Matt Preston has hatched new ways to make the most of everyone’s @mattscravat @Mattscravat
CHICKEN is to the kitchen what canvas is to the painter. It’s just a matter of you deciding what flavours you want to paint with. The warm spices of India? The mellow richness of France? Or the technicolour vibrancy of Mexico? You see, this wonderful bird is as equally at home thrumming the tabla, singing a torch song or shaking the maracas.
Just remember the three basic rules of chicken. Don’t overcook it. Don’t undercook it. And buy the best chicken you can. (Shakespeare would advise you to pick short-legged hens – he claimed they tasted better, but I’m not sure how relevant this is today.) Here are five new ways I’ve added to my palette.
At my place, wings often end up in a sticky marinade or slow-cooked in my ridiculously ruinous Coca- Cola bath that has more sugar in it than Bundaberg. Lately, I’ve been browning them in the oven in a sparse dry rub of cinnamon, cumin and a little Sichuan pepper, then stir-frying them with loads of shiitake, chestnut and oyster mushrooms, halved baby corn, peanuts and roasted dry red chillies. To finish, I toss the mix with Chinese wine, a little sugar, cornflour and vinegar (black if you’ve got it), garnish it with spring onions, toasted peanuts, and a spritz of sesame oil and serve it with steamed rice and a bowl for the bones.
I was amazed that the simple act of brining a flattened chicken breast in a five per cent salt-water solution was enough to make Gina Ottaway’s chicken schnitzel one of my favourite dishes on Masterchef this year. Leave the breasts in the brine for at least 20 minutes to drive in the extra moisture and seasoning. Then pat them dry and crumb them as usual. Fry them in hot oil until just cooked through and rest them for a few minutes. Play with your crumbing mixture and flavourings – though I have to admit I usually just go for parmesan, thyme and a little lemon zest.
Usually I marinate and barbecue thighs or toss them in a tray bake. More interesting, however, is to use them in your favourite butter chicken recipe and then use that as the filling for a flaky-pastry pie. To make the butter chicken more authentic, smoke the meat before browning it – in a covered barbie with some damp hickory chips, say, or add a few drops of liquid smoke to the finished curry. If you don’t have a favourite butter chicken recipe you’ll find one at delicious.com.au.
Chicken mince is a staple at my place – in a nifty Bolognese, a meatloaf, or for meatballs to toss with satay sauce. More adventurous and just as easy is the poetically named Sichuan dish ma yi shang shu, or ants climbing a tree, where nuggets of mince dotting cellophane noodles mimic ants scurrying on twigs. It’s usually made with pork mince, but chicken mince works just as well. Once I’ve cooked the savoury mince I toss it with blistered green beans or snake beans rather than the usual noodles or vermicelli. I blister the blanched beans in a very hot wok, then toss in a solution of palm sugar and fish sauce. Meanwhile, I fry 500 grams of chicken
mince with four crushed garlic cloves, a long finger of turmeric (grated), thumb of ginger (also grated), and four diced shallots. At the end I throw in coins of spring onion, diced red chilli, bean shoots, and dill. This all gets tossed over the beans, topped with fresh coriander and dressed with a green nam prik, a Thai chilli and lime sauce.
There’s something so magnificent about a whole roast chicken that I find it hard to treat it any other way. I suppose I might split or spatchcock the bird and perhaps then roast it on a raft of celery or in a bed of buttery spiced rice, but more exciting is to find something super-tasty to pimp up the gravy.
I feel guilty about throwing away all that rendered chicken fat to get to the prized juices for the sauce. How much better, then, to turn it into a salty caramel to drizzle over the golden bird. Yes, it’s a wee bit radical but delicious, especially if you serve the chicken with maple-roasted corn, crushed pecans, mashed potatoes and peas. Making the caramel is simple: melt down sugar until it’s just amber, then hit it (warily) with a drizzle of the chicken fat and pan juices. Beat it well. You can flavour it with sliced seeded red chillies and fish sauce, or ground white pepper and a little salt. It’s a little wack but fun.
If you’re brining a whole bird for roasting, step up the solution by adding more salt, an equal amount of sugar and flavourings like peppercorns, crushed bay leaves, crushed coriander seeds or herbs like thyme, tarragon or smashed garlic cloves. For this fancier brine you’ll need to gently heat the water to infuse the flavours and dissolve the sugar. Because it needs to be cooled, just heat half the required quantity of water for the infusion, then add the rest as ice cubes to cool everything down.