"This basil scented dish is simply delicious, there’s not really much more I can say than that. Whether you are making it for you, or doubling it for a crowd, this recipe is certainly a keeper." Lucy Loves
She's right you know. There's not really much you can say about this dish. It is my current lucky dip - Roast chicken with basil and lemon from Nigel Slater's book Real Food, so when my lucky page dip turned up this my heart sort of sank. I mean what can you say? Not only is it simple, but it's also sort of uninteresting in today's world. Chicken, basil, lemon - yes we all know about that particular mix.
However, as it turns out, there are actually a few things you could say I think. Which is the great thing about lucky dips. Even the most unpromising choice - both of book and page - can sometimes turn out to be a surprisingly interesting adventure. Well I hope so anyway. Always interesting for me because it makes my brain work particularly hard to find something to say, perhaps not for you. We'll see ...
The first thing to mention perhaps is that this is one of those classic "three good things on a plate" dishes. Well four if you count the two cloves of garlic, which according to one blogger are essential and one of the most delicious features of the finished dish. No five, because there is white wine. And, as I said, an obvious set of ingredients as well. The olive oil and salt and pepper don't count. Even if it's five though - and I think at a pinch you could say it's three - the ingredient list - and the method too - is pretty short. Indeed is it really a recipe?
Honestly, when I find a recipe like this I wonder why anyone would say they can't cook. In the 'old days' you would have to have bought a whole chicken and cut it up yourself, which I suppose could be daunting. These days though you can buy the bits already cut up - and indeed the recipe says to do just that. You even need the skin and bones in them, so it should be cheaper. Or you can return to 'the old days' and buy a whole chicken before cutting it up.
Which I might do when I make it. Because although I have made many variations on the theme of basil, lemon, chicken I don't think I have made this particular one. I probably looked at it - or I should say, glanced at it - and decided it was boring. Boring! In my youth this would have been adventurous. I didn't even know what basil was.
Back to those reluctant cooks. A toddler could make this - if he or she got their mum to cut the lemon in half. I mean all you do is season your chicken bits and put them in a baking tin; pour over some oil; squash a couple of garlic cloves - skin and all; squeeze the lemon and a it more oil over it all and put the remains of the lemon in the tin too and roast for half an hour. Tear up your basil and toss them around a bit with the chicken and roast for another ten minutes. Take it out, put it on a flame; pour in the wine and cook for a couple of minutes. Done. I will say it again - kids of both sexes should have cooking lessons throughout their school careers. After all depending on the age level you can tie it in with all sorts of other things from pure fun to pure physics. Think how accomplished they would feel after producing this.
And here's an aside. I tried to find a picture of a toddler cooking some roast chicken but I could not. Heaps of pictures of toddlers cooking cakes, cookies, etc. Heaps of pictures of toddlers slicing things up. Even lots of them cooking things like spaghetti and other, far more dangerous things than mixing some chicken in a tray with things and getting your mum to put it in the oven. And I confess that when I was a young mum the things I cooked with my kids were indeed cookies and cakes. It would have been so much more satisfying to roast a chicken wouldn't it?
Nigel Slater wrote this recipe back in 1998 and some bloggers have been cooking it ever since. I found five and I'm sure there are more hidden away in the furthest corners of the net. Like me. Below are the five I found: Years of Practice, Charlotte Puckette, The Little Bean, Essex Girl Cooks Healthy and Lucy Loves. And they all look pretty good.
The interesting thing about them is how each of these people have fiddled with the recipe over the years - for most of them claim to have cooked it many times. The modifications are not great though - with the exception of the Essex Girl - who uses 12 cloves of garlic to Nigel's 2, and 4 lemons to his 1! And moreover she adds no wine. The others did things like tearing the lemon halves into two to four pieces before tucking them into the dish; using different cuts, and adding the wine with the basil, rather than adding it right at the end and cooking the whole dish over a flame for a couple of minutes. Maybe it's so simple there's no room to fiddle. If you fiddle - as Nigel himself does with the same ingredients elsewhere, then it becomes something else.
Last thing. In an article headed Oven ready Nigel talks about summer roasts, of which this is an example - the recipe is included but without a picture for some reason. He sees summer roasts as a lighter affair than the "rich winter versions with their heavy red wine or madeira gravies."
He elaborates by saying:
"In summer I add young herbs to the pan stickings. That way, once I have poured a glass of white wine or boiling water over them, the pan juices are alive with clean-tasting mint, coriander and lemon. Such thin 'gravies' lift the flavour of the meat rather than smother it."
So I pondered on this for a moment or two. I have recently eaten a braised chicken dish with madeira - a Nigel recipe - which I felt could be just as easily eaten in summer as in winter. Indeed do we really need to change the food we eat in winter and in summer? In some sense, yes we do, because fruit and vegetables still tend to be seasonal and so you are cooking with some different things at different times of the year. But there are always tomatoes, and lemons - admittedly cheaper at different times. Honestly though we are no longer really behoven to the seasons. Cooking magazines and columns like to exaggerate the seasonal differences. Well, of course they do. They have to adjust their marketing according to what is 'current'. I think it might be nice to eat a 'summer roast' in the middle of winter - it might make you feel like it was summer. As in Nigel's wonderful words about lemon:
"Not just fresh lemons, but the Moroccan ones preserved in brine. The effect they introduce is different altogether from the fresh fruit - at once more aromatic and saltily piquant. Add these and a ton of fresh mint, and you have something seriously Middle Eastern. The sort of food that smells like it should be eaten under a bower of carmine bougainvillea."
So there you go from a very, very simple recipe to a Moroccan garden - this one is Robert Carrier's. Is it true that a recipe can transport you, or rather, the finished dish, to a different place and time? Can it change your mood? Nigel definitely thinks so.
"I have long felt a recipe should have a heart and soul and a sense of joy, it should inspire and delight, rather than be mind-numbingly reliable."
"Some recipes just sell themselves, and this is one of them." Lucy Loves
Try it some time and let me know whether it's really as good as it looks, or whether indeed it really is just too simple. Does it give you a sense of joy?