Still, I had a nice free chicken, or so I kidded myself. It was going to taste better because it was free – somehow free stuff always does, doesn’t it? I’d been craving a proper meal, and in the middle of summer I really felt like a wintry comforting dish like chicken bonne femme, as in ‘the good woman’, or the farmer’s woman, as you do sometimes. So here’s how to go about it. And, I have to say, this is one of those dishes that you’ll be asked to make again and again. My kids used to beg me to make it. Quite handy as a pay-off to get them to tidy their rooms or clean up!
Chicken in a Pot
It serves 4 hungry people, or 6 if you serve side dishes. The key lies in browning the chicken slowly so it develops a wonderful nutty buttery flavour without the butter burning. Allow about 15 minutes for browning. Flaming the chicken in brandy adds layers of flavour but if you’re a tad nervous, have a large lid at the ready to put on the chicken dish in case the flames leap out of control. It’ll take about 1½ hours all up to cook the chook and get it plated.
Thoroughly rinse a size 12 (1.2kg/2¾ lb) free-range corn-fed chicken, including inside the cavity. Drain it, pat dry with paper towels and season inside the cavity with salt. Tie chicken legs together with string and loop the string around the parson’s nose, so that the cavity is closed, then take the string round the back of the chicken, then bring it back to the parson’s nose and tie it in a tight bow. This may sound complicated but all you are doing is trying to close the cavity to keep moisture inside the chicken so it can ‘steam’ from the inside and keep moist, and prevent the legs from splaying open exposing the breast meat to too much dry heat.
Heat a heavy based casserole over a lowish heat and add 1 tablespoon each of oil and butter. When the butter has melted, put in the chicken, breast down and brown it gently for 10 minutes, then turn it over and brown the underside, then brown both the sides. Gently warm 2 tablespoons of brandy in a small pan, ignite brandy and pour it flaming over the chicken. Gently shake the casserole once or twice until the flames subside. It’ll smell gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. Transfer chicken to a plate.
Increase heat under casserole, add 350g/12 ounces shallots and 12 peeled cloves of garlic cut in half and brown well. Transfer these to a second plate. Add 150g/6 ounces thickly sliced chopped bacon to casserole and cook until crisp, stirring often.
Return chicken to casserole, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt, grind over plenty of black pepper and add a bay leaf, 1 tablespoon thyme leaves and ½ cup red wine. Bubble up then cover casserole with a lid and transfer to an oven preheated to 190°C/375°F. Cook chicken for 45 minutes then remove casserole from the oven and add shallots and garlic. Cook 15 minutes more then remove casserole form oven.
Transfer chicken to a carving board and set casserole over a medium heat. Blend 2 teaspoons soft butter with slightly less than 2 teaspoons of plain flour on a plate, then whisk the paste into the bubbling juices in the casserole a little at a time. Continue stirring for 1 minute as the juices thicken. Taste for seasoning and turn off the heat. Carve chicken into joints and arrange on a heated serving plate. Spoon gravy over the chicken arranging shallots and garlic around the sides. Sprinkle with a little chopped parsley and serve it up to a round of applause! Serve chicken with grilled mushrooms and potato mash.
And, here’s a tip, if the juices have evaporated after cooking, add a little chicken stock, or if they are too thick after whisking in the beurre manie (the blended butter and flour), thin them with a little chicken stock or hot water; adjust the seasoning.