Food: Cool chicks

Take a chicken, then roast it, bash it or roll it in a sandwich. Summer's favourite delight is a dish best served cold
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Almost everyone likes cold chicken, don't you think? Whether it is when demolishing a cold carcass from a roast Sunday bird (you know, around six o'clock-ish, even though lunch has only been over for about an hour and a half); or as the classic and forever truly delicious Constance Spry's perfect coronation chicken (a dish that is rarely put together properly these days - usually comprising a mix of Hellman's and Patak's curry paste); or carefully sliced into buttered sliced bread, spread with good mayonnaise and freshened with watercress leaves.

I know that I prattled on about cold chicken in August of last year (including the definitive and original coronation number), but when it is the time of year for delicious cold food - and, as I write, it surely is - it is chicken that always comes to mind. It goes without saying that the recipes that follow will be new ones - or, at least, different a year on.

I now find it really interesting that, with all the complicated recipes that abound in restaurants these days - although perhaps "convoluted" might be a better moniker, considering how many ingredients constitute the teetering stack that is now always called "salad of something" rather than "something salad" - the simple formula known as a chaud-froid seems sadly overlooked when thinking of something cold and delicious to eat. For although a chaud-froid is simply pieces of chicken (or fish) set among their very own gelatinous juices, reduced and enriched with cream, the dish itself, when properly made, is well up there with a truffled foie gras.

It further seems that so many ingredients are now bullied into being set in some kind of savoury jelly, as a first course, such as ham hocks, foie gras, lentils, chicken livers, pig's trotters, tongue, duck confit (sometimes all within the same gel which, as any fule kno, can only be sliced with an electric carving knife), that to find just the single ingredient buried in a gently unctuous, opaque jelly might be welcomed with, how shall one say, a little light relief?

Well, to be frank, I am fed up to the back teeth with all these pressed and layered jellied jobbies, as, in the end, they do not really taste of very much at all. There is so much bloody layering going on, so much cooling, shredding, slicing and placing, that the end result is yet another example of chef design over tasty content. These messed over things also often include slices of cepes (frozen, usually), morels, or a diminutive whittling from a tasteless summer truffle, all of which do nothing whatsoever to assist the assembly. There is usually an ejaculation of truffle oil all over the plate upon which it is served, too; well, I suppose that the slice will at least smell of something - even though the "something" that is white truffle oil is becoming a worrisome scent.

Enough of all that that nonsense. Those who relish spooning up the amber jelly beneath the carriage of a cold roast chicken (most often during that early evening scavenge) will know just how important a part this stuff plays within the classic chaud-froid. The name, as you might have guessed, simply describes a hot (chaud) chicken that has become a cold (froid) chicken. Add some truffles to the process and you have a dish that even Careme might have packed into a picnic hamper for lunch on Brighton beach, on a day off from his kitchens in the Royal Pavilion. We, however, are going to make do with tarragon to flavour our chaud-froid which, in its own right, is fragrant and delicious - chicken's favourite herb and a perfect fragrance in savoury summer food.

Chicken chaud-froid

serves 5-6

Although you may think that this recipe is a real fiddle-faddle, it really isn't all that difficult to make. And the result, I assure you, is well worth the gentle effort involved. Anyway, it's only cooking, after all.

A 2kg chicken

200ml white wine

11/2l water (This is the amount used for a pot with a capacity of approximately 5l; measurements are quite important when making things that are to gel)

1 chicken stock cube

1 heaped tsp Maldon salt (less for ordinary salt)

2 carrots, peeled

2 sticks celery

1 large leek, trimmed, sliced and washed

1 small fennel bulb, halved

6-7 sprigs of tarragon

3-4 strips of (pithless) lemon peel

1 pig's trotter, split in half

2 loosely beaten egg whites

1tbsp tarragon vinegar

225ml double cream

a few extra leaves of tarragon

a bag of ice from the off-licence

Preheat the oven to 300F/ 150C/gas mark 2.

Put the chicken in the pot, tuck all the solid ingredients in and around it and pour over the liquids. Bring up to a simmer, skimming off any scum on the surface. Cover the bird with a sheet of grease-proof cut to fit the pot, put on the lid and cook in the oven for 1 hour exactly. Remove from the oven, leave the lid intact and ignore for 30 minutes.

Lift out the chicken and leave to cool on a plate. Place the pot back on to the stove and simmer for a further 30 minutes, allowing the trotter to add more of its gelatin to the broth. Now strain the broth through a fine sieve into a clean pan and discard the solids. Leave to settle for several minutes and remove any excess fat from the surface with sheets of kitchen paper. Leave to cool to lukewarm. Whisk in the beaten egg whites and slowly bring to a simmer, watching carefully for when the liquid froths up through the crust of egg white that has formed on the surface. Leave to bubble gently for a few minutes, after which time the liquid should have clarified to a pale golden elixir.

Measure the liquid. You need to end up with approximately 600ml, so it will need a little extra reduction to achieve this. Now decant 200ml from the result and set aside. Pour the cream into the rest (400ml) and heat through with 10-12 tarragon leaves, just to simmering point. Pour into a bowl and leave until lukewarm. Joint the chicken into manageable pieces, remove the skin and arrange neatly in a shallow dish.

Place the bag of ice flat on to a work surface and cut a large hole in the middle with a pair of scissors. Place the bowl of tarragon cream in the hole, scrunching it down into the ice. Now, using a tablespoon, stir the cream gently until it starts to thicken and become jelly-like; once this begins to happen it will accelerate quicker than you think. When it has reached a coating consistency, carefully spoon the cream all over the chicken pieces; arrange a few tarragon leaves over each joint and put into the fridge to set. Put the 200ml of clear jelly into a bowl now and effect the same stirring motion to this, also until beginning to gel. Remove the chicken from the fridge and spoon the jelly over it. Return to the fridge for a final set.

I find that hot, scrupulously scraped new potatoes and a lightly dressed lettuce salad are a quite divine accompaniment with the chaud-froid.

Fanny Cradock's chicken

Now then, here are two jolly little recipes to finish up with. The first is a wonderfully mad idea from dear old Fanny Cradock. I cannot find her original words, but the gist of the thing is something like this: "Take one scrawny old boiling fowl, bash it about with a hammer or meat bat and ram it (definitely her description, I remember that) into a Kilner jar or something similar. Empty a bottle of brandy over it and top up with water. Season with salt and pepper and cook in a pan of simmering water for 3-4 hours. Leave to cool to lukewarm, carefully open the lid and pour off the resultant amber, clear liquid into a clean jar. Put into the fridge to set to a stiff jelly. Johnnie and I have found a teaspoon or two of this the finest cure for gippy tummies or a hangover!"

I have never been sure about the whole bottle of brandy, so I have tried it with water, a glass or two of white wine and Madeira or port, and just a splash of brandy. It certainly makes the most wonderful chicken jelly, whether or not it is good for you (see picture, above). The dirt-cheap meat of the boiling fowl - having cooked to rags - is sadly only fit for the cat.

Harry's sandwich

The second recipe is based on the chicken sandwich served at Harry's Bar in Venice. Its distinctive shape is synonymous with many of the sandwiches you will find in the little bars of Venice, and I have always wondered whether it is meant to resemble the Rialto bridge. Be that as it may, the chicken sandwich at Harry's is the best of them all. Who was the first to make them in this particular shape is anyone's guess. I like to use watercress instead of the traditional lettuce.

For one sandwich, take 2 slices of thinly cut white bread and butter generously. Mix chopped cold chicken with a spoonful of mayonnaise and some coarsely chopped watercress leaves. Season and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Pile this mixture in a thick sausage shape across the middle of one of the slices of bread. Cover with the other slice, pressing the edges down together firmly to seal. Cut off the crusts and slice across the middle. Garnish with a small bunch of watercress.

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