I have to confess to bad cooking sometimes. Kitchen disappointments are part of the daily learning curve. But this time I’m not taking the blame. The ingredients were as simple as the demands from them. More fool me, you will rightly say. I should have learned to avoid plastic chicken by now even in the vain belief that ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ would be useful descriptions. They were ‘finest’, ‘taste the difference’ or somesuch, I was in a hurry and it was already a late supper on a week night. The fact that it looked great is worse. The promise simply didn’t deliver. The chicken was tasteless and dry and the mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, toasted garlic and pinenuts made little difference to that. Most disturbing, the dish was swimming in water.
The only answer to buying chickens in this country is to spend your way out of trouble. In France or Spain you can buy a deliciously scrawny, corn fed fowl that has lived more than 40 days for next to nothing. In the local butchers you’ll find cockerels that have fought and clawed their way through months of dust fights and strutting. Their fat is yellow and they look old. By god, they taste good. Of chicken. Here in Scotland the best chickens for miles are those bred by Linda Dick. Praised by Nairn, Ramsay, Dickson Wright and Blumenthal. The flavour is, well, chickeney. Far more so than any of their miserable hybrid counterparts on the supermarket shelves. They are larger than their mainland continental relatives but not because they are pumped with water. These guys are hand fed in the fields by the zealous Dick family on their Peebles farm. Buying one will make a dent in your wallet but worth having chicken less often for all that. Mine come from Crombies in Edinburgh or the Knowles farm shop at East Linton.
Once you’ve finished licking your fingers after roast chicken, one of the delightful moments for any cook is making a stock. It’s a replenishing moment. Leftovers ethos at it’s best. Fast and easy is my style, preferring a light, golden stock. Throw everything remaining from the feast into the pan, including all the bits that have been chewed, sucked and scraped from every plate and any gravy, jelly and giblets. It’s done in 40mins simmering with nothing else added. Pop it in the freezer hot in those foil bags. Or if you let it cool the fat will harden on the surface. Scraped off it’s sumptuous for fried bread. Perfect for impromptu risotto. To me, this is the light chicken broth worth being ill in bed for.
If you’ve got the whole bird Hugh F-W throws in a bit of raw neck, wing or any other offal. Like Nigella’s this is a massive, power stock, where you need to add a beef shin, some vegetables like celeriac, onions, celery, carrots and several hours of skimming and straining. Constance Spry with her delightfully efficient view of the past, correctly states that nothing compares to a pot-au-feu bouillon; ‘It can be made twice a week for large houses’.
Today, I’m looking forward to lunch of soup from frozen stock and the rice left from last nights disappointment. Chop a little tarragon in and toasted ciabatta croutons soak up all that lovely fat on the surface.