Cooking a whole bird in a pot of water will supply you with a whole week’s worth of meals. It’s one of the most affordable ways of eating quality, well-reared meat, and a method that although sounds weird, pops up in traditional peasant cooking everywhere, from France to China. My mum tells me that this is what her own mother would do when she got hold of an old well-cared for farm hen. Poulet au riz would be the result – tender chunks of chicken would come out of a pot of simmering broth, that would then be used to create a mushroom sauce. It’d all come to the table with mounds of white rice. When you google it, the pictures look pretty gross I admit, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage how good French-style chicken and rice would be.
When you look at other age-old chicken recipes, it becomes obvious that just a couple of generations ago, using the whole bird was just a given. This was before the days you could buy a bargain pack of chicken breasts for a couple of quid. Meat was a rare treat, and something to be enjoyed only on Sundays. When you really think about it, that makes total sense – rearing an animal should surely come at a valued price tag, worthy of the time, effort and resources it takes to birth, feed, look after and finally slaughter a living animal. Somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten that.
When buying meat, I’ll spend the extra dollar. A free-range farmer’s market chicken must be better than a factory-farmed supermarket bird, right? Surely, buying meat from someone who cares about how his animals were raised is important. Your money is going towards a better, fairer, more humane system. There is no doubt. Aside from environmental or ethical factors, though, a happier hen creates better tasting meat. And that can only be a good thing.
Spending £12 on a chicken is enough to make me use every last morsel, and that means poaching it. This will give you deliciously flavoured stock that can form the base of many a meal in the week to follow. Think, slurping bowls of noodles, spring broths with fresh peas and broad beans, chicken risotto, chicken soup… I’ve written about making use of your cooking liquid before (with these beans in fact), and poaching a chicken follows the same principle – much like any cooking that values food and wastes nothing, these are meals that topple into one another, often ending where another can lift off.
The ingredients you use to make chicken stock can change, depending where you are, but generally it follows the same rules – a few vegetables or their trimmings, a couple of garlic cloves, some herb stalks, a few peppercorns, a bay leaf here or there. I’ve gone down the Asian route here with spring onions and ginger, a few pierced chillies, a stalk of lemongrass and star anise (if you’ve got it). And the chicken obviously.
This will form the basis of my dinner; Hainanese chicken. Which is essentially Malaysian/Singaporean chicken and rice. It’s a brilliantly economical dish – the chicken is brought to a fierce simmer for 10 minutes, then left off the heat (covered) for almost an hour to cook in the residual heat. The stock is then used to cook the rice, which sucks in all that juicy, chickeny flavour. To be honest, I can eat the chicken and rice just like that in all it’s beige glory, but the condiments really make it great. A quick onion pickle, fresh chilli, spring onion and coriander, soy sauce and grated ginger will lift it to life. I don’t like really spicy food, but if you do, try Ottolenghi’s chilli sauce.
You’ll likely have some chicken stock leftover, so freeze it in batches or season it with soy, fish sauce and lime juice and serve as a broth, with noodles, leftover shredded chicken, coriander and chilli added to it. It’s great.
Hainanese chicken & rice
For the chicken & stock
100g fresh ginger
4 cloves of garlic
3 fresh red chillies
6 spring onions
1 small bunch of fresh coriander
optional: 1 stalk of lemongrass
optional: 2 star anise
1 red onion
1.5kg whole free-range chicken
For the rice
1 clove of garlic
2cm piece of ginger
vegetable or sesame oil
480g long-grain or jasmine rice
For the condiments
3cm piece of ginger
white wine or cider vinegar
1 small cucumber
1 fresh red chilli
To cook the chicken, fill a large pan with cold water and place over a high heat. Slice the unpeeled ginger, bash the garlic and pierce the chillies. Slice off the green part of the spring onions, pick the coriander leaves and set both aside for later. Add the chillies, garlic, white part of the spring onions and most of the ginger and coriander stalks to the pan. Bash and add the lemongrass along with the star anise, if you have them – otherwise, don’t worry. Halve the red onion, add half to the pan, then save the rest for later.
Stuff the chicken cavity with the remaining coriander stalks and ginger. Once the water is boiling, add the chicken, breast-side down, so it’s completely submerged in the liquid (if you have the giblets, add these too, but make sure you spoon away any scum that rises to the surface). Bring it back to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and set aside for around 50 minutes, or until cooked through.
Meanwhile, prepare your condiments. Peel and finely grate the ginger into a bowl. Mix in a good splash of soy sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil and the juice from ½ a lime. Have a taste, adding a little more soy, oil or lime juice to get just the right amount of tang. Peel and very finely slice the remaining red onion (use a mandolin if you have one), add to a bowl with a good splash of vinegar and a few pinches of sea salt, then scrunch together and set aside for a nice pickle. Slice the cucumber into matchsticks. Finely slice the chilli and the reserved spring onion.
Once cooked, remove the chicken to a board, then sieve the stock into another pan and keep over a low heat. To make the rice, peel and finely chop or grate the garlic and ginger, then add to a medium pan with a splash of oil. Fry for 2 minutes, add the rice and stir continuously for 4 minutes, adding a splash of stock if it starts sticking. Pour in 900ml of the stock, bring to the boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook until tender.
Meanwhile, carve or shred the meat and drizzle over a little soy and sesame oil. Spoon the rice onto plates, pile the chicken on top, then serve with the onion pickle, grated ginger, soy sauce, coriander leaves, sliced chilli and spring onion and the lime wedges.
All images in this post were taken by my pal and super excellent photographer, Joe Sarah. Check out his website here