The Best Dish I’ve Cooked All Year

I joined Camberwell library last week and sat down to work opposite the cookery book section. Rachel Khoo, The Hairy Bikers, Pitt Cue Co., Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and so forth, were all on the shelf, each one, a bright splashy hardback. Many of the shouty titles bore the glint of publishers pushing out another thinly researched TV tie-in or capitalising on the brittle brand equity of a food fad.

*This is by no means an original whinge.*

Missing  was the generosity of spirit, integrity and most importantly, research of writers like Claudia Roden, Jane Grigson, Patience Gray, Elizabeth David and M.F.K Fisher, among others. Apart from the historical context, the anthropological detail (given with the lightest touch, through relayed conversations with an Egyptian cook, or a French farmer, or from their own lives) and ‘transferrable’ cooking skills gleaned from their books, they give real reading pleasure.

Roden’s work is rigorously researched: the rigour, understood not as just trawling bibliographies or archives, but of talking to people. She does not write to convey unassailable ‘truths’ about food or assert herself as a high priestess or “Goddess” of the kitchen… Her philosophy is quite the opposite. 

At the beginning of A New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking’, first published in 1968, there is a section called ‘Using the book’, which gives an idea of the spirit in which it is written.

Here is an extract:

“Some variations are given but many more exist, according to region and even to individual families. Another cook might use slightly different ingredients (or the same in varying proportions for a dish similar to the one I have given, equally successfully. On a different day, when in a different mood, or with a different appetite, I might prepare the same dish in a different manner from that which I have recorded.

It is quite possible to substitute oil for butter in almost every dish, even in fila pastry, without in any way spoiling the dish…Three tomatoes can sometimes be used instead of one, and onions and garlic may be used abundantly or omitted entirely without spoiling a dish. Parsley may be used when fresh coriander or chervil is not available, turmeric may occaisionally be substituted for saffron, and cinnamon and allspice may often be interchanged. Soups may be thick or thin, and salads more or less lemony, according to taste.”

Of course her recipes can be followed to the letter, but she extends the reader the freedom to use what they have, or what they prefer themselves in their interpretation of them. Her recipes are not set down as commandments. 

The most recent volume Roden published, The Food of Spain, took 5 years to research – longer than a doctoral thesis. She needn’t have spent so long to make sales – devotees would have bought anything she published – but as a result she produced a text of enduring value. The fresh orange set custards in the book are out of this world and very simple to make, so my mum tells me. 

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I cooked Moroccan Tagine T’Faia (pp. 232-233) from A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. I was sceptical at first, as it basically involves boiling chicken with scant other ingredients and garnishing it with a rather odd combination. However, it turned out to be pretty much the most memorable dish I have cooked or eaten this year, at least and has transformed my view of what can be done with a bird and some water. I modified it slightly (as sanctioned by Roden) according to what I had and how many were eating. Here’s how to make it in her words, with modifications by me in emboldened type.

Ingredients – for 2 or 4/5 depending on how much chicken used

1 roasting chicken, jointed – cut into 4, take the breast off the bone with a sharp knife, and then cut up the rest. A butcher can do this, or have a go with a knife or kitchen scissors yourself, it really doesn’t need to be neat (I just had two whole legs on the bone with skin on – drumstick and thigh, serving 2, rather than 4-6 people)

butter or oil

salt and black pepper

½ teaspoon of ground ginger (I used a small, walnut sized knob of fresh ginger, crushed with the flat of a knife and chopped)

¼ teaspoon of saffron threads

2 onions, finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

6 hard boiled eggs (or fewer, if there’s less chicken – I used quail’s eggs as had some left over)

120g of blanched (peeled) almonds

How to make:

Put the chicken in a large pan with a tablespoon of butter or oil, salt, pepper, ginger, saffron if used, onions and parsley. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer gently, half-covered, for 1 hour, or until the chicken has absorbed the taste of the ginger and saffron and is well cooked, and the sauce reduced. 

I cooked this on a really low heat, just bubbling, for 2.5 hours, until the onions almost dissolved, though I am sure that less time will do. There was still lots of sauce, and that may have been because I had less chicken, thus more of the volume in the pan was water. I am sure that somewhere in the middle would be fine – and either way, the chicken will definitely be cooked-through.

***if you can be bothered*** Heat a little water to which you have added a pinch of saffron, peel the hard boiled eggs and roll them in the saffron water to colour them all over. Fry the blanched almonds in butter.

Turn the chicken into a deep serving dish and pour the sauce over it. Arrange the eggs on top, placing them between the pieces of chicken, and garnish the dish with fried almonds. 

Eaten with:

Chickpeas fried with ½ teaspoon of cinnamon, cumin and butter and salt, and a cucumber and onion salad to cleanse the palate after. Basmati rice or cous cous would be ideal.

I was so overawed by this recipe, the eating of which was almost a religious experience that made me jump out of my seat, that I wrote Claudia a fan letter (my first) telling her so.

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