Poaching a whole chicken is hardly ever done these days but is absolutely the best way to ensure juicy and delicious meat. Young roasting chickens become extra tender and tasty when they aren’t exposed to the oven’s drying heat.
Traditionally it was birds at the end of their hen-laying days that were poached. That was until mass chicken and egg farming practices in the second half of the 20th century meant those older birds were no longer something the consumer could be shown, let alone be tempted to buy.
Happily we have turned a corner on how chickens are looked after. If you fancy having a go with a poaching fowl a good butcher should be able to get you a good one that has led a happy life. Its meat will be drier and leaner but very flavoursome. All it needs is a few hours in the poaching pot to re-tenderise the meat and give a dish that can make roast chicken seem insipid in comparison.
It is true that poached chicken doesn’t have a crispy skin and that can make it a little less aesthetically pleasing to place whole in front of a generation brought up to expect their chickens browned. I avoid that by simply carving or pulling the meat off the carcass and piling it all up on a platter for people to help themselves from. Nicely laid-back for summer.
This recipe is inspired by an old Lancashire way of doing poached chicken known as ‘Hindle Wakes’. In the traditional version the hen was poached with a herbed prune stuffing. I think that is too heavy for summer. In mine the dried fruits are represented in the watercress, raisin and almond salad that I serve this with. Some new potatoes and a tarragon mayonnaise make for a special, simple, and stylish summer dinner.
Poached whole chicken with tarragon mayonnaise and watercress, raisin & almond salad (serves 4)
For the poached chicken:
a good size chicken
handful of fresh tarragon
one lemon cut in half
a couple of cinnamon sticks, a star anise, 6 whole cloves, 1tsp whole black peppercorns
1. Stuff the chicken’s cavity with the tarragon, half a lemon, and some seasoning. Rub the skin all over with the other lemon half then throw that away. Sit the bird in a pot that can comfortably take its size and pour over enough cold water to almost cover the bird – you need to leave just an inch poking out above the water. Add into the pot the spices, peppercorns and salt. (If I have stalks of wet garlic left over I add those in too.) Bring to the boil then pop the lid on and turn the heat right down. You need the water to be gently, almost barely, bubbling.
2. Give it an hour and a quarter, then turn the heat off and do not touch the lid. Let the chicken cool in its broth – that will take another hour or so – before carefully lifting it out. The legs may want to fall off but don’t worry about that – you are going to tear the meat off the bones anyway.
(If you are using a poaching bird cook in just the same way but fully immersed in the water and for a couple of hours longer.)
Once the chicken is done you can get on with the other bits.
Whisk the yolks with the mustard and vinegar until thick. Slowly – very slowly – pour in the oil, being sure to keep on whisking. It will eventually thicken to a fabulously rich and glossy mayonnaise. Season with salt, stir through the tarragon, and if you prefer something a bit looser and a tablespoon of the chicken’s poaching broth. Chill until needed.
Watercress, raisin and almond salad:
50g flaked almonds
2tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
1tbsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp lemon juice
pinch of sugar
1. Put the raisins in a small pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil, leave off the heat for about half an hour for the raisins to plump up, then drain. Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan for a minute or two until golden, then set aside.
2. Mix together the oil, vinegar, lemon juice, the pinch of sugar and some salt and pepper.
3. Wash and thoroughly drain the watercress in cold water. Just before serving lightly mix the watercress with the dressing and then scatter in amongst it the plumped raisins and toasted almonds.
Serve the whole lot alongside new potatoes that have been boiled or steamed as you prefer, with plenty of salt and butter over them.