The quality of the chickens we eat is a very hot subject in this country at the moment, what with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay doing their best to convince the general public to go free-range. After their recent Channel 4 season of intensive TV coverage, sales of free-range chickens did go up and a fair percentage of people were persuaded to switch to proper birds even if it did cost them the price of a couple of packets of fags or a couple of drinks in a bar.
Some restaurant menus changed overnight and started featuring free-range birds so as not to get caught out, and many wholesale butchers just couldn't keep up with the sudden change in purchasing. I don't know how long this change of heart will last and whether it will permanently change the face of chicken farming. The whole issue is confusing because there are several farmers out there with birds that are as close as they can possibly be to free-range but which are not allowed to be labelled as such. And what about organic chickens? Does an organic bird have space to roam around in, or could it be kept cooped up in a cage as long as it was fed solely with organic food? Free-range or organic – in the end, it's up to you, though some of the rules concerning organic farming are a mystery even to chefs like me. Anyway, I think the whole debate was something of a triumph and it made bloody good viewing, too.
The cheap battery chicken has become rather like the sausage in terms of value. You should pay the same price per kilo for a sausage as you would for a shoulder or leg of pork – but the problem is that most customers would consider that a rip-off in the same way as they would if they were paying between £8 and £10 for a chicken. The same goes for free-range eggs – but cheap eggs come from cheap birds and you get exactly what you pay for.
If, after you've read this column, you still think that a bird costing £8-£10 is a rip-off, then please do write in and give me your views. My new email address is email@example.com and I am always very happy to receive feedback from readers. Incidentally, my favourite chickens come from the Lowther Estate in Cumbria ( www.lowther.co.uk) and The Rhug Estate in Wales ( www.rhug.co.uk), both of which sell chickens that are a million miles away from the cheap supermarket variety.
Preparing your bird
1. First take a heavy chopping knife and remove the legs. To do this, hold the bird by its leg and cut towards the joint, then pull the leg away from the carcass by breaking the joint with your hands and cutting it away.
2. Remove the breasts by cutting either side of the carcass, keeping the knife as close to the bone as possible, then remove the under-fillets, which lie under the breasts.
3. Cut the wings away from the breast and place in a pot where they will be used for both the stock and the soup. Pull the skin away from the breast and discard.
4. You should be left with 2 skinless breasts for the escalopes, 2 legs for the coronation chicken and the crêpes, the bones for the stock, the wings and under-fillets for the soup.
This is a really simple base for soups, stocks and sauces and, of course, the recipes below.
Washed bones from the chicken carcass, chopped into pieces (leave the wings for the next recipe)
1 leek and 1 stick of celery, washed and chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large clove of garlic, peeled
10 white or black peppercorns
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 Kallo organic chicken stock cube
Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cover with about 3 litres of water with the stock cube dissolved in it. Add half a teaspoon of salt, bring to the boil, skim and simmer gently for 1 hour. Remove the chicken wings with a slotted spoon, leave to cool for a few minutes. Continue to simmer for another 30 minutes, topping up with water if necessary, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve. Remove any meat from the carcass for the garnish for the soup.
Chicken broth with mushrooms, ginger and poached Cotswold legbar egg
This healthy, fresh-tasting broth is a good way to use the stock that you have made, as well as any bits of meat you can salvage from the carcass and wings. There are lots of fresh Asian mushrooms on the market these days, including inoki, shiitake, king oyster and shimeji. Some will need slicing and some can be left whole. Dried mushrooms are also an option if you can't get fresh ones. You could also add Chinese greens such as pak choi. Clarence Court Cotswold legbars are available at Waitrose and Sainsbury's.
The strained chicken stock
The meat from the carcass and the flesh from the cooked wings
The 2 chicken under-fillets, sliced
1 green chilli, thinly sliced
20g root ginger, scraped and finely shredded
4 spring onions, shredded on the angle
50-60g Asian mushrooms
2tbsp shredded coriander leaves
2 Cotswold legbar free-range eggs, lightly poached and set aside
80g soba noodles or similar
Simmer the ginger and chilli in the chicken stock for about 5 minutes then add the mushrooms and chicken under-fillets and simmer until tender. Meanwhile, poach the eggs. Add the spring onion, coriander and chicken meat, simmer for a couple of minutes, then season to taste. Serve the soup in bowls, and drop in the egg, adding the cooked drained noodles at the last minute.
Chicken escalope Holstein
This dish has always been a favourite of mine; it was traditionally made with veal, but that's another story. The crisp coating and the richness of the egg work perfectly with the saltiness of the anchovies and capers. It used to be popular, but it's not often seen these days.
The 2 skinless chicken breasts
1 large egg, beaten
30-40g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
A good knob of butter
2 medium free-range eggs
4 anchovies, halved lengthways
1/2tbsp chopped parsley
Put one breast on a sheet of clingfilm that is at least double its size. Carefully with a meat or cutlet bat (a rolling pin or side of a cleaver will do), bat each breast out into a neat cm- thick escalope. Season with salt and pepper then lightly coat with flour, patting any excess off with your hands, before passing them through the beaten egg and finally the breadcrumbs.
Heat about 1cm of oil in a frying pan and cook the escalopes for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden then add a knob of butter at the end of cooking and turn them once more.
Meanwhile, lightly fry the eggs and place one on each escalope, then arrange the anchovies around the yolk and transfer to warmed plates. Melt the butter in a small frying pan until foaming, add the parsley and capers and spoon over the egg and escalopes. Serve immediately as they will go a bit cardboard-like if they hang around.
Coronation chicken and egg sandwich
There is something irresistible about Coronation chicken – that combo of the cumin and other curry spices makes me crave it in the same way that I do a curry.
Back in the Seventies this was a must-have buffet dish, but unfortunately it was often made by simply whisking some curry powder into a pot of mayonnaise, and the results could be pretty disgusting. In post-war Britain fresh curry spices were difficult – if not impossible – to come by. But there are few things worse than raw curry powder and these days, with the panoply of ingredients available to us, there is no excuse for not making an effort and doing the job properly.
4 slices of bloomer-style bread
Shredded crisp lettuce (optional)
2 chicken thighs
2 free-range chicken eggs, boiled and peeled
300ml chicken stock
1 small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp ground cumin
Thumb-sized piece of root ginger, peeled, grated
1/2tsp ground turmeric
1 small red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
Seeds from 6 cardamom pods
1/2tsp fenugreek seeds
1tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4tbsp good quality mayonnaise
2-3tbsp Greek yoghurt
1tbsp chopped coriander
1tbsp mango chutney, chopped if very chunky
Put the chicken thighs in a pot with the stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Drain off the stock, reserve and leave the chicken to cool.
Meanwhile, gently cook the onion, garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric, chilli, cardamom and fenugreek seeds in the vegetable oil for 3-4 minutes with a lid on without colouring the onions. Add the stock from the chicken and boil until it reduces to a couple of tablespoons. Coarsely blend in a liquidiser; cool. Mix with the mayonnaise, yoghurt, coriander and chutney and season. Cut the chicken into chunks or slices, chop the eggs and bind with the sauce. Butter your bread and assemble your sandwiches, with or without the lettuce, with a generous amount of filling.
Vietnamese savoury crêpes (Banh xeo)
Banh xeo are often referred to as Vietnamese crêpes, although they look more like an omelette. In Vietnam the recipe also calls for yellow split mung beans, soaked in water and blended with coconut milk. If you can find them, soak about 40g in cold water for 1-2 hours, drain and blend in a liquidiser with the coconut milk. The filling for the crêpes varies, but the vegetables need to be crunchy, so bean sprouts, spring onion and white radish make a good start, then you can add some Asian herbs and leaves such as Thai basil, perilla, coriander, Vietnamese mint and mizuna, plus shredded cooked chicken or prawns. Pickled white radish and carrot (bought from Asian stores or made by pickling the sliced vegetable in rice vinegar, rather like Korean kim che) can also be added for extra acidity.
For the pancakes
100g rice flour, or potato flour
150-200ml coconut milk
40g yellow split mung beans, soaked (optional)
1 small free-range egg, beaten
Vegetable oil for frying
For the filling
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
6-7cm mooli, shredded
3 spring onions, shredded on the angle
A selection of Asian leaves and herbs (see above)
120-150g shredded cooked chicken from the drumsticks, which have been previously poached in the stock
Nuoc cham (fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, rice vinegar, chillies and garlic mixed to taste)
Sweet chilli sauce
If you are using mung beans, drain them and liquidise with the coconut milk. Then, to make the pancakes, put the rice flour and turmeric in a bowl with the egg and slowly whisk in enough coconut milk so that you have a smooth batter. Season with salt.
Heat about half a tablespoon of vegetable oil in an 18-20cm non-stick pan, pour in a quarter of the pancake mixture and turn the pan from side to side to spread the mixture evenly. Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side until crisp. Remove with a spatula on to some kitchen paper and keep warm. Repeat with the rest of the mixture.
To serve, mix the vegetable, herbs and chicken or prawns together and arrange on one half of the pancake so that it can be folded. Serve with nuoc cham or some sweet chilli sauce or soy for dipping.