I cook too much chicken. In fact, I get sick of it sometimes. Casseroles, curries, stir fries. On and on and on, year after year.
Occasionally, watching a cookery programme, or inspired by a new book, I’ll try something different, but it’s far too easy to fall back on predictable dishes of ages past. Or worse, squishy packets of Sweet & Sour, a four-pack of lager & one of those plastic trays of milky blobs diguised as chicken.
The trouble is, of course, that we’re busy. We’re busy and chicken is the number one easy option in the supermarket, and by association the relentless occupant of fridge and freezer. Like sausages, or something with mince, it’s always a nagging voice in those ‘get me out of here’ moments in a 6.30pm meat aisle.
And if you do come home & actually cook it rather than forget it in the fridge and just drink the lager, hungry-speed is most days the essence, and quick fixes the default. It’s also just easier to get chicken right than other meats when you’re in this frame of mind – speaking here with the disappointed wisdom earned from many rubberised beef noodles.
But even on slow days, a Sunday maybe, incredibly it’s to the chicken I’ll turn yet again – even if I’ve spent most of the week eating it, wondering what to do with it or wishing I’d bought something else. And that’s because there really is nothing better than roast chicken and gravy.
The kitchen of childhood memory is suddenly bright with life from the comforting smell of a roast cooking, the warmth of the oven taking the whole house by stealth – it has a kind of dreamlike aroma in some way. Then the softness and tenderness, the crunchy skin, the bold gravy – these tastes and reminiscences have nothing at all to do with the forlorn packets of bits we now carry home in the dark and rain.
A Bird in the Hand is as brilliant as it is incredibly welcome. It takes this fundamental dilemma (as Henry says herself in the introduction, “What the hell am I going to do with those?”) and in one dedicated volume gives us all many more ideas for the thighs, quarters and breasts we end up buying more days than most. Not to mention the whole bird.
There really is everything in here, from advice on the perfect roast, to quick and superb dishes home from work, to more complicated and tricky meals. I have tried and loved so far the Paprika Roast Chicken with Caraway Potatoes and the Chicken with Thyme and Lemon and Smashed Garlic Potatoes. Next in line is the Roast Chicken Stuffed with Black Pudding and Apple and Mustard Sauce. Stornoway black pudding & Chicken is where it’s at.
Reading through the book is a learning experience too, and needs to be done with a pad and pen to check off ingredients for the great aspirational store cupboard that I see in my mind but never seems to get there in reality. The truth is of course that the kind of larder required for most cookbooks is out of my league, but that’s not the point – A Bird in the Hand encourages steady accumulation over time of core ingredients, then wider ones like alcohols and lavender honey for the cupboard & different herbs for the pots.
Even when reading I found myself pursing frugal lips at the thought of shopping at Melbury & Appleton for a bottle of Grape Must, I clicked there to discover that this wasn’t some madness, but very reasonable, and would do the dish several times over. Diana Henry is a writer who is very much aware that for lots of us there are cost choices being made all the time, no matter how much we love cooking, and actually that can be quite rare in cookbooks sometimes.
I also think she’s a superb writer, full stop. I like the voice of the book, the informal and accessibly human way she introduces the recipes, and how she deals with longer sections, on herbs for example. She calls the beers in while cooking Korean Fried Chicken Wings & chucks herbs in the basket during those very same hassled post-work trips to the supermarket. The overall impact is friendly, generous and so gentle on the instruction that you’re picking up stuff all the time without realising.
She also fills the pages with very precisely written and inspirational recipes. Throughout, she is able to distill down to the basic joys of cooking and eating, no more so than in the personal resonances carried in her writing on roast chicken. In the end, I like the way that the food is the thing, and the prevailing sense of encouragement and ‘try-this’ that makes this book special.
A Bird in the Hand isn’t 101 things to do with a chicken breast, oven chips and Ruskoline – even though that still sounds a useful read. It’s an acknowledgement in some ways that we often buy and eat too much chicken, but lends a very expert hand by providing simpler, quicker dishes alongside recipes that make us think, make us set out to buy and try new things. It is accessible, and challenging in the depths. In that way, the balance of the book is exceptional.
Chicken triumphs in the end: revived & celebrated.
Update No. 1 19th April
One of the aspects of A Bird in the Hand I really like is the ‘Remains of the Day’ section (great title) which provides lots of great ideas for the succulent remnants from leftover roasted chicken. I recommend particularly the Vietnamese Chicken and Sweet Potato Curry which is totally delicious, and very straightforward to make. The price of tinned coconut cream down my local shop is eye-watering, so this bumps up the price a wee bit, but it’s worth it.
I’m always wary of Fish Sauce – having ruined plenty of meals with it, it must be said – so I was concerned about a whole tbsp going in there. But you know, it’s alchemy. The recipe is terrific, and the already cooked chicken ends up tender as dawn.
Update No.2 19th May
The other day I made a flan – let’s call it a flan at least – from one of my cooking magazines. An old magazine in fact, and I’d had a notion on this ‘flan’ for some time. In practice, half way through I started to wish I hadn’t bothered because it didn’t go well – and it was a costly mistake, because there was a bit of equipment buying, some rare ingredient travel, etc. Truthfully, it wasn’t as bad as I thought in the end – we often loathe our own food when there’s no enjoyment in preparing it – and better cold. But it was a poor afternoon at the stove.
And this sad old flan recipe stodges its way to mind because it had the misfortune to share the week with Diana Henry’s black pudding stuffing from A Bird in the Hand.
Unlike the flan recipe, and its sudden and alarming pluralisation typos, imprecision (“a big bunch”) and general all-round throw it in the tin sort of thing, Diana Henry writes recipes with exceptional skill. Sure, our own craft, our own ingredients might let us down regardless, but I’ve yet to come across one of her recipes that doesn’t work. And she isn’t way out the other end either, with micro-measurements and stern old weights and measures. She’s just always careful to be precise when it counts, and free when it’s possible. Everything I’ve cooked from A Bird in the Hand has been good fun.
To an extent, the whole flan thing was my fault. Sometimes, you need to read recipes better, and sometimes, cookery writers aren’t being imprecise, they’ve just got a more nerveless instinct for ingredients and containers than amateurs like me.
So that was the flan at any rate. And Diana Henry’s black pudding stuffing?
So good it may be hard to roast another chicken without it ever again.