Chicken is really hard to write about.
I’ve totally stolen this line (thanks Merlin), but if chickens or ex-girlfriends run the afterlife, I’m in serious trouble. For one thing, they’re ugly (chickens, not ex-girlfriends), which makes them sort of funny. But it’s an obvious thing – like saying someone falling down a flight of stairs into a giant cheesecake is funny. Okay yeah, but…um – whatever.
It’s perhaps also a slightly redundant thing to say, considering the ultimate goal is to eat the fucking thing – but the chicken is a long descendent of dinosaurs, and so whenever you happen to be staring one in the face it’s very difficult to escape the sense that there’s some left-over resentment in there somewhere. Every time a chicken scuttles by I swear they’re still bitterly stewing that their once-great forefathers had the crap evolved out of them by a giant rat, and that the descendants of that giant rat are now eating them with sweet chili sauce.
But the stuff that makes chicken so hard to write about – is exactly what makes it probably one of the most enduring and versatile of ingredients – in that it has no inherent excitement in itself and so carries the flavours that surround it incredibly well. The chicken in a KFC burger isn’t actually there to bash down the flavour door and do the windmill – it’s there to carry the taste of the deep-fried crust and hydrogenated fat. Which is a million times more delicious than ugly flightless dinosaur bird… for about five minutes. Then you start to hate yourself, your family and everything associated with being alive.
So, there are those days, when for one reason or another, there’s nothing in the house. The cupboards are bare, but you’re hungry – so something has to be done, and the last time you called Mr Delivery the guy was late, drunk, brought you something that looked like fried cat in tinfoil parcel and then tried to stay the night on your couch. It’s my favourite kind of cooking – where one has literally a pile of scraps and odds-and-ends that somehow has to be turned into something that one can call supper. It becomes a weird game (and one that my mother was particularly good at in between bouts of using me as practice for her Celtic Rune Stone readings), where you’re the winner if what comes out the other end can justifiably be called ‘dinner’ – and all this without a panel of Australian men being mildly disparaging about the outcome, before going off to choose a cravat that’s a slightly different shade of purple.
Cacciatore Chicken Pie with grilled polenta cakes.
This is literally all I had in the house:
Two frozen chicken breasts, a handful of withered potatoes, a scrap of puff pastry, tomato paste, an almost finished bag of lentils, a tin of whole peeled tomatoes, the last of a bottle of olives, a handful of pumpkin seeds and an onion. Of course a couple of extra things were lying around (chili, garlic, some vegetable stock), and so the challenge became to see if this misfit bunch of scraps could actually become something that I could feed to myself and a couple of other folks.
Time to make some pie. Chicken to the rescue.
What to do
Cut the potatoes, chicken, olives and onion into appropriate chunks. Boil some water in a kettle and pour it over a bowl of lentils to soften. Get a pot of salted water on the boil then add the potatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes. Heat some olive oil in a largish pot – add the onions, garlic and chili and let that get soft and fragrant in the heat. Add the chicken until it’s started to brown on all sides, then chuck in the olives, stock and the tomato paste. Stir stir stir until it’s all starting to get to know each other really nicely, then add the softened lentils and their water, the tin of whole peeled tomato. Season with salt and pepper, pop on the lid, turn down the heat and let this simmer for about 45 minutes or so.
Roll out the puff pastry, and once the filling is thick and silky – spoon it out into a pie dish and cover with the pastry lid. Poke it with a fork a couple of times, brush with some beaten egg, scatter with pumpkin seeds and pop it into the oven for about 30 minutes, until golden.