Chicken with wild mushrooms, fondant potato, sweetcorn purée and spinach
10 January 2018
A few years ago, I was involved in the village variety club and we performed a murder mystery that I’d written themed on a Masterchef-style competition. These murder mysteries were mostly just humorous characters and stories, although as the author I tended to get slightly over-obsessed with the twists and turns of the actual murder and the clues and red herrings that you would have to navigate to spot who did it.
Of course, since it was themed on Masterchef, we had to have a three course dinner to suit - and it had to be the best quality we could manage. And that was no mean feat, because the village hall had only a tiny kitchen. Basically, it needed to be a meal where as much of the prep was done off the premises in the couple of days leading up to the event, and then just the finishing off and assembly on the evening.
This dish is a variation of the main course I designed for that occasion. Chicken breast, with fondant potato, spinach and sweetcorn purée. For the murder mystery, the chicken breasts were cooked sous vide before the event. Yes, that’s about 160 sous vide chickens in one Sous Vide Supreme. There was a constant procession of chickens being sealed into pouches, cooked and then plunged into ice cold water. Then the chickens were reheated in water that was brought up to the cooking temperature of 60ºC, and then finally seared briefly before service.
I also did a Madeira sauce that involved a rather large quantity of madeira, port and chicken stock, reduced down until delightful.
Today was rather different. For one thing, no Madeira was to hand, I had to do a simple pan sauce. I could have done sous vide chicken easily enough. It will always get you the tastiest, juiciest chicken you’ll ever have. But I had a thing about roast chicken, and I needed to address it.
Namely, I had to date had crappy outcomes in the simple art of roasting chickens. And, come to that, most poultry.
And that’s a thing, right? I mean, it’s all very well doing all this fancy schmancy mincing about with all these restaurant-quality processes and obscure ingredients - but if you can’t roast a bloody chicken, then you’re missing something basic. You should probably just go home and shut up.
The problem is two-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, my oven clearly performs on the fierce side. I can get a chicken and roast it for the time it says in all the books for a bird of its weight, and it will be done well before it’s supposed to. I mean WELL before. The few times I’ve done it, it’s caught me out every time. Even when I think I’ve allowed for it by reducing the temperature.
The second aspect is this - if roasting a chicken is so straightforward, how come all the top chefs have completely different formulas for doing it? Thomas Keller whacks his bird in with minimal fuss into an oven at an intense 230ºC. Other chefs will go for a more regulation 180ºC or 190ºC. Heston, of course, will go for a slow-cooked bird at a much lower temperature - basically as low as you can get your respective oven.
I know lots of people will roll their eyes at me, and swear that they’ve been roasting chicken all their life, and it turns out perfectly every time. I’m sure lots of them do. But of the ones that have shared their results with me, most have actually cooked chicken that is slightly dry and overdone - they just are so used to it being that way, they don’t know any different.
I decided for this that I was going to ignore all the books and simply trust in my temperature probe. I would put the chicken into the oven with no preconceptions about how long it was going to take. I’d measure the temperature, and basically when the interior temperature got to 60ºC that was done.
So I put it in at 160ºC (my fan oven’s equivalent to 180ºC for a standard oven) and then checked it after 50 minutes. The temperature was just about 8 degrees below where it needed to be. Another ten minutes, and it was there - bang on 60ºC. I did, for form’s sake, check that the juices were running clear and all that stuff. The book would have had it in the oven for another half an hour, and I would usually have checked a quarter of an hour before - by which time it’s already well over.
But this time - and for the first time - I had success. In fact, I had chicken that was the closest to sous-vide levels of juiciness (after suitable resting) that I’ve ever had from a simple roast bird. A triumph for the process of letting go of the cookbook crutch and simply watching until you can see something’s cooked.
One addition to the dish that wasn’t present for the original - the market had some beautiful fresh ceps and we were also looking to try out some rather exotic hot pink mushrooms (about which more in a future post). I doubt you’ll have the latter to hand, so the recipe simply deals with the former. But you can miss the mushrooms out altogether if need be.
I topped mine with a big fat clove of roasted garlic - entirely optional down to your taste.
Chicken with wild mushrooms, fondant potato, sweetcorn purée and spinach
Although in this case, I roasted the whole chicken, generally for this you’re probably going to just want to buy and cook the chicken breast, and so the recipe below reflects that. If you have a sous vide water bath, then seal the chicken breasts with a little oil and a couple of sprigs of thyme and put into the water bath for half an hour at exactly 60ºC, and then slice in half lengthways and sear briefly in the pan before serving.
2 free range chicken breasts
2 medium sized potatoes
2 handfuls fresh spinach
1 banana shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced, plus 2 fat cloves more simply peeled
750 ml good quality chicken stock
125 ml sherry
200g frozen sweetcorn
2 fresh ceps / porcini, one sliced, one chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only
For the fondant potato
Preheat the oven to 180ºC / 160ºC fan oven.
You’re looking to get a neat cylinder of potato. Chop the ends off, and then use a small (1 inch across) metal ring to cut into the potato. Trim off all the excess and push the ring through further to the depth you want it (a couple of inches). Save the potato trimmings for adding to a future dish (just put them into a plastic bag and straight into the freezer - obviously we’re being fancy with the potato here, but we don’t want to waste all that good tuber in order to do it).
Put the potato cylinders into a small tin or large ramekins - whatever you have to hand, and fill with chicken stock until it comes up to three quarters the height of the potato. You don’t want to use more than a quarter of the stock, hence needing to put them it quite snug containers. Put them in the oven - they should take about 50 minutes to fully cook all the way through.
If you’re including the roasted garlic, put them on a small tray, coat with a little oil and put them in the oven as well.
For the sauce
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over a medium high heat in a large frying pan, and fry the shallots and garlic until softened but not coloured. Then add the sherry and allow it to boil until almost reduced to nothing. Then add 400 ml of the chicken stock (you should still have a little left) and simmer until reduced by about half. At this point, set aside.
For the sweetcorn purée
Cook the frozen sweetcorn in the final helping of chicken stock for a few minutes until tender. Then put the sweetcorn, plus enough stock just to barely cover the sweetcorn, into a blender and blend on high speed for a minute or two. If you want to have a purée that is smooth and refined, then blend higher and for longer. If it is a little stiff, add more of the stock. Then push the purée through a sieve and put it into a pan and keep warm.
For the chicken
Ten minutes or so before the potatoes are finished, you can begin the next phase.
Heat two frying pans on a medium high heat. Put a tablespoon of oil and 20g butter into one, and put in the ceps, stirring them occasionally until they have gone soft and have picked up a nice brown colour.
Meanwhile, slice the chicken breasts in half lengthways - leaving yourself four thinner chicken steaks. Season with salt and pepper, and a little sprinkling of thyme leaves. Then pan fry the breasts in the other pan with the remaining oil for about three minutes on each side until nicely browned. When it’s cooked through, it should be firm to the touch. If you have a temperature probe, the chicken should be at or above 60ºC.
Cover the chicken with cling film and then allow to rest.
Remove the potatoes from the oven. They should have coloured on the top, and when tested with a sharp knife should be soft all the way through. Remove them carefully from the chicken stock and put them covered in a warm place.
Begin reheating the sauce and add the remaining chicken stock that the potatoes have cooked in, and continue reducing the sauce down. Add the chopped ceps and season to taste. The sauce should have thickened to a sauce-like consistency.
At the last minute, steam the spinach for a couple of minutes until it has cooked down.
To serve, place the fondant potato on one side of the plate. Top with a tablespoon of the cooked spinach, then a spoonful of the sweetcorn purée. Top with the roasted garlic (if using). Then arrange the chicken halves overlapping next to it, and spoon the sauce over.
Food waste notes
We’ve already dealt with the potato trimmings. You’ll almost certainly have spinach left over (unless you’re scaling this dish up for 6 people or more which, given that it’s dinner-party style, you might well be doing). If you know you’re going to do a salad in the next day or two, the leaves can be added to that. Assuming that’s not the case, the best option is to freeze it. You won’t be able to use defrosted spinach in a salad, but cooked it will still have great flavour. Blanch the spinach in boiling water for a minute or two (or steam it), then put it into ice cold water to cool. Allow the water to drain, then place in a plastic bag and seal with as much of the air squeezed out as possible. Put in the freezer and keep for up to a year.