Chicken dinner

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This is a culmination of three wonderful and colourful ingredients – chicken, tomato sauce and rice – and provides a very moreish family meal. As soon as I ate the first bite I new I had my next recipe to put on the blog.

The chicken comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat and may seem a bit complicated being a 4 stage process but this allows us to cook the other components at the same time.

The sauce I found in the Mazi cookbook. This is a Greek restaurant in London which transforms fabulous traditional Greek cuisine to modern plates of food with intriguing twists. When I open their book I just want to cook a few of their dishes, open a cold beer and pretend I’m sitting at a taverna on a Greek island…. This is a simple but effective sauce which takes a different approach to the recipe I have already posted (see here).

The rice is what brings the two big players together. In this dish I have given it a little spice with some cinnamon, and a splash of garlic and rosemary oil, but the purpose of the rice is to mop up the sauce and act as the foil to the strong flavours of the chicken and the tomato sauce. See how to cook my perfect rice here. Add in some seasonal veg and it’s good to go.

So what’s this four step process to cooking a whole chicken? Surely we just bung it in a 180C oven for the time stated on the packet? Unfortunately, this is one reason why many people do not understand why they should spend more money on an organic chicken because when they cook it the result is not as good as the cheap factory chicken. An organic chicken is completely different to the cheapest option on the supermarket shelf. It is a different breed of bird, grows more slowly, eats a far better diet, has access to outdoor space (and sunlight!) and gets plenty of exercise (see my post here about chicken farming). Therefore, as we are not really cooking the same produce, if we cook it the same way we don’t get the right result.

A good comparison is beef – we know that a prime cut of beef should be cooked quickly at a higher temperature than a non-prime cut (think fillet steak cooking to ox cheek cooking) because there is very little tough connective tissue in the fillet muscle as it has not been used much. The ox cheek, on the other hand, is used all day by the cow so is tough and sinewy. We would normally cook this cut at a low temperature for a longer time to get the soft delicate texture we want to eat. Our organic chicken is similar to the ox cheek – it has had more exercise and time to grow so needs a more delicate approach to cooking to ensure our dinner is not tough.

So we start the cooking of the bird in a hot oven – 210C/190C fan/gas 6 – this gets the skin brown. Then we turn the oven down to 180C/160C fan/gas 4; then we turn the oven off to finish the cooking gently in the oven’s residual heat before letting our bird rest at room temperature. This may seem like a faff but actually provides us with ideal timing to cook the rest of this dish.

Some points to note:

  1. You are cooking the chicken – please do not rely on the instructions on the packet as it is probably wrong/inaccurate/designed to ensure no under-cooking. The size and quality of the bird determine the cooking temperature and process.
  2. The change in temperature allows us to get the result we want. We are trying to get the skin brown and crispy whilst the rest of the bird should be tender and moist. To simplify the cooking process we are using the oven only. We could sear the breast in a frying pan on the hob to get colour, then transfer to the oven. The choice is yours!
  3. Different parts of the chicken cook at different speeds/temperatures. So to cook in the oven effectively, always turn the legs towards the heat source at the back of the oven. They will also provide protection to the breast which will cook more gently. Knowing your oven is important as some ovens have different temperature zones depending on design.
  4. Don’t be afraid to cover the breast meat with foil or, even better, butter paper – it will help deflect heat from the breast and stop overcooking/burning.
  5. Baste the bird regularly. After the initial high heat, baste juices over the bird every 15 minutes. This will make a big difference to the meat. Also, you get to check the bird regularly so can take any action if it is cooking too fast or too slowly. A meat probe is really useful to check progress.
  6. To stuff or not to stuff? A lot of recipes suggest filling the chicken’s cavity with veg, herbs, lemon, garlic. This helps the bird to cook evenly. Others suggest not doing this as allowing heat into the cavity so cooking from both inside and out. I find both methods work! I like herbs and lemon as they do impart flavour into the dish if only from the basting.
  7. Tie the legs together – this promotes even cooking and adds extra protection to the breast.
  8. Find the fat! – if you look at the cavity (the bit between the legs) you will notice that most chickens have fat deposits here. These are easily removed and can be used – chicken fat adds huge flavour, try rendering it in a pan and adding to rice! I found that by removing the fat and inserting it between the breast meat and the skin, it will slowly render and baste the breast meat throughout the cooking process. You’ll probably find that there is no evidence of the fat when you carve the bird as it has melted away. Don’t use this as an excuse to not baste though, do both.

Buy the best chicken you can afford. It will make a difference to your meal, your health and the health of the chicken. This recipe is really for the organic bird but you will not be disappointed if used for the cheaper ones.

Ingredients (serves 4):

For the chicken

  • 100g butter
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed with salt
  • 1 TBSP parsley, chopped finely
  • 1 TBSP thyme leaves, chopped finely
  • 1.5 – 2kg organic chicken
  • white wine
  • sea salt

Method:

  1. Unwrap the chicken and season liberally with salt inside and outside. If you want to use the fat trick (do it before seasoning), locate the fat at the sides of the cavity (they will look white and fatty) and detach, cut into two even pieces. Then push your finger up the breast from the bottom to create a space and gently push the fat up to the top of the breast on each side being careful not to tear the skin. Put the chicken in the fridge for at least 2 hours – longer is better. 40 minutes prior to cooking bring out the fridge to bring it up to room temperature.
  2. Make up the butter – just put everything into a small bowl and mix well. You can roll it into a sausage in plastic wrap for freezing if you want. Otherwise store it in a ramekin.
  3. When ready, get the oven on – 210C/190C fan/gas 6. With your chicken and butter at room temperature, smear the butter all over the chicken. Place on a roasting tin and put in the oven, feet first. Cook at high temperature for 20 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 180C/160C fan/gas 4; baste the chicken with the juices in the pan; finally add a good glug of white wine into the pan (not over the bird) and roast for another 30 -40 minutes (baste at 15 minute intervals). Then turn the oven off with door ajar and leave the bird for 15 minutes. Then remove entirely and rest for 15 minutes under a loose foil tent. This will allow you to cook your rice in the oven.
  4. Serve!

For the tomato sauce

  • 3 TBSP EVO
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed with salt
  • 200g tomato puree
  • 500ml water
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • sugar or honey

Method

  1. While the chicken is in the oven you can prepare the sauce. Sweat the onion in the oil with a little salt and splash of water over a medium heat, put a lid on and turn down the heat.
  2. After 10 minutes, the onion should be soft and translucent. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute.
  3. Then add the tomato puree and cook for a couple of minutes.
  4. Add the water, herbs and a little salt, pepper and sugar to taste – seasoning can be adjusted later so don’t go overboard. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook until thickened.
  5. Once thickened to your liking, remove herbs and blend the sauce until smooth. Adjust seasoning and set aside until ready to use.

Rice (serves 4 with leftovers)

  • 280g white basmati rice
  • 310g water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 TBSP garlic and rosemary oil (not essential)
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Method – please see here

Tips:

Feel free to add any other green veg to this dish – broccoli or spring greens will go really well with the chicken and rice, or have veg instead of rice!

The butter will go rancid faster with the added ingredients. To be honest it probably won’t last long in the fridge anyway because it is so good!

The tomato sauce can be made in advance and kept in the fridge and reheated.

Think about timing – you can prep the chicken the night before or in the morning – the longer it gets seasoned the better. Also, you need to wash and drain the rice before cooking which will take about 20 minutes.

You can check the internal temperature of your chicken to make sure it is cooked – food safety standards suggest 73C +, I normally aim for 65C + before resting which should increase to 75C after resting. Other checks are the juices from the thigh should run clear when pierced and the other is that the legs should be easily removed from the body. If you find the chicken is not fully cooked, just drop it back in the oven for a little longer. Or you may find your breast is cooked but legs are not, so pull the legs off and cook them for longer.

The rice can be played with. In the picture the rice was cooked with 1/4 tsp of turmeric to give it the golden colour.

Nutrition:

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