Chicken is underrated. “It tastes like chicken,” people say to describe anything of little or no discernible taste. I heard someone on the tube just last week extoll the virtues of chicken on the basis that “it doesn’t taste too strong.” Where did it all go wrong, I ask, for one of the finest meats available? What gave chicken such a bad rap?
The answer is probably money, or lack of it. In our desire to eat as much meat as possible, as cheaply as possible, chicken has become our champion: quick to raise, cheap to feed and extremely low on living space, it is possible (if you have little or no leaning toward animal health and welfare) to put a chicken on a plate in half the time and for about the same price as a couple of carrots.
While this is no news to anyone remotely aware of what goes on beyond the end of their nose, it still, apparently, doesn’t deter people from buying chicken that “doesn’t taste too strong.” The result is a grey, flaccid, water-logged, soft-textured substance that you can pretty much drink through a straw when cooked.
There is an alternative, though. Properly reared chicken, free to roam and fed on grain, grass and whatever else it can find is a magnificent meat: firm of texture, plump of breast, dry to the touch and full of flavour. It takes just six weeks to raise a factory-farmed chicken; at least 20 to raise a free-range one. The difference in quality of meat is enormous.
I only buy free-range, properly reared chicken meat. It costs a little more, but it means that our simple mid-week chicken dish is a feast fit for kings, not a sloppy tasteless mess fit for the dogs.
Today I picked up a bunch of locally-raised free-range chicken thighs from my nearest supermarket. They grew up on a farm a few kilometers from me. It took a little more than 40 minutes to cook them, and cost only a fraction more than their grey, limp, intensively-reared cousins. I used a recipe from a food magazine that one of my colleagues produces called Salt and Pepper. They were delicious. And they tasted of something. I’ll remember to tell the people on the tube, if I ever run into them again.
Chicken With Fennel, Tomato and White Bean Sauce a la Salt and Pepper Magazine
- 1 can cherry tomatoes
- 1 can canellini beans
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 800g bonelss chicken thighs with skin
- 1 tsp. fennel seeds
- Grated zest of one lemon
Set your oven to 200C
Carefully mix together the cherry tomatoes, beans, sugar, garlic cloves, oregano and a little salt and pepper. Pour the mix into an oven-proof dish
Dry-roast the fennel seeds in a frying pan for a few minutes until they just turn golden brown. Crush to a powder in a pestle and mortar or using a spice grinder
Fry the chicken in very hot oil for one minute to get a good colour and crisp on the skin
Place the chicken on the tomato mix and sprinkle the crushed fennel seeds on top
Put the dish in the oven for about 20-30 minutes
When done, sprinkle with the lemon zest and serve immediately