Rachel Roddy’s citrus chicken
In January, my appetite seems to turn inwards, away from any sort of deprivation, looking for comfort and a buffer against a cold, dark world. These first weeks of the year call for soups, broths and pastas, mashes, beans and braises, while at the same time demanding brightness, whether that be in the form of crunch or acid tang.
The best description of such brightness I know comes in Claudia Roden’s introduction to her Book of Middle Eastern Food. She writes of eating a weekly meal of ful medames when she was a schoolgirl in Paris. She describes how every Sunday, along with her cousins and brothers, she would visit relatives. They would each ceremoniously prepare their own plate of this traditional Egyptian dish, sprinkling the fava beans with olive oil and seasoning, squeezing over lemon, then placing a hot hardboiled egg in their midst. “Delicious ecstasy” is how she describes it, the beans’ earthy taste meeting the acid tang of the lemon, mellowed by the oil and the crumbling egg, a warm yellow among the brown. She also describes how in Paris, ful medames – considered a poor man’s dish in Egypt – became invested with all the glories and warmth of Cairo, her home town and the embodiment of all that for which they were homesick.
It has been more than 20 years since I first read this passage (which is still the richest introduction to any food book I own), but I can still remember thinking it was the first book to put an idea into words for me, that food and flavour are a repository for feeling and memory. Cairo and Roden’s ful medames were thousands of miles from my Hertfordshire and Lancashire pub childhood – a place I was more likely to evoke with a bacon sandwich and a pint or a slice of malt loaf. Yet, away from home myself, I could identify with her longing. Her idea that a bite of something could conjure up another place or time resonated.
Whether I made a bacon sandwich or bought a loaf of Soreen, I don’t remember. I do, however, remember making a Camden Town attempt at ful medames: white beans with olive oil, salt and pepper, a hardboiled egg and a squeeze of lemon. I had to run to the cornershop to buy the lemon. Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t know the power that a few drops (or a half moon in a gin and tonic) might wield, but Roden’s “acid tang” summed up well the idea that a few drops of juice, were a sort of culinary highlighter pen reinforcing other flavours – in this case, the beans and the crumbling yellow yolk, to be eaten looking out of the window of a flat in north London that rattled every time a train passed.
January is, of course, a good time for acid tang as lemons are at their best and most abundant from now until March. I am reminded of this every day as I walk my son to school past the dozens of lemon trees rooted in the gardens on Rome’s Aventine Hill, their leaves defiantly green, branches laden with fruit filled with liquid sunshine to be squeezed on to whatever is on your plate – beans and egg, salad, a ring of calamari or a piece of fish – or today’s chicken and potatoes.
In this recipe, there are also anchovies (which melt obediently into the oily foundations, serving as the great seasoner), garlic, strident rosemary and chilli. And these are all drowned in wine like a ringmaster taming the strong personalities into a rich and silken gravy.
Whether or not it is delicious ecstasy, it is certainly a dish invested with some everyday glories, steady comfort and deep bright flavour.
Chicken with potatoes, anchovy, rosemary and lemon
I usually begin cooking this dish on the stove top and finish it in the oven, but you could do it all on the hob. However you choose to proceed, the cooking should result in tender pieces of chicken in a pool of concentrated sauce, its crown as golden as syrup.
4 tbsp olive oil
1 chicken – about 1.5kg – jointed into
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 6 anchovy fillets
A sprig of fresh rosemary
A pinch of dried red chilli
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
Salt and black pepper
1kg potatoes, peeled and cut into
250ml dry white wine
1 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. In an ovenproof frying pan or casserole large enough to accommodate the chicken and potatoes in a single layer, warm the olive oil and then brown the chicken on all sides, starting skin-side down. Once browned, lift the chicken on to a warm plate.
2 In the remaining oil and chicken fat (pour some away if you feel there is too much), gently fry the garlic and anchovies over a low heat, nudging them with a wooden spoon so they disintegrate into the fat. Add the rosemary – keeping the sprig whole for a gentler flavour, or chopping it for a stronger one. Add the chilli, lemon zest, salt and black pepper, and stir.
3 Add the potato wedges to the pan and stir again until each is glistening with the oil.
4 Return the chicken to the pan (it might be a squash, but the ingredients should all shrink during cooking). Pour over the wine and allow to bubble on the stove top for 10 minutes before putting the whole lot in the oven for 40-50 minutes, basting every 15 minutes or so and squeezing over some lemon juice during the last 10 minutes of cooking. By the end of it, the bottom of the chicken and potatoes should be tender, surrounded by lots of oily gravy, and the top golden.
he idea that a bite of something could conjure up another place or time resonated