Chicken burgers

20140309-213718.jpg

After weeks and weeks of nothing but grey skies and drizzle, we have finally had a sunny weekend. We spent the morning at the zoo (“Joe, what would you like to see at the zoo today?” “I want to sit in the bus and the car that move next to the merrygoround”) and the afternoon playing in our friends’ garden. As we sat in the car driving to our friends, my phone beeped. A text from my friend Steve:

Think I’m going to have a cigarette in the sun now I know the trophy doesn’t exist.

I felt a brief flicker of guilt. Steve is an ex-smoker. I hate smoking and sometimes I have to stop myself from saying “DisGUSting” out loud when I walk past someone smoking in the street. Steve stopped smoking three years ago, or maybe it’s closer to four, and when he told us he’d stopped (“like, properly, this time”) Jon and I were very proud of him and we told him that if he could stay cigarette free for a year, we would get him a trophy. Throughout that year, whenever we saw him, he would say things like, “how’s the trophy coming along?” or, “only 6/7/8 months til I get my trophy!” My Grandpa, who used to be a jeweller, still, at the age of 93, has his engraving machine and does engraving for golf club trophies and the like. I knew he would have a few trophies and he would engrave one for us for Steve. Unfortunately, when we asked him, he said he’d just got rid of most of his stock but he had one or two left and we could have one of those – a choice of a bird or a ball. Neither of these seemed particularly appropriate but we thought maybe we’d take the bird and think of something funny to engrave it with that would make the random bird into something super witty about smoking.

Well, Jon and I aren’t that witty because we’ve been trying to think of a funny line to engrave the bird trophy with for around three years and we still haven’t come up with anything (“I think that’s a bit unfair,” Jon interjected while reading this over my shoulder. “I could have thought of any number of witty things if the trophy had been better.”) Meanwhile, Steve has been smoke free for ages and the longer it gets the more deserving of a trophy he becomes and the more pathetic the bird trophy seems. At the same time, we’re starting to feel like it is the promise of a trophy that is keeping him smoke free and so we are genuinely concerned that if he gets the trophy he’ll celebrate with a cigarette. I’ve now told him this trophy can only legitimately be awarded posthumously, as only then can anyone say with certainty that he is no longer a smoker. The trophy is no longer significant as a tangible object, but has turned into a symbol of aspiration. Or something.

Poor Steve. If that story about the trophy didn’t make you think I’m a terrible friend then this one will: a couple of years ago, Steve announced he was becoming vegetarian. I know, smoking AND meat! What pleasures will he renounce next?! Clearly no trophies were going to be awarded by me for this crazy decision. However, like any supportive friend, when he told me this about 30 minutes before inviting himself for dinner I found something nutritious and hopefully delicious to eat.

A few weeks later, he was at our house again for dinner along with another friend. It was a Sunday evening and we’d been lazing around all afternoon and I didn’t feel like doing a lot of cooking but I wanted something really tasty and sort of junk food-ish but not unhealthy. The answer was, as it so often is to so many hungry moments: burgers. I didn’t have any beef mince and I wanted something healthier anyway, so I took out a pack of chicken mince. The secret to chicken burgers is to put loads and loads of seasoning and things because unlike beef burgers where you want to taste the meat, a chicken burger would just be incredibly bland on its own. I grilled the burgers, fried some onions and made some oven chips (invest in a crinkle cutter for potatoes. About £2 and it’s one of the best kitchen gadgets you’ll own) and served them up. Everyone ate in silence in that way that shows that the food is really being enjoyed and it wasn’t until I put my own knife and fork down that something dawned on me and I turned to Steve and said, “hey, aren’t you a vegetarian?” Steve, with chicken juice and ketchup dribbling down his chin said, “oh s/*^!…. ”

I did feel a tiny bit bad but I maintain that it should be the job of the vegetarian to remember that he is a vegetarian.

(I should add that this burger has been Steve’s only slip as a vegetarian and he has been fully non-meat-eating since then!)

  • 1 pound chicken mince
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 egg
  • Matzo meal (medium) or flour if you don’t have matzo meal
  • Light soy sauce
  • Cajun spice mix
  • Tabasco
  • Salt and pepper
  • A little oil (groundnut is best)

1. Finely dice the onion. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion, cooking until it is soft and golden.
2. Put the onion in a large bowl with the meat, and mix. Add the egg, and around 50g of matzo meal – you want to get to a texture that looks like it will hold a shape.
3. Add lots of the seasoning listed. I usually include around 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, a large tablespoon of Cajun spice, and a teaspoon of Tabasco. Mix it all together thoroughly and then form into burgers. I find that this quantity of meat makes enough for 4 burgers, and it is easiest if you heap the mixture onto a sheet of clingfilm, wrap it and then squash it into shape. Refrigerate before cooking, if you have time.
4. Cook under a hot grill (or on a barbecue for even yummier results), flipping half way through so that it is blackened on each side.

Good on its own, in a bun or pitta, or on a bed of leaves. Best served to a vegetarian.

*Approximate nutritional values (1 burger)*

  • Calories: 310 kcal
  • Carbs: 15.4g
  • Fat: 15.6g
  • Protein: 26.7g
  • Sugar: 6.8g
  • Sodium: 1864mg

*Baby-friendly version*

This is perfect for babies. Just remove the baby’s portion before adding the seasoning and add a little less or whatever your baby likes. For Joe I use a tiny bit of soy sauce (as it is so salty), and add tomato purée, and mustard powder.

Heston’s roast chicken

In my last post, I admitted that I’m a 95% person. I think I should also add that I’m inherently a bit lazy. I’m quite resourceful at being lazy – I’m always looking for the easiest and quickest way to do something, and if that means that the thing isn’t 100% perfect, well, that’s OK. It’s worth taking a hit on perfection if I can make more time to do other things (or just sleep). It’s why I often say I’ve “adapted” a recipe. What I mean is, I’ve tried to cut as many corners as possible (put a risotto in the oven/put all the vegetables in the food processor/add ingredients all together instead of in stages) while still hoping that the recipe turns out vaguely as planned.

Most successful chefs do not do this. Some tirelessly seek out the “best” way of doing something, and the most famous exponent of that is Heston, when he did his series of how to make The Best Chips or Burger or whatever. On one of those programmes, he did a thing on how to make the best roast chicken. I love Heston (as you can see – we’re on first name terms) but I really don’t have the time or inclination to do most of the stages in his recipe. Also, I haven’t had roast chicken the way he is recommending (and I never will, because it includes butter), but I don’t totally believe it is The Best because, in his extensive survey of what makes the best roast chicken, I don’t believe he was invited to dinner at my parents’ house in France, where my mum roasts these amazing organic French (kosher) chickens which are incredible and cannot be improved.

However, I do think he knows what he is talking about with flavours and moisture and sciency things, so I did want to sort of attempt the recipe. Google “Heston’s roast chicken” if you are interested, but i think the principle, in a nutshell, is that cooking it on a very low heat for a long time helps to seal the flavours in and keep the chicken moist, resting it keeps the juices in the chicken and lets them percolate back into the meat, and then roasting on a very high heat crisps it up. Also, obviously Jon loves Heston’s scientific approach, because Jon shouts “that’s science!” whenever he comes up with a plausible rational explanation for something, and because Heston has confirmed some of Jon’s own techniques, such as rinsing potatoes before doing anything with them to remove excess starch.

The stages in his recipe involve:

  1. Brining the chicken overnight. I got all excited about brining, when I first read about it some time ago and was determined to do it. But then I discovered that you shouldn’t brine a kosher chicken (or turkey) because essentially it has already been brined as part of the koshering process. Not to the exact Heston specifications, but the purpose of the brine is basically to lock in moisture through soaking it in a salty solution (my GCSE biology tells me this is through osmosis), and kosher chickens have to be salted in this way to make them kosher. I even read somewhere else that sometimes people buy kosher chickens as a shortcut. I never thought there would be a bonus to buying over-priced kosher chickens, but perhaps this is it. So I skipped several hours of Heston’s recipe without having to do anything at all!
  2. Putting lemon and thyme inside the chicken and rubbing the bird with butter. Well, I don’t agree with this. I’ve tried putting lemons, garlic and other things inside chickens before (dead ones, mostly) and they never seem to give much flavour. Not compared with putting an onion inside, which really does. Herbs, like thyme, rosemary, etc I think do add a lovely flavour and also make it smell amazing. So I put an onion inside instead. Now, on to the butter. Generally, when roasting a chicken I don’t think it needs any extra fat, so I season it but that’s it. However, over the summer, whenever that was, we did a barbecued chicken on a couple of occasions, using a very nice recipe and technique from America’s Test Kitchen. Since that was going on the barbecue, it did require some fat on it, and the recipe used a rub made from olive oil, thyme, rosemary and lemon (see below), and it was fragrant and delicious. So I decided to make this rub again, and put it on the chicken where Heston was calling for butter. I also made a bed for the chicken of sliced onions, as this creates a delicious onion gravy-ish thing that everyone loves.
  3. Cooking the chicken for 3-4 hours on a very low heat. As in, barely hot – about 90C or 70C in a fan oven. You can hardly smell anything while it is cooking, but apparently this is a good thing because when something gives off a strong smell, it is losing the flavour along with the smell.
  4. Resting the chicken for 45 minutes. You take the chicken out, cover it with foil and let it stand. My grandma always “rests” chicken after roasting and we always used to get annoyed about it – “I like HOT chicken”. But, it turns out she was right in this, as in so many things!
  5. Basting the chicken. You melt butter and add white wine and then brush it over the chicken, now breast side up. I didn’t bother with this – partly because I missed it in the recipe the first time round, but also because it just didn’t seem necessary. Next time, I might try it using the olive oil from the rub that I just put on the onions in the base when I did it last time.
  6. Putting the chicken back into a very hot oven. I think this is what makes it excellent. You turn the oven up as high as it will go and put the chicken back in, breast side up, for about 10 minutes, or until it is golden brown. The only problem with this, for me, was that I was juggling putting the chicken in with the other things in the oven, like roast potatoes. So I haven’t actually done this as instructed. I have put the chicken back in at a hot temperature (but not the hottest), and left it in there for about 20 minutes, when it is golden brown.

The result was a very delicious roast chicken. It honestly wasn’t THAT much more amazing than my regular roast chicken, but it was very good and very moist, and the moisture and flavour really stood out when it came to eating the leftovers cold the next day.

This is the recipe for the rub:

  • 75ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 tsp grated zest plus 2 tbsp juice from 1 lemon
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • Coarse sea salt and ground black pepper
  1. In a small saucepan, combine the oil, garlic, lemon zest and pepper flakes. Simmer and stir frequently over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes.
  2. As soon as it reaches a simmer, add 3 teaspoons thyme and 2 teaspoons rosemary. Cook for 30 seconds more.
  3. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve over a bowl, making sure to push the solids with a spatula to remove all the oil. Transfer the solids to another bowl and set both aside.
  4. Mix together 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Mix 3 teaspoons of that salt mixture with the cooled garlic mixture.
  5. Spread the salt and garlic mixture under the skin that you loosened earlier. Sprinkle the rest of the salt mixture on the underside of the chicken.
  6. Whisk the lemon juice into the olive oil and either drizzle onto the onions or rub on the chicken, or use as a baste before putting the chicken back into the oven at high heat, OR use as a dressing to serve with the chicken.

This recipe is totally baby-friendly – just don’t give pieces which have the salty rub on them.

*Approximate nutritional values*

  • Calories: 240 kcal
  • Carbs: 0g
  • Fat: 12g
  • Protein: 30g
  • Sugar: 0g
  • Sodium: 560mg

Best Chicken Curry

20120921-003130.jpg
The worst restaurant I have ever been to was a kosher Chinese restaurant outside Washington DC. It wasn’t just the sticky plastic table cloths, the thin film of grease that coated every surface, the flies buzzing around the Persian buffet, or the fact that there was a Persian buffet in a Chinese restaurant. It was also that everything on the menu was described as being in either white sauce, brown sauce, or, even more alarmingly, “special” sauce. It was so disgusting that we didn’t quite know how to convey our displeasure. I don’t think it was the kind of place where complaining to the manager would have had any effect because we were not just complaining about one dish, we were complaining about the whole ethos, the whole raison d’etre of the restaurant. Jon resorted to saying loudly, as we left, after having ordered and not eaten some questionable meats in some questionable coloured sauces, “Where can we go for DINNER? I’m still STARVING.” My retaliation came in the form of a survey of kosher restaurants and shops of the DC area that I was asked to fill in a few months later. Long after I had left DC I continued to receive the yearly email with the survey, and every year I went to the Royal Dragon’s page and ticked “disgusting” at every available point. Oops, did I just tell you the name of the restaurant? Seriously, NEVER go there.

(I felt a bit bad about posting this about a restaurant that I’d been to 6 years ago – what if they had undergone a major transformation? So I had a quick look on a restaurant review site to see if things have changed. Apparently not: “I have never felt sicker after a meal. The worst, probably toxic, food I’ve ever had. We call it Evil Panda.” and
Over priced Kosher dog food (though I would not feed it to my dog)“)

So for obvious reasons I try never to think about that restaurant, but it came to mind recently when I was surfing through various food blogs and recipe websites, and I noticed that lots of people tout things as “The best X ever” – the best roast chicken, the best roast potatoes, the best chocolate chip cookies. I think that’s OK with certain specific foods – in fact, I might even have written about the “best” chocolate mousse a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and I’ve written about the “best” honey cake too. But it’s a bit crass with something like curry because “curry” just means sauce so what do you mean, you’ve got the best chicken in sauce recipe? The best chicken in white sauce? In brown sauce? In special sauce?

But guess what? I’ve got the best chicken curry recipe! Seriously! I found its inspiration on a website which called it “the only curry recipe you’ll ever need”. Of course there are hundreds of great chicken curry recipes and I have several favourites that I make over and over again, but this is the one that always comes to mind when I just feel like a curry. It’s quick and easy to make (a food processor makes it really fast), low fat, with healthy, delicious tomatoes and spinach, neither of which are over-powering if you generally don’t love those ingredients.

It’s also very popular with Joe – I make his without salt and chillies by following my baby-friendly method below – and it fits into his “anything in tomato sauce” category so I can get spinach down him relatively easily.

Makes 4 portions, or 3 adult portions and 2-3 baby portions

  • 2 large chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 large knob of ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 green chillies
  • 1 400g tin of tomatoes
  • 400g spinach
  • 1tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Salt
  • Approx 1 tbsp vegetable oil, such as rapeseed
  1. Heat a large deep frying pan or saucepan (with no oil) and add half of the spinach and wilt. Remove the spinach, draining the liquid, and put the wilted spinach into a food processor, blending until you have a paste. Remove from food processor (but no need to wash it up yet) and set aside until later.
  2. Slice the onions into half rings, add about 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the onions until golden.
  3. While the onions are frying, cut the chicken breast into small pieces.
  4. When the onions are golden, put in the food processor with the garlic, ginger, chillies (deseeded, unless you like a really hot curry) and tin of tomatoes, and then half fill the empty tomato tin with water, add it, and blend.
  5. Put the blended tomato sauce back into the saucepan, and add the chicken. Cover and let it cook for 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
  6. Add the spices, salt, pepper and the blended spinach, stir and cook for another 5 minutes.
  7. Roughly chop the remaining spinach and add to the saucepan.
  8. Adjust the seasoning, add more salt and cayenne if liked, and then continue cooking for at least another 10 minutes, or to intensify the taste further, for even longer.

*Baby-friendly version*

As above, but at step 4, do not add chillies to the mix unless your baby likes them. Mine does, but his bottom doesn’t, so I do not use them, or only in small quantities. In this case, blend the chillies separately and keep aside.

At step 6, do not add salt.

After step 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add salt and chillies to the remainder.

This recipe, like most tomato sauce-based recipes, freezes really well, so this is a good recipe to batch cook, for both adults and babies.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 224 kcal
  • Carbs: 11g
  • Fat: 7g
  • Protein: 28g
  • Sugar: 9g
  • Sodium: 988mg