Fergus Henderson is rightly famous for his long followed creed of nose to tail eating and the pared down aesthetic of St John. His guiding principle seems to be that it’s only polite if you knock an animal on the head to eat it all: tripe, heart, feet, ears, head, tail. It’s what he's renowned for, his signature dish is roasted bone marrow with parsley caper sauce, which is utterly sublime. It seems his infamy is based on the notion that he only cooks the offal bits but really he cooks the whole animal - and lots of vegetables - sublimely.
I'm lucky enough to work near enough to St John at Smithfields to have an occasional lunch in the bar but one of the stand out treats for my birthday this year was eating again in the restaurant, a much expanded experience to the small plates in the bar. Everything was simply outstandingly good from langoustines with the best mayonnaise I have ever eaten - so good I had to fight the rest of the party off 'sharing' it to a plate of madeline hot from the oven that were indeed intended for sharing.
For my main course I opted for poached chicken with leeks, juicy, tender and deeply flavoured, just wonderful. Simple, elegant and as close to perfect as poached chicken can be. So I checked my copy of Nose to Tail and found the recipe for it, which also suggested serving the finished dish with aioli. Though it needs to be done over two days, logically, so the meat can cool completely it is a very simple dish to make, good as I remembered it and quite unlike most of the food I make. British and ethereal at the same time.
Boiled Chicken and Leeks
1 free range chicken (slit the skin between the leg and breast) or I used 6 chicken legs, about 1.5kg in weight
2 carrots, unpeeled and chopped
2 leeks, chopped
1 onion, unpeeled and halved
1 whole head of garlic
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 bay leaves
a bundle of thyme, parsley and rosemary
20 or so whole peppercorns
6 leeks, trimmed
Place the chicken and all the ingredients down to the sea salt in a large pot, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. As soon as it boils cover it with a lid, take it off the heat and leave it to cool, which takes about 6 hours.
I then left the chicken in the broth in the fridge for the day before making dinner next night.
Remove the chicken from the stock and put it into a clean pot. Strain the stock and put some of it in with the chicken, retaining enough of the broth for another pot to cook the leeks. Bring the stock to a gentle simmer and cook for 30 minutes. You will now have a moist bird - or bits - without it being toughened or falling apart from hard boiling.
In a separate pan put the trimmed leeks and the remaining stock. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 7 minutes till tender.
Serve the chicken and leeks with a splash of the chicken broth, a bowl of the aioli and coarse sea salt. As with any boiled unbrined meat, coarse sea salt applied just before eating is very good.
Save the rest of the stock for future cooking.
10 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
sea salt and pepper
2 free range egg yolks
about 300ml of extra virgin olive oil
juice of 2 lemons - you may not need it all.
Put the garlic into a processer chopping bowl with a pinch of salt (to help break it up) and a good grinding of pepper. Whizz until finely pulped, this is important as you do not want garlic chippings in the aioli. Add the egg yolks, let them meet the garlic for a moment, then carefully and slowly add the oil in a gently stream, whisking all the while. The emulsion should safely hold 300ml, perhaps a little more. Now add the lemon juice, tasting as you go. Adjust the seasoning, then refrigerate.
The aioli is delicate and pungent simultaneously and really brings the finished dish together. I served it with hot boiled new potatoes to make a delicately pale plate. I mixed the leftover potatoes and leeks into some aioli as a salad to go with the remaining chicken next day for lunch.
This was one of the nicest meals I've cooked in a while amidst pretty stiff competition. As Fergus Henderson says, making this dish is emphatically worth it.