This is not exactly the same as perhaps the most precious recipe in my repertoire, My Mother’s Praised Chicken, which found a home in my eighth book, Kitchen, but it owes a lot to it. A family favourite, it’s a simple one-pot dish which brings comfort and joy, and it is my pleasure to share that with you.
It’s not in the spirit of things to be utterly specific with this kind of cooking: if you’re feeding small children, for example, you may not want to add the chilli flakes. Similarly, you may want to use just one lemon, rather than the two I like. Your chicken may weigh more or less: the ones I get tend to be between 1.5kg and 1.7kg. And although I have specified the casserole I always use, you obviously will use the one you have, which will make a difference to how quickly everything cooks, how much evaporation there will be, and so on.
Don’t let these things trouble you unduly; this is a very forgiving dish. It doesn’t rely on precision timing: the chicken, leeks and carrots are meant to be soft, and I even like it when the orzo is cooked far beyond the timing specified on the packet. It’s also open to variation, owing to what’s in your kitchen. You can, for example, replace the orzo with rice if you prefer, although you need to know that it will be slightly puddingy cooked this way; I don’t mean this disparagingly, but to indicate the soft, swollen texture. Barley works well, too, though will need to go in sooner, or you can use ditalini or any other small pasta you want. If you prefer to use dried thyme in place of the dried tarragon, by all means do; I also like it with dried mint. I could go on, but there is no need to add complications: this is a simple recipe that brings deep contentment.
A final note: although this isn’t easily scale-downable, in light of the fact that a whole chicken has the starring role, I do often make a version of it for a soothing solo supper. For this, you don’t need the oven, as it’s frankly easier to cook it all on the stove; you could, of course, cook the recipe proper on the hob and not in the oven, but I find there is more evaporation of the flavoursome liquid that way. Anyway, get out a small pan that comes with a tightly fitting lid, heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil, and put a large chicken thigh (bone-in and skin-on) in it, skin-side down, and let it fry for a good 10 minutes over medium heat until it’s golden brown. While that’s happening, peel and finely dice a smallish carrot, slice a small leek, or half a large one, and peel a fat clove of garlic. Once the chicken skin has browned, take the pan off the heat, turn the chicken thigh skin-side up and finely grate the zest of half a lemon into the pan, then mince or grate the garlic in as well, followed by 1⁄2 teaspoon of dried tarragon or thyme. Add the prepared carrot and leek, and pour 500ml of light chicken stock over, though this doesn’t have to be homemade. (You don’t get enough flavour from one chicken thigh cooked for a relatively short time to be able to use water alone.) Add a pinch of dried chilli flakes, and 1⁄2 teaspoon of sea salt flakes (or 1⁄4 teaspoon of fine sea salt) unless the stock you’re using is salty enough, give a bit of a stir, and put back on the heat, this time at high, and bring to the boil. Once it starts bubbling, clamp on a lid and turn the heat to low (or medium low, depending on how big the burner is) and cook at a firm simmer for about 40 minutes. Check that the chicken and cubes of carrot are cooked through; it is as essential that the carrots are soft as it is that the chicken is well cooked. Add 50g of orzo to the pan, making sure it’s all submerged, replace the lid, and cook over medium heat for 10–12 minutes until soft. Leave the pan on the hob, with the lid still on but the heat off, for another 10 minutes or so, and then shred the chicken thigh with a couple of forks (the skin will be flabby, so you may want to remove it along with the bones) and decant to a large bowl, adding freshly chopped parsley, some leaves and sprigs of thyme or feathery fresh dill.
1 chicken (approx. 1.5kg)
3 fat cloves of garlic
2 medium carrots (approx. 300g)
2 medium leeks (approx. 400g trimmed weight, or approx. 600g if you’re buying them untrimmed)
1 x 15ml tablespoon olive oil 2 lemons
2 teaspoons dried tarragon (or dried thyme)
2 teaspoons sea salt flakes (or 1 teaspoon fine sea salt)
1⁄2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1.5 litres cold water
300g orzo pasta
6 x 15ml tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus more to serve
Freshly grated Parmesan, to serve
1. Untruss the chicken, if it comes trussed, and remove all the string.
If time allows, let it stand out on a board for 40 minutes or so to let the chill come off it. Heat the oven to 180oC/160oC Fan.
2. Peel the garlic cloves, and peel and cut the carrots into three lengths across, and then into batons. Wash the leeks to remove any mud, if needed, and cut into approx. 21⁄2cm rounds.
3. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based casserole with a tightly fitting lid; I use an enamelled cast-iron oval casserole 29cm long, in which the chicken fits neatly, leaving just a small space all around it to fit the vegetables later. Place the chicken in the hot oil breast-side down to colour the skin; I do this over high heat for 3–5 minutes, or until the skin is richly golden. Then turn the chicken the right way up.
4. Take the pan off the heat and, aiming for the space around the chicken, finely grate in the zest from the 2 lemons, then grate or mince in the garlic (obviously some can end up on the chicken itself), add the dried tarragon (or thyme) and give a quick stir into the oil as best you can.
5. Scatter the vegetables around the chicken, followed by the salt and chilli flakes (if using), and squeeze in the juice from your zested lemons.
6. Pour in the cold water – covering all but the very top of the breast – and put back on high heat, then bring the pot to a boil. Once it’s bubbling, clamp on the lid and carefully transfer to the oven to cook for 11⁄4 hours, though check to make sure the chicken is all but cooked through and the carrots soft.
7. Take the pot out of the oven, and add the orzo all around the chick- en, and push it under the liquid, giving something as approximating a stir as you can manage in the restricted space. Put the lid back on, and return the casserole to the oven for another 15 minutes, by which time the orzo should be soft and swollen.
8. Let the casserole stand, uncovered, out of the oven for 15 minutes before serving. The orzo will continue to soak up the broth as it stands.
9. While you’re waiting, chop the parsley. Stir in 4 tablespoons, and then sprinkle over a little more. You could shred the chicken now, but it looks so wonderful in its pot I like to bring it to the table whole.
10. Place a dish by the casserole, and then pull the chicken gently apart with a couple of forks, removing any bones and skin that come loose
to the dish. (For me, these bits are a particular treat: I live for the cartilage.) I find it easiest to do this while the chicken’s still in the pot but, if you prefer, you can try and remove it to a carving board; go carefully as it’s likely to fall to pieces a bit as you do so. Stir the chicken and orzo again and ladle into bowls, sprinkling with parsley as you go. You may also want to offer Parmesan to grate over: I prefer it without, but there is a strong pro-Parmesan contingent in my house.