Sunday, 6 April 2008

Free-range chicken roast and pilafi rice (Χωριάτικο κοτόπουλο κρασσάτο με πιλάφι)

Cooking for a lot of people, all with different tastes, is a time-consuming challenge, especially when the cooking method is demanding or unusual; for example, more than one pot is required, the ingredients need special care, the cook isn't experienced. Sunday is always one of those days when cooking is a challenge; the question of what will be cooked on Sunday is always discussed on Friday evening, in time to visit the butcher on Saturday morning. There is a lot of negotiating involved in Sunday's meal: after deciding what meat (always on a Sunday, not much likely on a weekday) will be cooked - the choice is usually among chicken, goat, sheep, pork or beef - there follows a briefing of the dining preferences of the eaters with a short barrage of questions to the cook, to ensure that the desired menu is within her culinary knowledge. Alternative options are suggested if the cooking method is beyond the skills of the chef.

Today's meal shouldn't have turned out so well. On the menu is free-range fatty chicken, not the kind that goes for 2 chickens for 5 euro - the kind that cost 5 euro per kilo of chicken. It was a beautiful looking yellow bird, covered in fat, the kind that makes scrumptious wedding-style pilafi rice. Pilafi is made by using the fatty stock that the chicken was boiled in. But nobody wants to eat plain boiled chicken afterwards, even if they do like to eat plain pilafi. I had to devise a way to cook the chicken so that we could all have the cake (ie the pilafi rice) and eat it too (ie make sure the chicken gets eaten and doesn't have to be turned into chicken pie).

A suggestion was made about cooking the par-boiled chicken with a recipe we had once used as newlyweds - an oven casserole, with mushrooms in the oven topped with feta cheese; the chicken needed to be browned in the pan, then added to a thick red mushroom sauce stewing away in a pot, after which it was put in the oven to cook away, the grand finale being feta cheese crumbled over it for the last fifteen minutes of cooking time. Although it sounded complicated, it didn't sound unusually illogical, so I took it up. First mistake. "Have you still got the recipe?" Who needs recipes when the internet offers endless possibilities for recipe creation? I decided to google it instead. After checking the first 20 'chicken feta' recipes, I realised that none matched the recipe my husband remembered, which annoys me greatly; if someone can remember the recipe, why don't they cook it themselves?

In any case, this chicken had to dealt with, so I decided to pull out a coq au vin recipe which usually requires browning chicken pieces, adding vegetables, and finishing off the cooking in the oven. I printed out the recipe and decided to start it on Saturday night, to give the chicken a chance to marinate in wine, as the recipe stated. Second mistake. I usually cook when my husband is at work during the day. He came into the kitchen just as I had just finished browning the chicken pieces. "Aren't these pieces just a little too big?" he asked helpfully. I suppose he was worried they may not cook well enough for the fussy eaters in our house. He helped me to cut them into smaller bits. To my delight, the knife went through the meat like a loaf of sourdough bread. It wouldn't need too much cooking time in the oven, always a problem with free-range roast chicken.

The recipe called for pearl onions, the kind used in Greek stifado. When I don't have any, I just use ordinary onions, with a small cross-slit on their root side to make sure that they cook right through without falling apart. "Are you going to leave the onions whole? I've never eaten chicken with whole onions before," said the gourmet in a worried tone of voice. Not wanting to upset Mr Gourmet, I cut them in half, which of course, I knew was a (third) mistake, since most of them started falling apart the moment I placed them in the pot.

Chunky fresh cap mushrooms look beautiful, like a forest floor scattered with dry brown leaves, I thought, as I was browning them in a saucepan. "You didn't cut those, either?" exclaimed my husband, his face now showing anxiety. I won't say it was my fourth mistake when I cut them into smaller bits, making them look like pizza topping. I suppose they would disintegrate in the casserole. Tant pis, as the French would say.

After placing the chicken in a pot with the wine and seasonings, I suddenly realised that the mushrooms and onions, according to the recipe, were not supposed to go into the marinade together with the chicken. Had I tossed them in, I would've made my fifth mistake, which I had already made, in any case, by not reading the whole recipe before starting to cook. The whole charade reminded me of Ruth Rendell's A Judgment in Stone, in which the characters were doomed to die through all their careless (or overcareful) actions and reactions to the antics of their hired housekeeper.

The next day, there was no one to watch over me while I continued the cooking process. I threw away the recipe, placed the chicken in an oven dish with the onions and mushrooms, added some seasonings and a little olive oil (to replace the lost fat which was in the pilafi stock), and heated up the oven to get it going. The result was a beautiful wintery meal that matched the dull weather of the day. The mushrooms and onions gave the sauce a dark English-gravy look, a suitable liquid to drizzle over the pilafi. The vegetables were crunchy rather than mushy - my only regret is not adding any bell peppers. The chicken was aromatic and tender. Margaret was thrilled to be eating mushrooms in a roast, a popular vegetable in her homeland). As for that pilafi, it'll be remembered for a long time. Fat-covered chicken is the best way to make this traditional rice dish dish from Crete.

The moral of the story is: When preparing gourmet meals, cook behind closed doors. All's well that ends well. At least I wasn't doomed, like the characters in the book.

You need:
1 large free-range chicken, covered in yellow skin, with pockets of fat
30 pearl onions (or 15 large onions), peeled, with a cross shape cut on the root side
20 large mushrooms 'cap' mushrooms (pleurotus types would also work), cut in large chunks
2 large bell peppers (preferably red and yellow, to enhance the decor) cut into large chunks
1 glass of wine
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
3 cloves of garlic, sliced into large chunks
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of thyme
salt and pepper
a little olive oil

To make the stock:
Boil the chicken in a large pot for about 15 minutes. The fat will melt, and you will be left with a very an oily stock, and par-boiled fat-reduced chicken. With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken form the stock and place onto a frying pan. Strain the stock into another pot (by this time, the kitchen sink will not be able to hold any more dirty pots and pans!) CUP BY CUP; you need to know exactly how much stock you have. Place the pot with the stock in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook the rice.

To prepare the chicken and vegetables:
Without adding any oil, brown the chicken on both sides, to give it a slightly scorched look. You may have to do this in two stages if the chicken is very large. When the chicken is ready, remove it and place it in a pot with the tomato paste mixed in with the wine, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Cover the pot and place it in the refrigerator overnight, or at least for a few hours for the marinade to seep into the chicken.

In the same pan that was used to brown the chicken, without adding any oil, brown the onions whole. If they are large, they can be cut in half and browned on the cut side. Pearl onions fare better, as they don't break up so easily, but I found that neither the large onions broke up. When they are done, put them into the baking tin that is going to be used for next day's roast. Then do the same with the onions (and pepper, if using). These may need a little oiling; the grease in the pan will have been used up the onions. Place them with the onions when they are done, and store them in the fridge until it's time to cook the chicken.

When you are ready to cook the roast, strain the chicken and place it in the baking tin with the vegetables. Strain the marinade and pour about half of it into the baking dish. Drizzle everything with olive oil. Add a final shake of salt and pepper, and place the tin in a moderate-high oven to allow the chicken to cook and take on a golden colour. The cooking time depends on the chicken; ours needed two hours from the time the oven was turned on to bake to tender golden perfection.

To make the pilafi rice you need:
chicken stock
long-grain rice
the juice of one lemon
Warm up the measured chicken stock so that the curdled fat sitting on top melts. This is the essence of pilafi: the fat is not discarded. Set it to boil, adding salt to taste. The amount of stock that you have will determine how much rice will be used: for each wine glass of rice (which is equal to one serving of cooked rice), 3 wine glasses of stock are needed to cook it in. If the stock is not enough for your eaters, add more water. If it is too much, you will not use it all. As an experienced cook, I used 3 large cups of rice, enough for 9-10 servings of pilafi. Pilafi rice heats up well the next day, although the taste is not the same as freshly cooked pilafi, so you don't really want too much left over. When the rice is done, it should NOT be bathing in a lot of liquid; the rice should be grainy, not soupy.

Wash the rice in a colander to get rid of excess starch (it make the rice sticky; good pilafi should be grainy). Pour it into the boiling stock. Now stand over the pot, and stir the rice every now and then to make sure it will not stick to the bottom of the pot, keeping the heat moderate to high. Don't over-stir, as the rice will then get mushy. From this point on, it will not take more than 15 minutes for the rice to be done. Add the lemon juice just before the rice is done. You will see the broth congealing, and it is at this point that you must decide when the rice is done to your liking. This dish needs a little practice to get the rice cooked well! If the rice tastes uncooked and it's starting to stick to the bottom of the pot, add some more water, and mix it in. If it's crunchy, it needs less cooking time; if it's grainy, it needs more cooking time. Do not let it go mushy.

Pilafi rice needs to be served immediately. This is why many Cretan hosts wait until the final guest walks through the door before they start cooking it. Now you know why they eat so late; it's all their guests' fault! Serve the rice topped with the chicken, vegetables and sauce; a green salad complements the colours of this meal. We also had it with a good beer. Everyone had a bit of everything, and the cook was complimented on her versatility. As for the feta cheese, the chicken didn't really need it.

This dish sounds a little complicated. That's why we cooked it on a Sunday; never never on a weekday. If you don't eat a lot of meat during the week, you will savour this meal, which may seem a little heavy fat-wise. Keep in mind that the chicken stock does not have to be turned into pilafi on the same day that you serve the chicken; it can be kept for another meal, or turned into soup (with the fat skimmed off). If you boiled free-range chicken just to make pilafi, a fantastic way to use up the boiled chicken that nobody wants to eat is to make a chicken pie.

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