The Hen and The Garden / Food & Drink
The first time I came into close contact with a chicken was in school. I can’t imagine this being possible now, but we’d been asked by our teacher to bring in a pet to share with the class. Many brought very portable pets: hamsters, mice, gerbils and the like. But one of the girls, who lived on a farm out in the rolling farmland that held both mystery and allure to me, brought a hen into school. The creature seemed huge, a live and significant presence in the hard environment of the classroom. Its ginger and russet-brown feathers formed a bouncy frame around its much slimmer form, like a slender body within the wire framed underskirt of a ball gown. Its alert black and amber eye keeping steady focus as it switched and changed the angle of its little head to take us all in, its comb and wattles trembling as it did so. As I held it in my arms it was warm and compliant, seemingly content and happy. Since then I’ve liked chickens and been curious about them.
Many phrases associated with chickens are negative, consider: “chicken brain”; “ chicken legs”; “as mad as a wet hen”; “chicken out”. But speak to anyone who keeps chickens themselves and they’ll trumpet their intelligence, their individual characters, and even their courage. A principled approach to rearing chickens for eggs and then meat (both from one bird could be the ideal ecologically responsible choice) can form an important element of an integrated mixed farming approach that is both viable and land-efficient. Chickens can exploit little niches of otherwise unused land and yield vital protein with much fewer resources than almost any other meat.
And the mouth-watering smell of a roasting chicken is enough to make a hungry man or woman cry.
Here, for the moment in summer when the garden is bursting with succulent new green vegetables, is a one-pan dish that celebrates both tender chicken and summer veggies. The mix of vegetables used suits those with their own garden, where each picked colander-full sometimes yields variety rather than quantity, but feel free to adapt when shopping for ingredients. And frozen peas and beans work well if you come home tired and hungry, so feel free to employ any rough mix of green beans, peas and leaves, adapting the cooking times to suit the tenderness of each ingredient. In my veggie-loving household the portion of greens is quite large and the pieces of chicken fairly modest, you can adjust this at will too.
Choose a pan that can go from oven to hob and back. And if you need extra carbs, some tender, halved new potatoes are a nice addition.
Chicken with early summer vegetables
300ml good chicken stock
400g chicken thighs, bone in (1-2 per person depending on size)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
300-350g prepared mixed early summer vegetables – peas, French beans, broccoli, summer cabbage, chard, beet tops
1 banana shallot, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
6-7 stems tarragon, leaves stripped off
6-7 stems thyme, leaves stripped off
55g unsalted butter, cubed
sea salt and black pepper
a lemon to squeeze
Take the chicken thighs out of the fridge and rub the skin with the salt and leave to absorb the seasoning.
Put the chicken stock in a pan and boil hard for around 12 minutes to reduce to half its volume. Take off the heat.
Prepare all the veg thus – top and tail French beans and cut in half across the middle; pod the fresh peas; trim broccoli, splitting into florets and slicing vertically into slim shards; wash the summer cabbage leaves, remove large stalks and tear into smallish pieces; the same with beet tops and chard but chop the stalks small.
Heat the oven to 180°C.
In your hob-to-oven lidded pot heat the olive oil over a medium-high heat until hot, then lower the chicken in, skin side down, browning until crisp and golden. Turn to do the same on all sides. This should take around 5 minutes in all. Then add the thyme and 30g of the butter, which should foam beautifully in the pan. Add the sliced shallots and garlic and give the juices a stir to release any browned bits and coat the alliums in butter. Put the pan in the oven to cook for 12-15 minutes.
Take the pot out of the oven, put the chicken on a warm plate covered with foil to rest and keep warm.
Put the pan with the shallots back on the hob and pour in the reduced stock (should be around 150ml) and bring to the boil. Add the tarragon leaves and then the vegetables in order of cooking time – first French beans and any chard stems – cook for a minute or two; then broccoli and cabbage – cook for another minute or two and finally peas which should take another 2 minutes more (if the peas are not very tender new ones, add with the broccoli). If the pan has a lid, keep the vegetables covered or use foil to seal and steam the veg inside. Keep checking, muddling them around gently and remove as soon as they are just tender and still have their greenness – too long and they will lose vibrancy. Season if needed with salt and pepper.
Serve out the vegetables on hot plates or a large serving dish. Pile the chicken pieces on top. Add any the chicken juices produced whilst resting back into the stock, boil hard to reduce for a few seconds more, then add the remaining butter and whisk around. Check the seasoning and pour over the chicken and veg to serve. Taste and squeeze over a little lemon juice if you will.