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Brown but so much more

"Colour fades as flavour deepens: a metaphor for much of life I suggest." Nigella Lawson

Which is, indeed food for thought.

In her book Cook, Eat, Repeat, Nigella has an essay entitled "A loving defence of brown food". You may remember that the other day I was trying to decide which of Robert Carrier's dishes from Great Dishes of the World to cook for dinner. I rejected my other short-listed choice, Moroccan lamb kefta out of sheer laziness - I couldn't be bothered rolling up meatballs - and chose Chicken en cocotte instead.

The photograph I took above left so perfectly fits another Nigella quote from the same essay, that I had to include it:

"To the naked eye, brown food is beautiful rich, warm, and full and depth and subtle variegation. None of this can be easily caught on camera; all that richness, all that warmth, all that promise of deep flavour from long, slow cooking is flattened by the inexpert lens, which turns the stew's meaty liquid disturbingly to cold glassiness." Nigella Lawson

I am one of those holders of the 'inexpert lens' so I absolutely realise that the meal above does not look at all appetising. But believe me readers. It was. It was just perfect in its own modest way. It somehow tasted so French and so very 60s bistro. So very Elizabeth David et al. And yet, having now trawled websites and cookbooks I cannot find another close copy of the recipe - let alone the original. Elizabeth David has nothing similar, and neither do all my other French cookbooks. In the meantime here is the recipe, because, really, you should make it sometime in spite of the unprepossessing picture which has doubtless turned many off reading this post (the picture below is of another of his recipes with the same title in a different book, but which is quite different - no brandy, no tomatoes, but with white wine and garlic too):

Chicken en cocotte

1 tender chicken; salt and freshly ground black pepper; 2 tablespoons butter; 2 tablespoons olive oil; 110g fat bacon, diced; 4 shallots, coarsely chopped; 2 carrots, coarsely chopped; 55ml cognac; 4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped; 1 bouquet garni; 275ml red wine.

Cut chicken into serving pieces and season to taste with salt and pepper. Heat butter and oil in an iron cocotte or a heavy casserole and sauté bacon pieces until golden. Remove bacon; add coarsely-chopped shallots and carrots and cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables 'soften'; the add chicken pieces and brown them on all sides. Return bacon bits to the pan; pour over cognac and flame. Then add peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, bouquet garni and red wine. Cover the casserole and let the chicken simmer over a low fire until it is very tender. Add more wine or chicken stock if the sauce reduces too quickly while cooking.

I will add a few notes - the first being that in places it is somewhat vague - '1 tender chicken' - how big? 'Simmer over a low fire until it is very tender' - no idea is given about how long this might be. In my case it was about half an hour or so, and being modern times I did not start with a whole chicken although maybe I should have - I had three drumsticks and a largeish breast, so I halved the rest of the ingredients - well there were only two of us.

Next - the final result had a fairly watery sauce as you can see which is probably due to me being lazy and not deseeding the tomatoes which therefore shed more juice into the sauce. I tried to boil some of it away at the end but to not much avail. Mind you it didn't matter because the sauce was just delicious. I had puréed potatoes which sopped up the sauce magnificently and David mashed his whole boiled potatoes into it. A baguette would have been a good thing too.

I cooked it in a sauté dish with a lid, and thought, as I poured in the brandy that the brandy would not light - but it did with an almost frightening whoosh. The flames leapt well above the pan, so be careful.

This was the closest that I could get to a photographic approximation of my finished dish and I suppose it's not that much prettier than mine. But, back to Nigella again, bear this in mind:

"Everything has to make a statement these days all of the time and brown food definitively does not do that: it gently beckons us with a whisper rather than a shout. And the truth is, we need the calm that it bestows." Nigella Lawson

This so absolutely says what this dish was for me. It's the kind of dish that any relatively experienced home cook might dream up on a weeknight, which is why I was amazed that I could not find a copy of this very dish anywhere. Not even anything really close.

The red wine was one of the main problems. You don't usually cook chicken with red wine, unless its Coq au vin - Julia Child's version is shown here. But that's a much more complicated dish and has mushrooms and other things in it too. And, of course, Robert Carrier has his own recipe for that anyway. I mean his Chicken en cocotte doesn't even have any garlic. Looking at this beautifully styled photograph of this particular Coq au vin, I wonder whether the fact that it is placed on a dark plate, makes the whole thing look less brown?

The other close copy that we all know about is Chicken cacciatore or Chicken chasseur - that is - Hunter's chicken. But this tends to be much richer, more tomatoey and more garlic and probably with peppers and/or mushrooms too - maybe olives.

I suppose the really interesting thing is that this is a dish from a book called Great Dishes of the World and yet it seems to be something that Robert Carrier has made up. Well maybe he didn't. Maybe he ate this kind of thing all that time he was living in Provence and learning from Fifine in St. Tropez. The red wine is a bit of a wild card though. As is the lack of garlic. The butter and cognac are not - as my previous post said Robert Carrier loved butter and brandy. Cream too but there isn't any of that here. There is no 'classic' French dish called Poulet en cocotte though even though you will find pictures of dishes with that name. And those are almost always of a whole chicken too.

For me this is the thing that makes Robert Carrier such a great cook. He takes a range of similar dishes and synthesises them into one perfect iteration that expresses the fundamental taste experience of them all. And by doing so he recalls all the dishes that have gone before, and all the techniques and ingredients, and history that has led us to that point of discovery. Which is also why you won't find the same thing today on a restaurant menu - maybe not even in France. So hang on to those old gurus and explore.

Perhaps the fact that the recipe is called Chicken en cocotte rather than Poulet en cocotte is the signal that this is a Robert Carrier synthesis - and there are at least three more in the book - all stemming from Coq au vin which he graces with an essay like introduction. A pity that he rarely introduces each individual recipe because it would have been so interesting to hear what he had to say about each dish. This is a much more modern thing - a valuable evolution I think. I suppose the publishers were saving space through the lack of words and the lack of photographs too.

It's also a really good basic recipe that can be fiddled with and tweaked to your heart's delight. I was pretty good though and did follow more or less exactly - except for those tomatoes. I wonder if I had tweaked it by adding other things - maybe putting the potatoes in with it to cook, or adding some garlic, mushrooms ... But then it would have been different. I suppose it's two fundamentally different styles of cooking - each equally valid - follow the recipe exactly or improvise on a basic format. I suppose that's how we learn. Initially we follow exactly and then we start to fiddle.

Five stars anyway. Go RC!

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