Food: Water fowl - Poached chicken and other stories

Make sure you do not allow the broth to emit much more than a quiet shudder as it cooks Photograph by Jason Lowe
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I endured a particularly nasty tummy bug recently. Once I had rid myself of most of my bodily fluids (resulting in a weight loss of nearly 7lb - the only bonus of a very nasty time indeed) and was starting to feel marginally better, the only things I felt inclined to restore myself with were the inevitable cups of sweet tea, a steaming mug of Bovril, ice-cold Ribena and, gingerly, the thought of a dish of boiled chicken and potatoes. (My mother's favourite when ailing was always a tomato sandwich made with white bread and no butter, the damp slices turning a blotchy pale pink as she nibbled at them.)

Of course, boiled chicken need not be thought of as invalid food alone. It has always been - after roasting - a favourite way to eat a tasty fowl, though I would tend towards the word "poach". Literally "boiling" any sort of meat or foul is going to render the meal tough, stringy, dry and dull. A gorgeous slab of salt beef brisket should languish and float in a carroty broth that merely shudders for a couple of hours, with two clove- studded onions bouncing alongside resembling a couple of menacing mines.

The other very important point to consider when poaching is the stock or broth the meat is cooked in. If my local butcher, Sid, has a spare pig's trotter, I'll ask to have it swiftly cleaved, and then it's into the pot with the chicken. This will help the resultant broth to set if you then wish to clarify it and make a shimmering pot of chicken jelly.

I will certainly make that jelly, because I am eager to serve it with a truly delicious and simple chicken terrine. This is a recipe I recently came across in Australia. Yet another, I know, but some really good things are coming up and out of down-under cooking culture just now, and I feel you should have the benefit of my recent culinary travels. Though this should be about it, for now.

The recipe comes from a restaurant called ecco, in Brisbane, which last year won the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year Award. The judge was none other than Ricky Stein, and I suspect that if this especially good terrine was one of the dishes he tried when he ate there, this alone would have secured the award. It's worth searching out a pedigree chicken for the terrine, even though the creature will be skinned, dissected, boned and packed away in an oval-lidded porcelain vessel.

Poached chicken with vegetables, and potato slurry with parsley, serves 4

Slurry is not the first word one thinks of in terms of dinner, but it is an accurate description here. Once again, try to get a decent chicken.

1.5kg free-range chicken

12 chicken stock cube

1 pig's trotter, split in two lengthways by the butcher (only use if you wish to make a jelly from the resultant stock)

2 celery hearts, the outside ribs trimmed with a potato peeler

4 medium leeks, trimmed and well washed, left whole

4 medium carrots, peeled and split lengthways

2 medium onions, peeled, left whole, and each pierced with 2 or 3 cloves

a bouquet garni, consisting of a fat bunch of parsley stalks, 2 bay leaves, 3 branches of thyme and a length of string to tie them together

200ml white wine

for the potato slurry:

4 large floury potatoes, peeled and cut in half

1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (see bouquet garni)

50g butter

Put the chicken and halved stock cube in a suitably large pot (with trotter if using) and cover with water. Gently bring up to a shuddering simmer. When surface scum resembles river effluent, methodically remove with a large spoon and put it down the sink. Once the surface is clean, push the four vegetables under the surface, together with the bouquet garni and wine. Return to a simmer, skim again when necessary, and poach quietly for an hour.

Cautiously lift out the chicken and vegetables and keep hot, ticking away inside a steamer, for instance. Discard the exhausted bouquet garni and the trotter, if used.

Now put the potatoes in a small pan and just cover them with some of the chicken stock. Cook the potatoes gently in this, until tender and beginning to collapse. Drain well, using a sieve, but keep the delicious starchy broth hot on a low flame until later. Force the potatoes through the coarse blade of a mouli-legumes or crush with a hand-masher; it is imperative that the potatoes do not become a puree. Finely chop the parsley leaves and stir into the potatoes with the butter. Adjust seasoning.

Joint the chicken into convenient pieces and arrange on to a hot serving dish with the vegetables. Spoon over some of the reserved potato broth and offer the pale green, parsley-flecked mashed potatoes in a separate dish.

Terrine of chicken with lemon, basil and garlic, serves 6

Philip Johnson, chef/proprietor of ecco, asks that you remove the skin from the chicken, using it to line the terrine mould before packing the chicken morsels within. It really does make a difference if you do this and it's really quite a simple task, so please have a bash.

Start by cutting away the skin with the bird placed upside down, breasts resting on chopping board, making a lengthy initial incision along its backbone. The skin will soon begin to separate itself from the flesh quite naturally, slipping away from the pink meat. Surprisingly, the skin is more resilient to the occasional rupture than you might imagine. You will soon be left with a huge rectangular flap of chicken skin. Really, you must have a go, as the end result is so very pleasing.

As with the previous recipe, a delicious chicken jelly can be made here. Use the chicken carcass divested of its meat for a good stock and, once again, add a trotter to ensure a quality stiffness to the jelly. The details of how to turn a simple chicken stock into a delectable savoury jelly are, here, given in full - particularly as the finished dish will then have used up skin, bone, cartilage, flesh, giblets etc. All used up. Isn't that just terrific?

2.3kg free-range chicken with giblets (weight needs to be fairly exact)

20g basil leaves

50g peeled garlic cloves (new season's when possible)

the grated zest of one large lemon

20g Maldon sea salt

1 rounded tsp of finely milled white peppercorns

a few scrapings from a nutmeg

for the jelly:

1.5 litres water

chicken giblets, chopped

1 pig's trotter, cleaved lengthways

12 chicken stock cube

300ml white wine

1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped

3 sticks celery, coarsely chopped

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs thyme

12 peppercorns

some parsley stalks

Remove the skin of the chicken with your favourite small sharp knife, as described above. Once you have the flat piece of chicken skin, place it on a work surface, face down, and trim off any fatty or unnecessary bits.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4. Remove all the flesh from breast, thigh and drumstick and cut into 2cm pieces. Put into a bowl and mix in the basil, garlic, lemon, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Use your hands here, mulching everything together until all seems well blended. Pile this muddle into the middle of the chicken skin, fold over flaps to form a loose parcel and then fit neatly into a suitably sized terrine mould or a dish that you use to make pate in.

Put the terrine dish into a deep tray and fill with boiling water, so that it reaches three-quarters of the way up the sides of the dish. Cover with a lid or foil and bake for 1 hour 20 minutes on the middle shelf of the oven. As it cooks, the skin will shrink back, the meat will contract, juices and fat will exude and coagulate. This is meant to be.

Once cooked, tip the water away and leave the terrine to cool and settle for 15 minutes in the tray. Compress the surface of the terrine with a board or lid, weighted down with something such as a couple of family size tins of baked beans, for about 1 hour. Fat and juices will have welled up during this time, maybe flooded over the lip of the dish; collect these and re-introduce them into the dish. Cover with clingfilm and put into the fridge for at least 12 hours to cool and set.

To make the jelly, chop up the carcass into small pieces and put into a roomy pan with all the other ingredients listed for it. Slowly bring up to the boil, allowing an unsightly scum to form on the surface. Just before little boiling points appear on the surface of the stock, start to remove this scum with a large serving spoon and jettison down the sink. The liquid will already start to look quite clear underneath. (The albumen within the poultry carcass is a natural clarifier; there should be no need further to clear the broth with egg white etc if you are diligent in your despumation.) Make sure that you do not allow the broth to emit much more than a quiet shudder as it cooks, for about 2 hours.

Strain through a colander into a pan or bowl. Allow to drip for 15 minutes. Then, once more, strain the resultant liquid through a sieve lined with a clean, fine tea towel. Leave to cool, remove any unsightly globules of fat from the surface, and put into the fridge to set. Both terrine and jelly should hopefully mature to readiness at the same time.

To serve, slice the chicken terrine thickly, directly from the dish, making sure that you use careful sawing motions as you cut, so as not to tear the pressed chicken meat. Tip spoonfuls of the jelly on to a chopping board and mince with a knife into a glistening mass. Pile on to the plate - or plates - on which you wish to present the terrine. Eat with hot buttered toast and, perhaps, a favourite sharp chutney.

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