If ever there was a day for comfort food where we live on Wellington’s south coast, it was last Thursday. With Antarctic winds of 150kph, heavy horizontal rain, roofs flying past, power poles crashing down and broken phone lines lashing the house the last thing I felt like was fussy haute cuisine. I wanted to be soothed by simple silky soups, calmed by country cottage casseroles or placated by puff-pastry pies. As it was, I cooked chicken.
In the supermarket the other day I heard a child complain to its mother, “Oh Mum! Not chicken again?!” To which the mother replied, “Shuddup! I’ll make it taste just like KFC, and you like that!” Poor child I thought and then again, poor chicken! I know chicken is now commonplace on home menus but a carefully chosen bird, free-range if possible, cooked with a modicum of imagination is delicious and need never be boring… or like takeaways.
On that stormy day I chose to bring a touch of African sun into the place with this homely Ghanaian dish:
Ghanaian Groundnut Chicken
8 boneless chicken thighs- skin on if possible
2 medium onions – peeled and roughly chopped
3cm piece ginger root – finely grated
1 390g tin butter beans – rinsed and drained
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes in juice
¼ tsp cayenne pepper – or to taste
250g smooth peanut butter
(or equivalent weight of roasted unsalted peanuts ground to a paste)
250g okra – trimmed and thickly sliced
Chopped fresh coriander leaves for garnish
In a large pot lightly brown the chicken pieces and the onion over a medium heat. Add the ginger, cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim off any fat and discard. Mash half of the butter beans and add them to the chicken with the tomatoes and cayenne pepper. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
Put the peanut butter or peanut paste in a bowl and when the chicken is cooked add enough of the pan juices to the peanuts to make a soup-like consistency then add this to the chicken together with the remaining beans. Cook gently for 15 minutes. Add the okra and salt to taste. Cook for a further 15 minutes, adjust the seasoning and serve with rice and a generous garnish of chopped coriander leaves.
If I buy chicken pieces I generally buy thighs as I find they have more flavour and a more pleasing texture than chicken breast and less bone than drumsticks.
Here is another way to cook them to keep the winter at bay:
Chicken with Chorizo, Olives and Orzo
2 tbsp olive oil
8 boneless chicken thighs
1 large or 2 medium onions – peeled, halved and sliced
4 large garlic cloves – peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp smoked sweet paprika – or half sweet, half hot if you prefer
1 large red capsicum – seeded then quartered and thinly sliced
150g chorizo sausage – skinned and sliced
600ml good chicken stock – homemade is best
150ml dry white wine
175g whole green beans – frozen are fine
100g good black olives – don’t use pitted ones, just warn your guests
120g orzo or similar rice-shaped pasta
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flat-leaved parsley – chopped for a flavoursome garnish
In a large pan, heat the oil and fry the chicken pieces in batches until golden on both sides. Remove and set aside. To the pan add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until starting to colour. Stir in the paprika, capsicum and chorizo then add the stock and wine. Add the chicken, season with salt and pepper, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the beans, olives and pasta, cover and simmer for 8 minutes or so, until the pasta and vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning and serve with the garnish of parsley.
Some of you may prefer chicken breast and yet others may hold their hands up in a Munch-like scream at the lists of ingredients above and so for you:
Lemon and Tarragon Chicken
2 juicy lemons – sharp ones like Lisbon if possible
4 chicken breasts – skin on
Tarragon – fresh is best but dry will do but be careful as this can overpower
200ml crème fraiche
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 190˚C. Cut four thin slices from one of the lemon and juice the remaining lemon. Set slices and juice aside. Carefully ease the skin from each chicken breast to make a pocket between skin and flesh. Into each pocket tuck a lemon slice and a sprig of fresh tarragon (or a very small pinch of dried). Season each breast with salt and pepper and smear the skin of each with mustard. Lay them, mustard-side up in a roasting dish and roast for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and pour the lemon juice over the chicken and sprinkle with a few tarragon leaves and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes. When cooked, transfer the chicken to a dish or plates and keep warm. Heat the roasting dish over a medium heat and stir the crème fraiche into the pan juices. Allow it to come to a boil, stirring then pour it over the chicken and serve with steamed green vegetables and baby potatoes or with a crisp green salad.
Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
For those of you who, like me, welcome the opportunity winter brings to settle down with a good book I can recommend Michael Pollan’s latest. Many of you will have read “The Omnivore’s Delight” and “In Defence of Food” and this is right up there with them as an engrossing and thought provoking book.
“Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation” looks less at the virtues and values of what is cooked but on how it gets that way. It’s a most entertaining insight into the magic and alchemy that we take for granted as “cooking”.
Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan
Published by Allen Lane RRP $37.00 paperback
It is often said that there is nothing like Wellington after a southerly. Well, the storm has passed, the sun is out and I’m off to the kitchen to cook something fiddly for dinner.