the book I was always going to write
My books never come about because I think ‘I want to write something else now, what will it be?’ I don’t sit and try to come up with ideas. Usually they’ve been percolating for quite a few years, or they may even have been there from before I started to write about food at all (as was the case with my first book, Crazy Water Pickled Lemons). My newest book, A Bird in the Hand, was always going to be written, it was just a question of when. My grandfather was a farmer, primarily of dairy and poultry, and we were brought up to think that the chicken was important as well as being good to eat. From an early age we were taught to pick every morsel of meat off the bones – right down to those juicy little ‘oysters’ on the underside – to appreciate the crispy, salty skin of a roast and to understand how economical chicken could be. A roast chicken provided at least three meals in our house: the original dish; one made with the leftovers; then my mum’s chicken soup. Throwing out the carcass was absolutely unthinkable. The smell of simmering stock, and the parsley stalks and celery that went into it, often filled our kitchen and hallway.
Chicken Maryland, a big chunk of golden-skinned bird served with fried bananas and bacon, was what my siblings and I ordered when we went out to supper as kids. Sitting on modish chairs with scratchy seats, our feet barely touching the ground, we tackled plates of this in the local ‘grill room’ (such things existed in the 1970s). As teenagers, picnics weren’t based on sandwiches, but on a whole cold roast chicken whose meat we would tear apart and stuff into soft white rolls. Chicken curry (the old-fashioned British kind made with curry paste, raisins and the remains of the roast) was the exotic accompaniment to Sunday night telly. When I was taken to supper by a boy I really fancied – only to have him tell me that he was really interested in my best friend – I was eating chicken (and that was one of the few times I didn’t finish my plate of it). And the first meal I ever cooked for my partner, at his request, was a braise of chicken, leeks and apples (that recipe is in the new book).
At the end of a filming day with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (I was a TV producer before I was a food writer), we were finishing dinner when Hugh looked at the remains of the chicken on my plate. It was hard to tell from the clean little bones what I had eaten, but Hugh knew. ‘What did you do to that chicken?’ he asked, laughing. ‘I stripped it to its bones,’ I said, a little proudly, ‘Just as I was taught.’
This appreciation is not particular to my family. If you think about the great chicken dishes of the world – Southern fried chicken, chicken masala, chicken piri piri, jerk chicken – it’s clear that it is loved by many people and in many different cultures. In the past, chicken ‘feast’ dishes evolved. In Catalonia, mar i muntanya, a braise of chicken, prawns, almonds, tomatoes and a little anisette, was a celebration dish (often eaten at wedding banquets) not because of the prawns – which were plentiful – but because of the chicken, which took time and money to grow. The original blancmange (or bianco
Chicken can be dressed up or dressed down. My children love strips of thigh dipped in egg and breadcrumbs then fried – that’s a homely dish – but I also cook the bird in ways where it’s really honoured: a brined chicken roasted and served with prunes, shallots and chestnuts; or a really top-end specimen stuffed under the skin with butter and slices of truffle. Even though I am supposed to be a ‘gourmet’ (for want of a better word), I often find it hard to resist ordering chicken in a restaurant. Quite often it’s just what I feel like. I love the comfort of roast chicken, for example. If it’s done well, and the chicken is moist, it really is happiness-inducing. The accompaniments don’t have to be grand: Vichy carrots, greens and mash in winter; olive oil-roasted waxy potatoes and a salad of green beans and shallots (dressed with a creamy tarragon vinaigrette) in the summer.
Before I started to write about food, I kept a notebook in my handbag with lists of meals in it (and lists of seasonal ingredients), to help me think of dishes for which I could pick up the ingredients on the way home from work. There were pasta dishes; things to do with pork and lamb chops; easy ways to make a meal out of salmon fillets… but the longest list (it went on for about eight pages) had CHICKEN as its heading. It featured everything from the deeply old-fashioned (coq au vin) to a dish of thighs that had been marinated in orange juice and zest, oregano, garlic and chilli that I’d eaten in Mexico.
We find it hard nowadays truly to value chicken. People who love food are almost embarrassed to admit that they like it (food snobs complain that it’s tasteless and assure us that there is always something better to eat). It’s cheap, so it’s easy to think it isn’t special. There is also quite a gulf, in terms of taste, between a free-range chicken from a good farm (some of which can be very expensive) and a chicken that is intensively factory farmed. The bird from a good farm, that has had good things to eat, will taste better. But whatever your feelings about intensive farming and animal husbandry, I really can’t accept that it’s impossible to make a good meal out of an intensively reared bird. One of the key things a good cook should be able to do is to coax out flavour. Once a bit of chicken thigh has been marinated and slapped on a smoking hot griddle, seasoned and cooked until it’s golden brown, who can resist eating it?
As well as enjoying chicken myself, it is also the ingredient I’m most often asked about. ‘What can I do with chicken that’s different?’ friends and readers ask wistfully. My head is constantly full of ideas for dishes – it’s how I make my living – and yet when I start to make the family meal, I often find I’m asking myself the same thing. Amid the chaos and demands of everyday life, we don’t always feel inspired. Tiredness – and the need to feed the family quickly – render the daily meal a challenge.
One of the many good things about being a food writer is that you get to write books which you find useful – putting all your favourite and best ideas and recipes under one ‘roof’ – and that others will find useful too. So A Bird in the Hand should help you to turn out a Sunday roast that is a bit different, produce some stonking meals for friends… and it should come to the rescue during those early evenings when you’re faced with a packet of chicken thighs and think, ‘Now, what the hell am I going to do with those?’