Summertime, and the eating is easy. Crisp frisée lettuce glistening with mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette, mussels in every way, almost every day, merguez on the grill, earthy Puy lentils tossed with last night’s leftovers and transformed into lunch. These are the things I love.
And now, I have an accomplice. My lovely nephew Angus is here in France with us and he wants to learn how to cook. He is 16, sweet, clever, funny, kind. He is also a keen rugby player, over six feet tall, and tells me he has to eat no fewer than 4,000 calories a day. Apparently not all of these can be in the form of Nutella. This is a new challenge for me, as I spend most of my time trying to figure out how I can stop myself from eating 4,000 calories a day. At least he’s strong enough to help me carry mountains of food up the hill, (almost) without complaint.
We spend our mornings reading the regional newspaper, the Midi-Libre, together. This is of mutual benefit. He’s improving his French and, as we always seem to start with the sports section, I’m improving my knowledge of rugby. Want to know anything about the French back row? Ask me. This is not something I ever thought I would say.
By the time the newspaper is folded away, we’re on to the really big issue of the day: what shall we have for lunch? If it were up to Angus, it would probably be roast chicken. This is the recipe I’ve promised him will impress the girls. I hope you like it too.
Angus’s perfect roast chicken
We buy most of our meat from M Greffier’s Boucherie Artisanale on the rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. I asked M Greffier for a nice, roasting chicken and he enquired how many it was for. I said five, but explained that the towering teenager beside me was included in that number. He raised an eyebrow and came back with the plumpest bird I’ve ever seen, which he wrapped in pink checked paper and then placed in this highly appropriate bag.
200g unsalted butter
1 small bulb of garlic
A good handful of herbs – tarragon, parsley, chervil
A nice, plump, free-range bird of about 1.5-2kg
A bay leaf
A small onion, peeled and cut into quarters
A small glass of white wine
Salt and pepper
You will, if you read this blog, almost certainly want:
Take the chicken out of the fridge a good 30 minutes to an hour before you want to roast it. Preheat the oven as high as it will go.
Chop most of the herbs and two cloves of the garlic very finely and pound them into a paste with about two thirds of the butter. Carefully loosen the skin of the bird with your fingers and stuff most of the butter underneath it (save a piece about the size of a large walnut), massaging it between the breasts and the skin. Season the inside of the bird with salt and pepper and place the remaining herby butter inside, along with a few sprigs of parsley and tarragon, the bay leaf, onion and the rest of the head of garlic, unpeeled but cut in half horizontally to expose the centre of the cloves. Spread the rest of the butter over the skin of the chicken, season with salt and pepper and place in a roasting tin. Cut the lemon into quarters and squeeze them over the bird. Place the squeezed-out quarters inside the cavity too. Pour the glass of wine into the roasting tin and put the bird into the oven to sizzle for 15 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4 and cook for about an hour - Remember to baste it every 20 minutes or so - depending on the size of the chicken, until the juices in the thigh run clear when pierced with a knife. Squeeze over the juice of the remaining lemon, cover loosely with foil and leave to rest for 15 minutes or so before carving. Any you do not eat at the first sitting will remain perfectly flavoursome and moist for leftover sandwiches and salads.
If you want to make some roast potatoes to go with the chicken (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), peel about 1kg of potatoes, cut them into quarters and parboil them for five minutes in lightly salted water. Drain them and let them steam for a bit in the colander so that they lose some of their moisture. When the chicken is about 25 minutes from being cooked, remove the tin from the oven and place the potatoes around the bird, turning them over in the fat. Return to the oven and when the chicken is done, squeeze over the lemon, put the bird on a warm plate to rest and put the lemon pieces in with the potatoes. Turn up the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6 and cook until golden, giving the tin a rattle once or twice. These potatoes won’t be as crisp as the ones I describe in my classic roast potato recipe but they will be deliciously lemony and bathed in the chicken’s herby juices.
Green beans with onions and garlic
It’s a common misconception on our side of the Channel that in France, all vegetables are served crisp, al dente (an Italian expression, sure, though I’ve found no greater love of crispness there, either). Certainly, when I’m adding French beans to a salad I want them still to have some bite to them, but when I’m serving them hot as a side dish, there’s something very comforting about cooking them until quite soft and allowing them to take on the flavour of some good stock. Even the queen, Elizabeth David, advocated boiling them in lightly salted water for 15 minutes and then tossing them in about an ounce of butter per pound of beans.
This is not a French recipe exactly, rather one made by me from the contents of our French larder and they went rather well with the chicken.
1 large onion, finely diced
2tbsps olive oil
A knob of butter
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
About 400g green beans, topped and tailed
About 350ml chicken stock
About 50ml crème fraîche or whole milk Greek yoghurt
Small handful of toasted pine nuts or flaked almonds
Some finely chopped mint (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Warm the olive oil and butter in a large pan over a medium-low heat. Fry the onions gently, with a good pinch of salt, until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for another minute or two before pouring over the stock and simmering, partially covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the green beans and simmer, with the lid on, for about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and boil vigorously for a further 5 minutes until the beans are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated.
In a small bowl, whisk together the crème fraîche or yoghurt with a good pinch of salt (you can add some finely chopped mint at this point if you like). Pour a few spoons of the hot liquid remaining in the pan into the crème fraîche or yoghurt and whisk until smooth. Pour back into the beans and stir to coat and warm through. Stir in the toasted pine nuts or almonds and serve immediately.