THE MENU Iced tomato soup with hot cheese crusts Chickens baked in a salt crust Potatoes roasted in chicken fat & butter-herbed cucumbers in cream dressing Peach melba
THIS MEAL was born of wonderful foods in season plus my relentless search for ways of cooking chicken T that my husband will find worth eating. The herb-stuffed chickens are liberated at the table from their crusts of salt, flour and water and emerge flavorful, moist, subtle, aromatic. The presentation is both spectacular and funny.
The first course of iced tomato soup is light, Italianate and a pleasant relief from gazpacho. The soup, a lovely amalgam of home-grown tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and fresh basil, is accompanied by hot crostini, butter-saturated slices of french bread baked to crispness with a parmesan topping.
Dessert is that good old standby, peach melba, made with ripe peaches poached in a vanilla syrup, filled with good vanilla ice cream and topped with a raspberry sauce made tart with red currant jelly and spiked with framboise, if you happen to have any around.
The soup, an Elizabeth David invention, is practically uncooked, which undoubtedly accounts for its fresh flavor -- the tomatoes are melted in olive oil, cooked for five minutes with the herbs and simmered another five minutes with chicken broth. Fresh basil is a necessity; dried won't do. For those who don't grow fresh basil, I have seen basil sold in bunches in farmers' markets and co-ops.
The salt crust that encases the chicken is as primitive as clay, and serves the same purpose by forming a hermetic seal around the chickens. The dough gets mixed and kneaded like a mud pie -- a pleasantly messy process -- and then is patted or rolled out. Enveloping the chicken in it is vaguely reminiscent of kindergarten. The chicken, interestingly enough, does not become saturated with salt, despite the huge amount in the crust. After the chickens are removed from the oven, they remain hot for at least 40 minutes, or until the crust is penetrated, a virtue I find commendable in any dish. The cooking time in the recipe is adjusted to the time the chicken is held, since the crust forms a kind of oven and the chicken continues to cook in it.
The chickens, when they are brought to the table, look like surreal, free-form Claes Oldenburg sculptures. But they're not soft. The crust has the resilience of marble, so the chisel and hammer (or rigid knife and mallet, but that is too simple in our house) are applied. A lid is tapped off, about three-quarters down from the top, and removed. This liberates the aromas of the birds and their rosemary, bay leaf and garlic stuffing. The chickens are then lifted out of the bottom crusts and carved. (The crusts, whose insides have become perfect molds of the chickens, are, sadly, discarded. They are, by the way, extraordinarily heavy.)
The whole heads of garlic, which emerge without a hint of harshness, are scooped out of the cavities and placed on the side of the serving platter. A little pressure from a fork and the tender insides ooze out of the garlic bud's shell, sweet and ungarlicky.
Also served with the chicken are "tiny new potatoes" that have been carved from larger potatoes (since the little new ones are no longer on the market). After the potatoes are peeled and parboiled, they are roasted in a delicate combination of butter and chicken fat rendered from the birds. The potatoes can be cooked while the chickens are resting out of the oven and keeping hot in their crusts. The cucumbers, which are also at their height now, are an inexpensive and refreshing accompaniment as well as delicate and interesting with the cream (in lieu of oil) and lemon dressing.
Peaches will not be around too much longer, so now is the time to cook with them. However, cooking peaches, even in a vanilla-flavored syrup, will not give them any taste they do not inherently have. I urge you to pick peaches with perfume and no green so that they will ripen to taste like something. I find it a necessity to strain the pips out of the raspberry sauce, and I think the red currant jelly adds interest and body to it. The peaches can be poached a day or two in advance and the sauce can also be made well before serving. However, the elements must be put together at the last minute. The combination of the raspberry sauce with the ice cream and the poached peaches is very pretty, simple and satisfying.
ELIZABETH DAVID'S ICED TOMATO SOUP WITH HOT CHEESE CRUSTS (8 servings)
3 pounds ripe tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 large cloves garlic
About 25 large basil leaves, shredded
5 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of sugar
Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for 10 or 15 seconds and transfer them with a slotted spoon to a bowl of cold water. Skin, seed and dice the tomatoes and cook them over low heat in the olive oil until they lose most of their shape. Press garlic (in a garlic press) into the tomatoes and add the shredded basil. Cook for 5 minutes. Then add the chicken broth, salt, pepper and sugar and cook for another 5 minutes. Cool and refrigerate. Serve with hot cheese crusts.
CHEESE CRUSTS (8 servings)
16 1/4-inch slices bread, cut from a long french loaf
Approximately 11/2 sticks butter, melted
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Dip both sides of the bread slices in the melted butter, place on a cookie sheet and spread them with a thick layer of the parmesan cheese. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the bread is fairly crisp and the cheese is just melted.
CHICKEN BAKED IN A SALT CRUST (8 servings)
2 whole chickens, about 31/4 pounds each
2 large sprigs fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
2 whole heads garlic, unpeeled
For 1 crust:
61/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups coarse (kosher) salt
Approximately 3 cups ice water
Clean the insides of the chicken and remove lungs and any other loose organs. Remove as much fat as possible from the chickens and set aside for rendering in the potato recipe. Pat inside and outside dry. Place into each chicken a large sprig of rosemary, a bay leaf and a whole head of garlic. Truss the birds with string only; do not use skewers. Refrigerate while you prepare the crusts.
Make one crust at a time. Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the ice water, 1/2 cup at a time and knead until the dough is well blended and has some spring. Lightly flour a surface, lay the dough on it, and either with your hands or with a rolling pin spread it out into a circle large enough to enclose one chicken. Lay the chicken, breast down, on the center of the dough. Wrap the dough completely around the bird, enveloping it so that it will be hermetically sealed. Then turn the chicken over and lay it, breast up, on a baking sheet. Repeat for the second chicken.
Bake the birds in a preheated 450-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove and let sit, undisturbed, for 30 minutes (even 40 minutes) or while you serve and eat the first course.
To serve, place the first chicken with its crust on a large board and bring it to the table. To break the crust, you will need a strong, non-flexible knife and a mallet or a chisel and a hammer. Tap a circle about 3/4 of the way from the top of the crust (which will be very hard), remove the lid and lift out the chicken for carving. Remove the garlic from the cavity and serve on the side. Repeat with the second chicken. Adapted from "Roger Verge's Cuisine of the South of France"
TINY POTATOES ROASTED IN CHICKEN FAT AND BUTTER (8 servings)
Chicken fat rendered from the two chickens
1/2 onion, diced
Approximately 8 large new potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
To render chicken fat, cut the reserved fat from the chickens into a 1/4-inch dice and place in a heavy, small saucepan with about 2 tablespoons of water. Over a very low flame, simmer until the fat is rendered and the cracklings look yellow and have lost their raw smell. Then add half an onion, diced, and continue to cook until the onions and cracklings are brown. Remove immediately and strain off the fat, which should be clear, yellow and fresh smelling.
Peel the potatoes, cut them into 11/2-inch chunks and turn them (holding the paring knife in one hand and turning the potato against the knife) to make 11/4-inch tiny potatoes. Drop them into a bowl of cold water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the potatoes for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh with cold water. Put the chicken fat and butter in a roasting pan just large enough to hold the potatoes in one layer and add the potatoes. Roll them around to coat them with the chicken fat and butter. Roast at 450 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes, until they have formed a brown crust, shaking the pan about every 10 minutes or so. Salt lightly and serve immediately.
HERBED CUCUMBERS IN CREAM DRESSING (8 servings)
4 to 5 long, thin cucumbers
About 2 tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt
6 tablespoons heavy cream
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
If the cucumbers are waxed, peel them. If they are not, wash them and leave the peel on. Cut off the ends, slice them thinly and place in a bowl. Mix in about 2 tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt, weight with a plate and let sit to draw the moisture out for about 2 hours. Drain the liquid, wash the cucumber slices if they are very salty and dry on paper towels. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix the dressing into the cucumbers.
PEACH MELBA (8 servings)
8 ripe, large unblemished peaches, all of the same size
1 cup sugar
11/4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1/2 vanilla bean, split up the middle
1 quart good vanilla ice cream
1 recipe raspberry sauce (see recipe below)
Drop the peaches, one or two at a time, into a large pot of boiling water for 10 to 15 seconds and transfer to a large bowl of cold water. Skin the peaches and rub them with the lemon, or drop them into another bowl of cold water to which you have added a tablespoon of lemon juice.
Bring the sugar, water and vanilla to a boil, lower the heat and poach the peaches in the syrup for about 7 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set them on a cake rack over a baking sheet to drain for about an hour. Then halve the peaches and discard the pits.
Place 2 peach halves, cut side up, onto each dessert plate. Place a scoop of ice cream on each half. Cover with raspberry sauce.
RASPBERRY SAUCE (8 servings)
2 packages frozen raspberries
3/4 cup red currant jelly
11/2 teaspoons potato starch or arrowroot
1 tablespoon cold water
2 tablespoons framboise (optional)
Thaw the berries, place them in a saucepan, add the jelly and bring to a boil. Mix the potato starch or arrowroot with the water and add this to the berries. Cook, stirring, until the sauce is clear. Add the optional framboise. Push the sauce through a strainer and cool. This can be made a day or two in advance and refrigerated.