Monday, 14 March 2011

The chicken and the egg

So you've all heard the saying which came first....

But in the kitchen these two ingredients are the base of so many nutritious, economical and healthy meals and snacks. For both these items I really really would urge you to buy as high a quality as possible- free range or organic. Not only can you really taste it, you are also doing your bit for animal welfare in promoting higher standard of living for the birds.

Eggs are sooooo versatile and I always make sure I have a dozen in my kitchen. From puddings to cakes, from omelettes to pancakes, french toast to eggs benedict, custard to meringues they have so many uses in both sweet and savoury dishes. 
There are too many egg recipes for me to discuss them all in one go but I will start with the easiest- a quick and easy meal is soft scrambled eggs on toast. The best way to make this is to not whisk them first before putting them in a pan. Instead break two eggs per person in a heavy based pan break and add a good spoonful of butter (you can cut this out if you are calorie counting and have a good non-stick pan- in which case use spray oil to lightly grease the pan). Alternatively if you are feeling very indulgent you can add a dollop of double cream before cooking to make it extra creamy. Put on a low heat and continue whisking until the eggs start to firm up. You want to take them off the heat while they are still slightly runny since they will continue cooking in the pan. Serve immediately over fresh bread or toast. I love using fresh bread straight out of the breadmaker but that is a whole entry in itself so I will come back to that another day. For an extra special treat top with strips of smoked salmon.

Another easy and very adaptable meal is french toast sandwiches. These can be done with bread (and you can use cutters to do interesting shapes for encouraging those fussy eaters!) but I discovered that using flatbreads is great for this recipe. Basically you get a flatbread (the round flat "pancakes" that you use to make tortillas) and spread over whatever filling you want- think sandwich fillings- cheese, sliced meats, thinkly sliced tomatoes etc... or for more of a treat chocolate spread (or chunks of chocolate broken up and scattered over the bread), peanut butter, jam. Whatever takes your fancy. Try and keep the filling fairly thin so that you can fold the bread in half quite easily and press down around the edges. Cut in half and dip in whisked egg (again you can add milk or cream to the mixture depending on your taste). Fry these quarters (if you are being calorie conscious use spray oil in a non-stick pan) quickly over a medium heat until they turn golden (turning a couple of times). They will slightly puff up. Drain on kitchen paper if you fried in oil and serve. Great for a quick kid's after school tea- I can get a batch on the table in under 5 minutes which is great when I have little girls screaming at me that they are hungry!

Now moving from the egg to a chicken- this is a bird that is under-used on so many levels. People still buy portions of chicken when it is so much cheaper to buy a whole bird that can be used for several meals. Breast of chicken is still the most popular cut but can be quite dry in certain dishes and is much more expensive than some of the other portions. Preparation can be as minimal as you like- sling it in a roasting tray on some sliced onions, drizzle with some olive oil and lemon juice and chuck in some whole cloves of garlic. Pour over a good glass of wine, season and then top the chicken with a good drizzle of maple syrup which really crisps the skin up beautifully. A good size bird will feed a family of four for sunday lunch and usually leave enough for sandwiches the next day or to toss in a salad/ rissotto/ soup. 

Don't forget to always rest a roast for a good 30 minutes in a warm place when cooked to allow the juices to seap back in and moisten the meat. Any juices left at the end of this time on the resting plate can be added to your gravy for extra taste.

To make life easier I find a good electric carving knife makes is a must. You don't need to spend a fortune- something like a Kenwood carving knife is around £10-£15 and can also be used for cutting bread.

Another way to cook a whole chicken that is very easy and quick is to braise it. Gently heat 3 tbsp of vegetable oil and 1tsbp of sesame oil (if you don't have this just add a bit more vegetable oil) in a large wok with 2 tbsp soft brown sugar until the sugar caramalises. Add a whole chicken (I've used a 1.5 kg chicken normall) to the wok and turn over so it is covered by all the juices and then add two crushed cloves of garlic, 1 chopped red chilli, 1 tbsp grated ginger, one chopped small onion and 150ml water. Put a lid on and allow to simmer for around an hour turning occasionally. When it is ready put the bird to rest on a plate and reduce the sauce. Serve the chicken with the sauce and rice.

Never throw away the carcass of the bird- chuck it in a casserole dish with a couple of chopped leeks, carrots, celery sticks and a potato. Add a handful of peppercorns, a bouquet garni, a good squirt of tomato puree and fill the pot with cold water until it is three quarters full. Bring to boiling and simmer for about 2 hours. Sieve it into a bowl and leave to cool. Skim any fat off the top and you have the most glorious chicken stock for soups, rissottos etc... If you want to make some chicken stock but aren't planning a roast then go to your local butcher- most with give you a chicken carcass for little or no money.

I LOVE my Le Creuset Casserole dish and it really will last so I feel it is worth the money. If it is beyond your budget any large heavy dish will be just as good so do shop around for alternatives.

Last night I used the stock I made in the afternoon to make a spicy chicken and vegetable soup. I chopped into bite sized pieces carrots, celery, courgette, a leek, a handful of shallots, some garlic and jalapeno peppers and half a red chilli and a spoonful of grated ginger and flash fried in a bit of oil for a couple of minutes (I usually rince out the pan I made the stock in and make the soup in that).  Rinse some dried lentils (about a cup full) and add them to the pot giving them a quick stir in the oil in the pan. They add some depth and bulk to the soup and are really good for you. I let it simmer for 30 minutes and then added some single cream (though you can leave this out). I also added the remaining shredded chicken meat from the roast I had done earlier in the day. Depending on how chunky you like the soup you can leave it like this or puree it right down or give it a quick whizz with a hand blender just to bring it all together though still leaving some good size chunks. If you want some more bulk add tiny soup pasta shapes (after pureeing if you are going to do that) or dumplings or croutons. Or serve with some fresh warm bread. I like doing this on a Sunday night since it feels wholesome and filling and makes up for any over-indulgences from the weekend!

Til soon....

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