And here in the first of the ‘How to cook from an 80s cookbook’ series is Beggar’s chicken. To be honest I’m surprised they didn’t call this something dodgy, but there you go. Apparently PC was alive an well as early as the mid-80s. And so we begin:

This is one of the renowed dishes of the Orient. The chicken was originally wrapped in lotus leaves, then in clay, then thrown into a hot fire. Supply chopsticks for four lucky people.

You’ll need:

1.5kg chicken

3 shallots (I used a small onion, which was probably a mistake)

2.5cm piece green ginger

1 tsp sugar

3 tbsps soy sauce

2 tbsps dry sherry

1 tbsp water

1/4 tsp five spice powder

2 extra tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsps oil

extra oil

1kg cooking salt (!!)

4 cups plain flour

1 1/2 cups water (approx)

The recipe itself is pretty simple, the first thing to do is to mix all the dough, then stuff the chicken with the surprisingly limited amount of spices, wrap the whole shebang in foil and dough, and cook that thing for a total of FOUR HOURS. You’ll need to pay attention to that last bit.

Oh, and an editorial note, the camera crapped out half way, so we switched the phone for the photos. Quality has been effected. Yay.

The first thing to do is measure out your flour (I used some wholemeal, as we already had it, and didn’t want to buy four cups of flour just to throw then away at the end of a recipe), and your salt into a bowl.

I try to mix with a wooden spoon initially, to ensure the dry ingredients are well blended, then gradually add the wet.

And that’s your “pastry” casing.

Next prepare your spices by roughly chopping the shallots and ginger, and mixing in the soy sauce, sherry (I used brandy, again because I didn’t want to buy a new ingredient to use it once), sugar and five spice (interestingly, I had to make my own using Christine Mansfield’s Spice cookbook. Great resource that book).

So, with your casing and your spices all prepared, you’re ready to wrap your bird. First lay out your tinfoil. I used two large pieces side by side. Then lightly bush with some of the oil.

Now, the next bit is kind of important. Fold the wings of the bird back like so, and twist the neck skin before placing it along the backbone. This will help keep the spice juices in the cavity.

Then, cover your bird in oil and soy sauce (I did this the wrong way round. Go the soy sauce first…)

Next, tilt your bird up and fill the cavity with the spice mixture. Then truss the cavity shut with a wooden skewer, or use the method I outline here, where you make small incisions in the flaps of skin either side of the cavity and poke the legs through to seal the cavity shut.

Once the chicken is prepared, you’re good to go. There is no real science to the wrapping, just make sure you have a good bind all the way round the bird, and that the tinfoil is nice and tight.

And now onto the casing. Roll your pastry out until it’s about a centimetre thick, then pop the chicken up on top. Bring the sides of the casing up and over the chicken, being careful not to break the pastry. You want a complete seal to keep the moisture in with the chicken.

And there you go. Next, a slightly difficult part. Oil your roasting dish, then pop the cased chicken in there. Then, using small amounts of water, close off all and any joins in the casing. You want to ensure the whole shebang looks airtight.

And then you’re into a very hot oven, approx 250C for one hour. After an hour, turn the heat down to around 120-150C, and cook for a further three hours.

When it’s cooked the casing will look thusly.

I tried breaking the casing with a wooden spoon, but barely dented it, so ended up giving it a whack with a hammer.

This was starting to make a mess, with bits flying everywhere, so I covered it will the teacloth and gave it a real good knock.

Once the case was cracked I was able to remove it, and transferred the chicken to a bowl to have the foil removed.

The chicken looked a lot like it had been cooked in a crock-pot, and to be honest, after all this palaver I probably would prefer to cook it that way.

But I duely served it up with some rice, some frozen veg to keep Master Chef Du Plunge happy, and a little broccoli, because he likes it.

THE VERDICT:

Quite a bit of fuss for a fairly average dish. I’ve been reading First Catch Your Weka lately, and David Veart talks about cookbooks often containing aspirational recipes. This type of recipe is really to tempt the imagination of the cook more than it is to provide a concrete or credible alternative for a meal. This looks to be such a recipe. You can of course imagine an 80s cook bringing a chicken to the table and giving it a jolly good pounding at a dinner party, but you wouldn’t want to be doing it every week.

I found that I should have used shallots are requested. The onion was overpowering, and the limited rang of spice washed out pretty quickly in the cooking. The chicken was tasty, but has a samey-samey taste you often get with poorly prepared crock-pot dishes. What it certainly could have used is lemongrass, perhaps whole coriander roots, and a boatload more five-spice at the very least.

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