No more paltry poultry!

A good chicken should be at the top of every cook's pecking order, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Intensive farming has made chicken some of the cheapest meat on the market. And it tastes like it too. People must think it's value for money, but it's not. Nor should decent birds that have been properly brought up be considered an out-of-reach luxury.

Instead of buying economy chicken breasts for everyday eating, isn't it better to eat top-quality chicken - legs, thighs, wings? That way, you can still have chicken breasts, of course, but occasionally, as the treat they should be. Anyway, plump white chicken breasts don't do it for me. I know that any chicken that has been raised and fattened to that extent won't taste good. Better to invest in a whole chicken once in a while and turn it into several meals as I've suggested before (15 January this year). I'd sooner buy a guinea fowl than one of those pumped-up white chickens because guinea fowl actually tastes more like real chicken than many of the fowl around.

My best recent chicken feast was up at Peter Gott's Sillfield Farm in Cumbria. Peter's a larger-than-life character, a farmer who has hosted parties of Jamie Oliver's trainees, and has a stall at Borough Market. When I visited, his partner Christine slow-cooked one of the one-year-old birds that were raised on the farm, simply putting it in the Aga for about four hours. Served with some mashed root vegetables and washed down with a few bottles of good red wine, a bird of that quality and age doesn't need fancy treatment. In France they turn the older chickens into coq au vin. Being British we prefer to drink the wine.

A year-old chicken is something to be savoured. Mostly, chicken is nine weeks old. It's such a versatile meat that it's tempting to cook it all sorts of ways and eat it often, but people mistreat it with instant sauces.

One of the few things you can't do with chicken is turn it into sashimi, although I did see chicken carpaccio on the menu somewhere once and it almost turned me veggie. Also, can anyone explain to me why some people who call themselves vegetarian eat chicken? I recently overheard someone explaining that they were a "flexitarian", and only eat meat at the weekends.

These three summery chicken recipes don't use the cheapest cuts, but I'd only make them with a good quality bird - as a weekend treat, perhaps. Maybe we should all be flexitarians if it means eating only properly reared meat.

Grilled chicken fillets with fregola, broad beans and herbs

Serves 4

Fregola, or Sicilian cous cous, is literally a fat, toasted cous cous, not as refined as its North African counterpart just across the water, but that's certainly where the influence came from. This is one of those ingredients that I hoard in my larder and it comes in very useful, especially for summer parties, picnics or barbecues.

If you're having a barbecue you can make this salad in advance and quickly grill the chicken fillets at the last minute for a very impressive main-course salad. You will find little chicken under-fillets in most supermarkets and I've even seen duck under-fillets too.

12 chicken under-fillets
5-6tbsp olive oil
200g fregola, or Sicilian cous cous
150g podded weight of broad beans
3tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp chopped mint leaves
3 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Simmer the fregola in lightly salted water for 5-6 minutes until tender, then drain and leave to cool. Cook the broad beans in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes until tender then drain f and leave to cool. Peel off outer skins if the beans are large. Mix the fregola with the broad beans, parsley, mint leaves and spring onions, season and stir in 4 tablespoons of olive oil, or a little more if the salad is not moist enough. It will soak up some of the oil, depending how long in advance you're making it.

Pre-heat a barbecue or ribbed griddle pan, season the under-fillets and lightly brush with olive oil. Cook for no more than about 11/2 minutes on each side and serve on the salad.

Coronation chicken

Serves 4

I'm sure plenty of Coronation chicken was eaten in 1953. More than 50 years on, though you see it in some sandwich bars, it has gone out of fashion, its reputation ruined by all that mayonnaise and curry powder knocked together with some dry old chicken. Made with love and care and good ingredients it can be a memorable dish - or even sandwich filling. You can still cheat and use curry powder, but it's more satisfying to use your own spice mix.

4 chicken breasts or 10 thighs, boned and skinned or 700-800g meat from a poached chicken
300ml chicken stock
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp ground cumin
A small thumb-sized piece of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
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
2tbsp good quality mayonnaise
4tbsp Greek yoghurt
1tbsp chopped coriander
1tbsp mango chutney, chopped if very chunky
1tbsp toasted flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 220ºC/gas mark 7. If it is raw, put the chicken meat - breasts or thighs - into a heatproof oven dish, season and add the chicken stock. Cover and cook in the oven for 20 minutes, or until cooked. Drain off the stock and reserve and leave to cool.

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 and leave to cool. Mix with the mayonnaise, yoghurt, coriander and chutney and season. Cut the chicken into chunks or slices and bind with the sauce, then scatter with the almonds. If you prefer you can serve it on some salad leaves such as little gems.

Poulet basquaise

Serves 4

I haven't cooked this dish for years and it brings back memories of college days or cooking in the pub at weekends. It's a classic Mediterranean bistro dish that was popular in the 1970s, but chicken and peppers are still a great, summery combination.

12 medium chicken thighs, boned and skinned
1tbsp flour
1 small medium red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1/2tsp chopped thyme or marjoram leaves
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
60ml olive oil
100g thickly sliced streaky bacon, or pancetta, cut into rough 1/2cm dice
6 plum tomatoes, skinned, seeded and roughly chopped
1 green pepper, seeded, cored and cut into rough 2cm squares
1 red pepper, seeded, cored and cut into rough 2cm squares
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
300ml chicken stock

Season and lightly flour the chicken thighs. Heat half of the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan and fry the chicken thighs for a few minutes on each side until nicely coloured, then remove from the pan and put to one side.

Heat the rest of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently cook the chilli, marjoram, onion, garlic and bacon for 3-4 minutes, with a lid on, until soft. Add the peppers and continue cooking with a lid on for another 3-4 minutes. Add the chicken, tomatoes and chicken stock, season, cover and cook on a very low heat, or in the oven pre-heated to 180°C/gas mark 5 for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with rice or sautéed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.