Next time you enjoy a night out at a restaurant, take a minute to examine the
menu a little closer than you perhaps normally would. Ever heard of a safety net dish? This little number is the item on a menu specifically devised for timorous and unadventurous diners. Can you spot the safety dish on a menu? If you are having a bit of trouble, then here is the big hint – look for chicken. Devising chicken dishes for a menu can be a bit of a minefield at times. On one hand, plenty of diners tend to ignore chicken when they are out because they cook so much of it at home - and when you are out, well... you want to try something you wouldn't normally make yourself. Conversely, there are some diners who automatically opt for chicken because they see it as safe and low risk. Daunting surprises are not normally found in a chicken dinner. This means it is a brave menu writer indeed that leaves chicken off the list.
This particular dish strikes the perfect balance between these two extremes, on several levels. The addition of a tangy sage and hazelnut dressing invites enough interest to the plate, that jaded diners won't see it as plain and everyday. But there is still a safety net. The whole concept of roast chicken with a rich, onion-based stuffing is familiar enough that those timid punters won't feel too daunted to order it. And still the plot thickens. While this recipe has enough zing in presentation and interesting ingredients to make it worthy of a big-night-out meal, it's also so simple to prepare and so redolent of comfort-food cachet that making it at home is a breeze as well as a delight. I really do dig it a lot.
Perhaps I should also elaborate on the use of the word “quick” in the title. I've already posted a recipe for whole roast chicken, and by quick, I'm not simply implying blasting the oven up to the highest temperature so the bird cooks real damn quick. No – by quick I'm referring to rapid-cooking cuts of chicken. Instead of the whole bird, it is single pieces that are roasted. At the restaurant we use chicken breast, but there are other options as well – a topic I will expand on a little later. Whereas a whole chicken will take anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour's roasting time depending on size, these smaller individual portions of chicken will cook in as little as 12 minutes for breasts – and only a little more than that for legs and thighs.
But this surely now is more than enough of dry logistics and poultry minutiae. Let's move onto what you really came to hear – how the whole production will taste. The term stuffing is oft-abused, and to be frank, is not really appropriate in this case. Think of it here as more like a rich, creamy sauce, heady with onion, garlic, lemon and herbs. This “sauce” is bound with diced bread til it has a spoonable consistency and is heaped under the chicken skin before roasting. A wonderful dichotomy then occurs. The bread helps the filling firm up as it cooks so it holds its shape together under the skin. However, at the same time the infused cream softens the mixture ever so gently, mingling with the flavour-packed juices that run out of the chook as it cooks. If this sounds good, then wait til you try the dressing. Sweet, cultured butter is gently browned with garlic, sage and crushed hazelnuts. Into the pot goes a splash of wine vinegar and all the juices left over from the roasted chicken. It is at once rich with butter, zesty with vinegar, all punctuated with sage and addictive hazelnuts. As a final flourish, a single, thin, super-crisp slice of bacon tops it all off. It may seem superfluous, but bacon is a classic combo with chicken, and its delicious smoky taste really zips up all these diverse elements into one seamless package. Wanna try? Then press on.
Let me give you a little advice on exactly what chicken pieces to shop for. Obviously, if you choose to make the stuffing (it *is* optional) you will need to buy chicken pieces with the skin still on. The best cut for this job is a boneless chicken breast with skin on, along with half of the wing bone still attached. These are variously known as chicken Kievs, or chicken supremes, and while they are aren't common, going the extra mile to search them out will make all the difference to the final result. Try ordering them in advance from a good butcher or poultry supplier. Another option is the leg and thigh, still on the bone, and with the skin intact. This cut is sometimes sold as Maryland and should be much easier to find than the supremes I mention above. A final possibility is simply to use chicken legs - drumsticks, on the bone and with skin. In this case, serve 2 legs per person rather than a single supreme or Maryland. If you can't find, or don't want chicken with the skin on – simply cook skinless fillets and forget the stuffing. Use the hazelnut and sage dressing along with a thatch of bouncy watercress for a no-brainer, delicious mid-week meal.
And finally, but by no means less importantly, if you want this dish to be as sublime as it can damn well get, you simply have to buy great chicken. How you ask? Well, avoid the supermarket for a start. Try a real butcher, or even better, a dedicated poultry vendor. Ask for free range or open range chicken that is preferably free of hormones and antibiotics. Sure, it may give you the warm fuzzies to know that the chicken had a happy, stress-free existence, but really – get some perspective. You are about to stick a fork into the damn bird. The least you can do is buy sensational quality chicken that tastes amazing, and cook it with patient care - which is about the noblest homage you can pay to your recently departed feathered friend. A word on corn-fed chook. Don't. These are often simply lo-fi battery hens that some schmoe paints yellow before they stick 'em in the display window.
Start by making the stuffing. Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan until it is bubbling, but not browned, then add the onion and garlic. Add a good pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat for 7 or 8 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft. Don't allow to brown – adding the salt at the start will help prevent colouring. Add the lemon rind, parsley and cream and bring to the simmer. Season well with cracked black pepper and cook gently for 10 minutes. Do not allow the cream to thicken too much – if it is bubbling strenuously, turn down the heat. Add the bread, stir well, and remove from the stove. The bread should soak up all the cream, leaving the mixture quite dense and solid. A spooning texture. Set the stuffing aside and allow to cool completely. You can complete up to this step well ahead of time. Simply refrigerate the stuffing, well covered, for up to 4 or 5 days.
When it comes time to dine, heat your oven to 220 °C (440 °F). Place the chicken supremes on a chopping board and gently work the skin away from the flesh. Lift back the skin so the meat is exposed, leaving it still attached at one side. Spoon 2 or 3 tablespoons of the stuffing onto the top of the chicken breast and spread lightly across the surface. Fold the skin over so the stuffing is totally enclosed, pressing down to make a tight seal. If you are using Marylands or drumsticks, ease the skin away from the flesh, then poke 2 tablespoons or so of the stuffing under the skin with your poking finger. Try not to enjoy this step too much. Continue until all the chicken is well and truly stuffed.
Heat a large fry pan or saute pan (non-stick is good) to medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Season the skin of the chook with a decent amount of salt and pepper, then gently place skin side down into the fry pan. Cook for a few minutes, until the skin is nicely browned and is beginning to crisp up. Turn the chicken over, then place in the oven. If your fry pan is heat proof, simply throw the whole shebang in. Otherwise, transfer the chicken to a baking tray. Cook the supremes for 10 - 12 minutes, then test if they are done. The best way to do this is to squeeze the sides with your fingers. If they feel soft, floppy and raw, then they are gonna need a few minutes more. If they are very firm – like the feeling of the tip of your finger pressing the top of your wrist – then you've cooked them too much and they'll be dry and stringy. The sweet spot when they are just right is indicated by a springy, soft give – one that bounces back into shape after you move your fingers away. Try pressing the fleshy section of your palm just under your thumb to get an idea of the texture you are looking for. When cooked, remove from the oven, cover loosely with aluminium foil and set aside in a warm spot to rest.
If using Marylands or drumsticks, follow the above instructions, but roast for 20 – 25 minutes in the oven. To test if they are done, insert a skewer into the thickest part of the leg. Pull the skewer out and wait for the juices to bubble up to the surface. If the juices are clear, they're done. Any trace of pink or red juices and they'll need a few more minutes. When cooked, cover and set aside to rest as outlined above. Resting the meat like this allows the juices forced away from the surface during cooking to redistribute evenly back through the flesh. If you cut the chicken straight out of the oven the juices will run all over the plate. Leave it rest for 10 minutes however, and those same juices will have distributed back throughout the flesh - resulting in moist, juicy chicken every time. Remember this as one of the key tips to meat cookery of all sorts. Rest the meat after you finish cooking - always.
Okay - as the chicken rests, move on and prepare the dressing. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the garlic, sage and hazelnuts. Season with a little salt and pepper. Cook over gentle heat for about 3 or 4 minutes, then splash in the vinegar. Remove from the heat, then pour in any juices that have seeped out of the chicken as it rested. Set aside to keep warm while you assemble the meal.
Grill or fry the bacon until nice and crisp. Divide the watercress between 4 warm plates. Slice the chicken breasts on an angle into 3 or 4 long slices and place on the watercress. If using drumsticks or the like, simply dump them onto the plate with as much ceremony and aplomb as you can muster. Warm the dressing a little, then drizzle over the chicken. Top each plate with a slice of bacon, and grind over a tycoon's share of black pepper.
Any rich, full-flavoured white wine will match the buttery, nutty extravagance inherent in this dish. Try a buxom, wooded chardonnay showing some malolactic influence to match the butteriness of the dressing. Just try to choose a chardy with a good acid backbone, otherwise the whole affair will be overwhelmingly heavy and mono-dimensional. On the other hand, if excitement and exotica is your more your bag, try a full, ripe viognier – one abundant in all the hallmarks of the grape – a deep, rich texture, bracing acidity, and decadent mixed orchard fruit flavours.