Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fast food in the home #2: hardcore chicken

So my last post was nobly vegetarian. This one isn't. This is a love letter to some of my favourite and most hardcore ingredients: chicken innards.

Most of us who eat meat at all have eaten doner or shawarma, that uncopyable kebab house dish for which you have to acquire a tower of spiced meat and an upright rotisserie grill, and in fact you may as well not bother because you can't fit those things into your kitchen. I am very fond of gyros, pronounced more or less like gear-oss, which is the Greek version. In northern Greece, at any rate, this is as likely to be made from pork than from lamb, and it will generally consist of shreds of grilled meat that's been cooked on the usual giant vertical rotating skewer, then sliced off and dumped in a thick piece of Greek pita bread which likely as not has been dunked in hot oil (it's a heart attack in a paper envelope) and garnished with a few chips, some sliced red onion and squirts of mustard and ketchup. Is it nutritious? Not especially. Is it tasty? Hell yeah. The best I know is from a cafe in Salonika the name of which escapes me, but my favourite gyros place is a tiny one-room outlet on the seafront of a small seaside town in northern Greece. It's called 'Spiros Gyros'. Spiros is the owner. Yes, it rhymes.

My favourite cookbook of all time is probably Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food, not because I cook from it all the time (I don't) but because it's just such a great read, and this is one recipe that she actually doesn't give in it. This is Mo'arav Yerushalmi (the exact spelling depends on how you transliterate Hebrew into English), aka Jerusalem Mix, and it supposedly originated with the mixed grill that the British forces brought to Palestine during the mandate period (1922-1948). Roden describes it as being cooked on metal grills round the back of Jerusalem bus station. If that doesn't get your taste buds throbbing, you have no soul.

There are as many recipes for Jerusalem Mix as there are for a classic fried breakfast. In the case of the fry-up, much depends on whether you use back bacon or streaky bacon, and whether you allow such things as potato farls or black & white pudding. In the case of Jerusalem Mix, it's all about the spices. I only found one recipe for it, which is this one, and I've adapted it slightly to fit the ingredients that were available to me. It's cheap, it's filling and it's a unique flavour clash which is all about conflicting flavours and textures coming together in each mouthful. It's about raw and fresh salad meeting deliciously chewy but succulent and spicy chicken which in turn bounces off the sharp, sour relish. Yes, like sabich, it's just a goddamn culinary metaphor for the entire Arab-Israeli conflict. It's one of my favourite dishes, and since there's very little added fat and that's olive oil, it's not even all that bad for you. You could adapt it into a salad by simply leaving out the bread and tossing the chicken with the salad. But most of all, it's about the pleasure of feasting on bits of the chicken that you don't normally eat.

You will need:

pita bread (at least 1 per person)

slightly more of the following than you think you will be able to eat:

chicken thigh meat, cubed - count on at least one thigh per person because the meat shrinks amazingly during the cooking process;

chicken hearts, liver and gizzards; again, get more than you think you'll need, because they'll shrink during the cooking. Chicken liver should be cut up into large chunks and all greenish bits removed and thrown away (they're bitter). Chicken hearts should be halved lengthways and rinsed to remove any blood. (It's not bad for you, it's just a bit grisly-looking.) Chicken gizzards - cut off the thin greyish flaps and keep the big chunky bits. The other bits aren't inedible, they're just alarmingly tough. It's the gizzards that really separate the sheep from the goats, when it comes to eating this meal.

Baharat spices. I have been using Bart's Baharat mix: "baharat" is just a generic name for an Arabic spice mix, which in Bart's case is comprised of paprika, coriander, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves and nutmeg. Now that I read the list of ingredients, I realise that I could make this up myself; the Bart's mix is fine, but like all spice mixes, you'll probably get better, stronger, fresher results making it fresh, plus you can fine tune the flavours. I also throw in a good pinch of sumac at the end.

Radishes, topped, tailed and sliced

Cherry tomatoes, diced

A few white onions, sliced

A big bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

A good handful of mint leaves, chopped

Red wine vinegar

A clove of garlic, thinly sliced

Olive oil

Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

Mango pickle - see my note on this in the previous post.

1. First, you may as well toast your pita bread now (I put it in the toaster, because...well, I just do.)

2. Next, fry your onion in a little olive oil over a moderate heat until it's soft, golden and caramelising. Don't let it burn. Resist the temptation to season it. You need this onion to be plain, because it acts as an emollient and sweetener in the final sandwich and brings the other ingredients together as a kind of neutral negotiating partner; without it, the chicken and the salad will walk away from the table. If your onion is perfectly cooked but you haven't started the chicken, don't worry, just reserve it. We'll have a chance to reheat it later.

3. When the onion is going nicely, make a salad of the chopped radish, parsley, mint, garlic, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil. Put this in a little bowl. This is what will give the finished thing freshness, sharpness and vitality.

4. Next, fry your chicken. Heat olive oil in a pan and when it's really hot, throw in your chicken thigh meat and innards. Let them colour and then throw in a generous spoonful of your spice mixture. Let it brown and enjoy the delicious aroma. Next, throw in a glassful of white wine, or water, or a mixture of the two. It should boil almost immediately, and make sure you scrape up the brown goo on the bottom of your pan. This liquor will cook the chicken further and differently from the frying. Let it go on cooking until all the liquor has evaporated, and I mean all of it. You want to first fry the chicken, then boil it, then go back to frying it again. The result of this process is that the chicken will acquire a rich brown crust. Taste it - it should be spicy and chewy but also tender.

5. When the chicken is ready, that's a good time to just toss your already fried onions into the pan for a minute or so, not to cook anymore, just to warm up. Of course, if you are a cook of skill, you'll have timed it so that the chicken and the onions are ready at the same time.

To assemble the dish, take a toasted pita, split it and line the bottom with salad and fried onions. Next, fill it with as much chicken as it can take - it should be full to bursting - and then add some mango pickle on the top. Serve with very cold beer and also napkins, because it will leak oily, orange, fenugreek-flavoured juice as soon as you bite into it. Yes, I know that that thing on the right looks like a really nasty part of the chicken, but it isn't, it's a chicken heart. (Trivia fact: I always thought that the pope's nose was the chicken's ass, but it isn't; it turns out to be the base of the chicken's tail. So, adjacent to the ass, anyway.) Mop up the juice with any remaining pita. Argue. Denounce. Hug.

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