The Political Bird and Recipe: Roasted Chicken Breast with Braised Lentils

The chicken has become the most politicised animal on earth. This is in no part down to just how many mouths there are to feed. Just think that in the eighteenth century the population of Britain almost doubled from 8.5 million to 16.5 million. Today there are a hell of a lot more of us — and we’re still hungry. As the population in Britain boomed, people moved from the countryside to the towns which opened up farmland for landowners to introduce new agricultural developments from Europe to improve the efficiency of crop growth. Things are still much the same but rather than looking for increased production from root vegetables or grains, farmers now look to animals for the most profit per unit.

Intensive animal farming is epitomised by the chicken, or ‘battery hen’ as they are called when farmed in this process. Interestingly, battery-farming has its advantages as nearly all animal feed is turned directly into meat and little manual labour is required. Great for the farmer and those on a tight budget but not so great for the chicken. It may appear snobbish to complain about cheap meat when many live just above the breadline with families to feed, but should an animal ever really be considered junk food? Should I really be able to buy a bucket of animal pieces for just a few quid? Chicken is the most popular meat purchased in Britain today, even beating the synonymous British beef. This is remarkable given that chicken is ultimately flavourless as it has little fat content and is slaughtered too young and therefore not given enough time to develop a characteristic flavour. More criminally though, due to the risks of salmonella, chicken is usually thoroughly overcooked to the state of being dry and essentially tasteless. Chefs are largely ambivalent to chicken as well. It is seen as the safe option on most menus, its benign flavour a blank canvas designed for those who don’t really know what they want or are simply unadventurous when it comes to food.

All this money saving has just resulted in declines in the chickens welfare and quality in flavour. I don’t believe that vegetarianism or veganism is necessarily the answer (not when meat tastes so damn good anyway) but maybe a little thought and respect for the animals that are raised and slaughtered for us to eat is the answer instead. Corn-fed, free range birds, bought at a premium may be more expensive but worth it when the labour, resources and care put in by the farmers for their livestock is rightfully paid off. Only consumers can make that difference. Maybe if we treated meat as a special treat rather than a part of every evening meal then farming standards and the actual allure of eating meat can be raised.

Roasted Chicken Breast, Braised Lentils, Roasted Romanesco Cauliflower, Red Wine Jus.

This is a simple recipe and most of the work is in the lentils. Get yourself a good quality chicken, free-range and well-fed, and have faith in cooking it properly without giving yourself food poisoning. Start with finely dicing white onion, celery, leek, carrot and garlic and sweat these off in a little oil. Add bay leaf and thyme to this to really give depth and flavour to the lentils which will need it. Turn the heat up and add the lentils, either tinned or dry but the dry ones will require a much longer cooking time, then a splash of cider vinegar. The acidity of the vinegar will cut through the richness of the lentils but you will still need to boil away some of the sharpness. Then add enough chicken stock to cover and leave to simmer. Never season lentils at this stage as they will soak it up and will be too far salty and tough at the end.

For the chicken, simply season and put it skin side down into a hot pan. Add butter, crushed garlic and thyme to the pan to inject plenty of flavour then stick it into a hot oven for approximately ten to fifteen minutes turning it over halfway through to ensure the skin doesn’t burn and for even cooking. Take it out, let it rest and again have a little faith, chicken should be moist not dry. I then roasted some Romanesco cauliflower but anything like kale, cabbage, leeks, whatever takes your fancy could be used just to bulk out the meal a little.

 

 

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Recipe: Steak, Mash Potato, French Peas, Red Wine Jus

I recently found myself in strange territory for a chef – I had Friday off. To celebrate this rare occasion I decided to treat myself to something more than the fish finger sandwiches and cheese-on-toast that my working hours usually only prohibit me to having. In keeping with my restaurant roots I decided to celebrate with what Friday nights typically mean for those who cook by having a steak. You may be expecting a little more than a simple steak dinner recipe from a chef who works in a fine dining restaurant, but when I’m not sweating away at work I don’t want to be cooking and eating the carpaccio of beef or the cured trout rillette that I serve to my customers.

I went for rump, it’s cheaper than sirloin and ribeye and arguably has less flavour due to its lack of fat content but everyone’s wallet is different and it’s a nice change to the expensive fillet steak we cook for customers whose wallets are heavier than mine. I always prefer pan-fried over grilled as it creates colour and caramelisation which means flavour. Adding aromatics to the pan during cooking such as thyme, rosemary or garlic along with butter also helps. As my head chef once told me “cooking meat without butter is like having sex without a penis.” He knows how to cook meat so I’ll take that advice but I don’t know how good he is in the bedroom. Most importantly, let the steak rest. Stick it one a chopping board and leave it alone – don’t touch it, don’t cut it, don’t even look at it, just let it rest.

For the mash I bake the potatoes rather than boiling them. The flesh is lighter and doesn’t absorb any moisture resulting in a creamier rather than wetter finish. I use désirée as they are waxier and can take more dairy which is always a good thing from a chefs perspective as we are less morally scrupulous when it comes to using butter than the home cook.

French peas, or petit pois à la Francais, is just lardons fried till crisp, frozen petit pois, a little stock or water and then enough butter than you think necessary, plus a little more (are you starting the see the theme here?) Shredded lettuce or spring onions can also be added for crunch but I’ve omitted that.

Finally for the jus I simply deglaze the pan I cooked the steak in with red wine. As my food hero, the late Keith Floyd once said, “if you won’t drink it, don’t cook with it” which is fine advice at home but not so good for restaurant where we use fifteen litres of the stuff just for stock. Let this boil down and then add small amounts of cold butter piece-by-piece till it emulsifies. This takes a bit of practice and understanding of how butter and liquids cook together but you can eventually get an easy and flavourful jus.