was going wrong...

Risi e Bisi

...  A Venetian-style risotto that you can tart up accordingly.

What You Need:

A rice that's almost too
prettily-packaged to merit using
  • 180g Arborio risotto rice. Other varieties are available, but this is decent value, creamy, and less likely to overcook than some others (like Vialone Nano). Carnaroli is regarded as the best, if you're feeling purist. 
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 finely chopped shallots
  • 1 finely chopped garlic clove
  • 50g of butter, cubed and stored in the fridge until use.
  • 750ml of hot chicken or vegetable stock
  • 175ml-ish of white wine- whatever you have to hand (of semi-decent quality- no Lambrini, please...)
  • A small handful of mint leaves, 3/4 of them roughly chopped, but leaving a few to throw into your stock.
  • A slightly larger handful of parsely, roughly chopped (including stems)
  • 1 lemon 
  • A handful of Parmesan shavings
  • A handful of frozen peas, defrosted.
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

What You Do:

1. First, gently heat your stock, adding the intact portion of your mint leaves and a small squeeze of the lemon juice.

2. Heat your olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add your shallots, and proceed to soften at a painfully slow pace, adding your chopped garlic after five minutes or so. The two should remain pale (never golden), and turn opaque. The longer you can spare for this step, the sweeter and more beautiful they will taste- I'd say that fifteen minutes is the bare minimum you should have them frying away gently for. This bit's called soffrito, if you fancy learning a new word. 

If you didn't know what garlic looked like, I daresay you
wouldn't be reading a pretentious foodie blog. But here's
a picture anyway.
3. Add your risotto rice of choice, and turn over with a spatula or wooden spoon a few times, coating thoroughly in the oil. Cook like this for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until they too turn faintly opaque.

4. Pour a small glass of white wine, and drink it absent mindedly whilst you carry out step three. Then replace it with the one you need to complete step four. Throw this one in the pan, and top up your glass once again.

5. Continue to cook very gently until the wine has been absorbed (the stuff in the risotto, that is. Not the stuff in your hand). Then, proceed with your stock- one ladle at a time, waiting patiently until each dose has been absorbed before adding another. Stir slowly but frequently throughout.

... the same probably goes for shallots.
...That should take at least 20 minutes (but potentially more, depending on the absorbency of your rice variety, the stirring, the day of the week, the lunar position of Mercury... anything). Go by instinct- just don't rush it, don't saturate it with stock, and don't leave it unattended to fiddle with your wine/telly/significant other.

6. Once it's all absorbed, turn off the heat, add your cold butter cubes, the peas, parmesan, mint, parsley and check for seasoning. Pop the lid back on. Now you can fiddle with your wine/telly/significant other, as your risotto needs a few moments for the 'mantecatura-ing.' That's the bit where it goes all creamy. It's also snazzy new Italian word #2- we're practically bilingual now.

7. Serve with a rocket salad, an optional squeeze of lemon juice, and more of that wine, if there's any left. This should do four as a starter, or two as a main meal.


Your possibilities are endless. But here are a handful to be getting along with:

  • Wild Mushroom: add in with the soffrito at the beginning, just after the garlic. Ceps, morels, and everyday chesnut work especially well- clean them with a dry brush first (not in water), and don't crowd the pan when cooking, and you'll be on to a winner.
  • Courgette ribbons. Not for present wrapping or hair-tying.
    Just eating.
  •  Beetroot: Turns vivid pink, and thereby looks amazing. Again, add your cubed, cooked (not pickled) beetroot just after the garlic.
  • Courgette and Broad Bean: For the height of summer. Prepare ribbons of courgette with a potato peeler, and cook oh-so briefly in butter, pepper and lemon zest for a minute- no more- just as you're ladling in your last dribble of stock. Add to the pan alongside your peas.
  • Butternut Squash: Roast cubes of squash in olive oil for 15-20 minutes, and mash half of them. Stir this puree through the risotto at the end, and then scatter the remaining lumps artistically over the top of the finished article.

Buon Apetito! (Thanks, Google Translate...)

mrs hunt.x

A risotto so heavily-garnished with salad., it's barely worth putting a
picture in. Sorry about that.