For all the adrenaline buzz of the wok and the charcoal grill, I reckon there is much pleasure to be had in listening to the calm blip-blop of a chicken simmering in its pot. The smell is warming, gentle, as old as time itself. A smell redolent both of bonhomie and thrift. For from that sweet fowl we will get a juicy dinner for four, a bracing soup, broth for a calming risotto - and something for the cat. Good eating and good housekeeping working hand in hand.
I love a chicken bubbling away in the pot. But I am never sure whether it is for the slices of moist breast to be had with a vivid green sauce of parsley, anchovy and lemon, or for the rich broth in which it simmers. That broth is the most useful thing you can have in your fridge. A pot of untapped joy.
There is a chicken on in my kitchen right now, free range - need you ask - sitting in a deep pot on the cooker with onions, leeks, carrots, peppercorns, a tomato, some parsley stalks and a couple of bay leaves. There are a few extra chicken wings, bought for a song, tucked around its legs to add extra richness. They will help the stock set to a firm jelly. That stock will be used tomorrow for a dazzling soup with ginger, red chillies and lime juice, then the next day with a cup of rice for a simple risotto with Parmesan and butter.
OK, the chicken cost me 11 quid. Let's just say I am fussy about the provenance of my meat. But we will get eight good meals from it over three days, and that doesn't include supper for Digger. At 17 years old and stiff with rheumatism, the dear old cat can have every comfort he needs, as far as I'm concerned. Such frugality pleases me, and makes up for the times when I am wasteful or extravagant.
When you first splash out on a fine chicken you feel guilty. Couldn't I get a frozen one from Budgens for a third of the price? Well, yes, you could. But the thin, white broth from that poor, brittle-boned bird isn't the stuff you make a fine, golden soup with, let alone raise a family on. If you cover a good chuck with fresh water and aromatics you should get about two litres of rich, heart-warming stock. The meat, at first carved into long, silky slices, then, the next day, stripped in chunks and tatters from the bones, can go into a little supper dish with some softened chopped onion, tarragon leaves and cream.
A good chicken truly is a treasure chest waiting to be unpacked.
Poached chicken with salsa verde
a free-range chicken, about 2-2.5kg in weight
a good handful of chicken wings
a couple of onions
2 medium-sized leeks
a couple of sticks of celery
8-10 whole black peppercorns
a small bunch of parsley stalks
3 or 4 bay leaves
You will need a very large pan. Put the chicken in the pan, tuck the chicken wings all around, and add the vegetables, scrubbed but unpeeled, the peppercorns and the parsley stalks and bay leaves. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil.
Skim the froth that forms on top, then turn down the heat so that the liquid bubbles only gently. If it gets too frantic then the broth will turn cloudy and the chicken will toughen.
I always say you should hear blip-blip rather than hubble-bubble.
After a good hour, turn off the heat, remove the chicken and let it rest for a few minutes. Put it into a shallow dish with some of the hot stock poured over it, then cover with foil or an upturned mixing bowl.
Blitz the green sauce ingredients below in a blender while the chicken is resting, then carve thin slices from the breast and serve on plates, with a very little broth, and a pool of the sauce.
Once the broth is cool, pour it into a colander balanced safely over a large jug or bowl. Discard the vegetables and herbs, and let the broth cool down before refrigerating.
A vibrant green sauce
a large bunch of flat-leafed parsley
a small bunch of mint
3-6 anchovy fillets
2-3 tbsps capers
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
the juice of half a lemon
Pull the parsley leaves from their stalks and put them in a blender or food processor with the leaves from the mint, the anchovies, capers and the mustard. Switch on the blender, then while the blade is going round, pour in the olive oil. You will need enough to make a thick, lumpy slush, so start with about 6 big glugs.
I think some texture is good here.
Taste the sauce and add enough of the lemon juice to give it some bite. The sauce must be lively and robust.
A good variation on this sauce is to use brine-bottled peppercorns instead of anchovies. Rinse them thoroughly before you add them. They give a hot, aromatic edge to the sauce.
Chicken broth with lemon grass and mint
I sometimes wonder what I would do without noodle soups. There are few dishes that manage so successfully to soothe and stimulate all at once. The deep bowls of warm broth are hugely sustaining, and the hit of chilli and mint invigorating. The basic seasonings are fish sauce, ginger and chilli - the rest is very much up to you. I always tend to include mint and coriander, lime leaves and lemon grass as well if there are some around, but the chicken may well stand aside for a handful of large prawns or pieces of grilled fish such as red mullet. Noodles are not a given - sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Serves 2.
a handful of thin, dried noodles
a litre of chicken stock
6 slices of ginger as thick as a £1 coin
2 small red chillies
2 stalks of lemon grass
4 lime leaves
the juice of two limes
1 tbsp fish sauce
200g cooked chicken
Drop the noodles into boiling water, simmer till tender, then drain and cover with cold water. Thin noodles can take 30 seconds to cook, fatter ones may take a couple of minutes.
Bring the chicken broth to the boil in a deep pan. While this is happening, cut the ginger into shreds thinner than matchsticks. Halve the chillies down their length. Discard the seeds, then chop the flesh finely. Discard the outer leaves of the lemon grass, then cut the tender inner flesh into fine rings. Shred the lime leaves very finely.
Tip all the chopped aromatics into the stock and then add the lime juice and fish sauce. Cut the chicken into short, thick pieces and add to the stock. Simmer for 5-7 minutes.
Remove the mint and coriander leaves from their stems, divide them between two deep soup bowls, add the drained noodles then ladle the soup over them.