Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cooking Misconception #2: Chicken is a neutral ingredient good for absorbing other flavours

I write this as someone who realised late in life that we are doing something terrible to nearly all the chicken we eat.

It has to be one of the most common mcnuggets of received wisdom in cookery lore: the idea that chicken is a sort of neutral, basically flavourless protein that we can use to mop up spicier and more interesting flavours. The thing is, this is actually true of most supermarket chicken, as we can see from the hapless dweeb who asked the question on Yahoo - and most of us who buy chicken are buying it in the supermarket. But we shouldn't be.

Nearly all of us start our cooking lives using chicken as the basic protein in not very complicated recipes. I must have cooked and eaten countless plates of pasta with chicken breast in readymade pasta sauce, over the years. (Paul Newman RIP, btw - I have fond memories of his Bandito Diavolo brand chili-spiked tomato sauce in a jar.) You buy the chicken breast, you cut it up, you fry it till it turns white, and then you drench it in something red and serve it with pasta. There's nothing very nutritionally wrong with this (although you should probably be having a salad on the side) and it's cheap and filling - so far, so good. But there is so much more to chicken than these bland slices of chewable white rubber. If you want to be passionate about it, we are insulting chickens we are killing by treating them like this. Let's face it, for all the flavour and texture we are getting, we might as well eat Quorn or TVP. Even a couple of sliced white flat mushrooms would yield about as much protein, and wouldn't involve the death of a sentient (albeit not very bright) creature.

I don't know exactly how it started but it probably had something to do with my rediscovery of my mum's (delectable) roast chicken. It dawned on me that a good chicken, cooked with care, has a unique flavour and texture - delicate yet rich, succulent but also mysteriously lean, an almost winey aroma that positively seduces you into marrying it to things like white wine and mushrooms and tarragon and cream and bacon and...so on. For a while, I was dedicatedly stuffing herbed butter under the skin of all the chickens I roasted; then I replaced that with rubbing herbed butter all over them. I stopped doing it because I don't like my chickens being riddled with foliage, but also because I learned the hard way that a simple free-range organic chicken is a miracle of natural food engineering that will almost baste itself.

Every serious cook has a perfect roast chicken recipe. I think I've found the ultimate one. It comes from Thomas Keller of the fantastically swanky French Laundry in California, but this recipe is from his more modest and usable Bouchon recipe book, which is about purifying classic bistro food. You take a chicken, not too big. You clean it thoroughly, inside and out, and then you dry it with kitchen towel. It must be as dry as possible. Then you season its interior, and then you truss it so that the legs are hugging the breast. Then you salt it well, and stick it in a really hot oven (230 C) for about 50-55 minutes. While it's cooking, chop some thyme and melt some butter. After the time is over, you take the chicken out, throw the thyme and butter into the pan juices and baste the chicken, then you let it sit for at least ten minutes to calm down. After that you simply eat it, with a green salad and a little Dijon mustard on the side.

Provided your chicken was a good one, there is something about this meal that is the ultimate tribute to chicken. No faffing about with herbed butter under the skin or anything like that; it's just chicken, skilfully amplified and set off by the freshness of the salad and the sharpness of the mustard. It's one of the greatest and simplest meals I know. After you've done this (and the only thing you really have to learn to do is truss the chicken, which is very easy) you will never be happy to slice up and fry supermarket chicken breast again. I would drink a nice light Valpolicella with this.

We should all be eating less meat, so if we are gonna eat it, it should be making us happy, not just filling us up. If there is a food out there which is good only for absorbing more interesting flavours, it's tofu. Battery chickens don't have lives, and they taste like it; it's in their as well as our interest that that particular industry closes down. If we're going to eat chicken, let's accept that an edible chicken is not cheap and that it's something that deserves to be treated with respect.


  1. We have this every Sunday night. We roast yams and carrots and, in season, brussels sprouts in the pan juices. We make a salad, we invite friends over, we drink.

    It's kinda alarming that you and I, on opposite sides of the earth, have come to exactly the same late-in-life appreciation for plain roast chicken. With Dijon.

  2. Not really all that alarming; I'm sure that there is a high probability that we would have ended up reading the same cookery books.

  3. You gotta come back out here so I can take you to French Laundry. Purely outta altruism on my part. Yup.

  4. Awww. Thanks. To be honest, I would prefer to go to Bouchon. I have the Bouchon cookbook, but not the FL one. And if we were to go to Bouchon there's the remotest chance that we could split the bill, whereas I could never hope to pay for my share of a meal in the French Laundry.