Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Poet Chef: Roast Chicken with Lord Midders

The Poet Chef: New Year's Eve French Roast Chicken with Lord Midders of Iceland

It was New Year's Eve in the Drink Tank.

An ideal chance, I thought, to launch a new part-time career as The Poet Chef.

My new year's resolution is to learn myself to cook with a little teach from the televisual masters or, at least, their extensive philosophical writings on the subject.

So, it was New Year's Eve. My dear friend Midder was due to jet in from Iceland for the night.

Firstly - and, in the absence of guidance from the Poet Chef via this journal, this is a crucial tip - I consulted a recipe book.

In case, like me, you have not come across this strange animal before, it is usually a great tome packed with wordy accounts of how to cook, illustrated by large colour images of Nigella's cleavage, Jamie's impish smile and moped, Ramsay's furrowed brow and so on.

On this vital occasion, I played safe and selected one called Good Housekeeping, wiped off the thick layer of dust wtih my sleeve, and skipped the section on vacuum cleaning.

Inside, I found what seemed like a dream template for a New Year's Eve roast fiesta for Lord Midders and company. . . French roast turkey with all the trimmings.

So, off to Waitrose I trundled with my tartan shopping trolley complete with customised wheels and OAP gangsta rap booming out from the transister.

At the supe, it was packerooed. Clearly, I was not the only Poet Chef in Lewes preparing to entertain an Icelandic peer of the realm.

Lady Luck was in. The most expensive bird in the joint - a large free range organic chicken - was still unspoken for, so I snapped it up, along with a slab of butter, 5lb of King Edwards spuds, a sprig of tarragon, a large lemon, four large corgettes, six large carrots, two large onions and fair sized piece of broccoli, which I always like because it seems to be talking to me: 'Broc-Ollie!')

Of course I also picked up a couple of bottles of Champagne (one good to start, one more average to follow), some Becks beer (from my mother's home town Bremen), a pack of sausages wrapped in bacon overcoats, because they looked funny, and some blueberries.

Back to Chez Olivier to dump the stuff - and straight out again to Lewes Station to greet Lord Midders (alongside the Mayor of Lewes and other local VIPs).

We quickly cast off the local dignitaries and returned to the house for a couple of cheeky glasses of wine and a chat.

Midders - himself a wonderful chef - was suitably appalled at my plans to use butter on the chicken.

'Goose fat, Ols,' he stressed, 'Goose fat!'

So back to Waitrose we traipsed where Lord Midders soon had the entire staff running around like blue-arsed flies - in the elusive search for goosey fat.

Eventually, the manager found the last packet, and, to make the journey more worthwhile, Midders also stocked up on beverages, including what he described as a 'bottle of senior red'.

As our reward for our cooking efforts thusfar, Midders and I dropped by the Harvey's Brewery flagship pub, The John Harvey Tavern, for a pint of Harvey's Best Bitter which went down a treat.

Back at base, it was Four O'Clock already. After passing on a few tips on goose fat basting, Midders knocked back his medicinal whisky and retired for his siesta, leaving me to get down to the parlous business of cooking.

1-2-3, 1-2,3, I pre-heated Mr O, the oven, at full power, cut the lemon in two and shoved one half up Madame La Chicken's tradesman's (is that how Nigella describes it?) - and added my big sprig of tarragon for good measure.

I then greased her (the chicken, not Nigella) like a topless mud wrestler using Midders' goosy-goosy-gander fat applied with my bare hands. God, it felt good!

Poet Chef Health Tip 1: Always wash your hands after handling meat and ensure that nothing that's been in contact with the uncooked bird touches the other foods you are preparing. Otherwise, you might get the salmonrushdie strain of food poisoning, and have to spend years hiding out in safe houses at huge public expense.

Mathematics has never been my best suit (the Gieves and Hawkes pinstripe is), so I was glad Mr Waitrose had already calculated the cooking time - at one hour and 45 minutes (or 105 minutes).

It is worth remembering that Mr W is an optimist and assumes your oven is fully effective, rather than a bit crap, as I am always been told ours is.

As a result I decided that two hours at near full blast would do my bird no harm. I understand it is actually rather hard to overcook chicken unless you really incincerate it.

So, my bird in a roasting dish went into the oven at Force Eight on the Gas Scale, and then I did something very important: I worked out all the timings for the meal and wrote them down on a scrap of recycled paper (a Tax Credits envelope or similar Government waste of trees).

Without a note, it is easy to get distracted during the long roasting process, and forgetting where you've got to. An American management guru once told me: 'If it's not written down, it's not a plan', and I am sure he had cooking in mind.

Poet Chef Health Tip 2: Do not lean your cooking note against the stove as the Poet Chef has done. It is very likely to catch fire at some point and burn down your house.
Once my gorgeous, sexy bird was well and truly in Mr O, I got together all my veg for their own New Year's Eve shindig.

Joining Mr Spud, Mr Carrot, Madame Corgette, Herr Broccoli and Miss Onion was Monsieur Garlic, lovingly nurtured by The Poet Chef at his Earwig Corner Allotment in Lewes.

Garlic tends to be roasted in his overcoat but I decided to give him a go naked to add a Frenchie taste to the flavour.

Anyway, I got the whole veggie team together for a festive photo op.

Luv Jub, as they say.

Then came the tricky matter of the roast potatoes. As a total novice at cooking, I was a bit concerned by this, but, after studying the cook book, I took the peeled spuds and dropped them into a pan of boiling water for a minute. Yeah, no kidding, just 60 secs!

After that, I got the pan off the heat and let the spuds stand in the very hot water for another nine minutes. Out they came, I dried them and dropped them into Mr Oven next to the bird which had been roasting for about 20 minutes at that juncture.

The point of this little pantomime is to seal in all the goodness in the potatoes before you roast them like Tom Brown on a bad day on Flashman's fire.

At the same time, I added the Mr Onion and Monsieur Garlic to the roasting pan, bunging on a bit more goosy fat all round.

Thereafter it was plain sailing (well, cooking).

Lord Midders re-emerged refreshed and fragrant, having slept and bathed.

He insisted on personally checking the goosey basting, adding even more goose fat, and ladling the juices over the spuds with a silver spoon.

That done, we settled down to have a good gossip and started on the bottle of senior red. Very tasty.

I read the first 20 of so stanzas of my long narrative poem.

All the time the oven was exuding aromas sweeter than a brace of Premiership footballers roasting a Wag. Which reminds me, you should turn the bird after 20 minutes to make sure top and bottom get a fair share of the action. But she should end up on her back, breasts up.

That's enough chef filth, back to the poetry!

Midders was going to read some poetry but his glasses were kaputt after he'd sat on them, lending him a suitably eccentric look. All the same, he made an appreciative audience.

When the senior red was finished, it was time to cook the vegetables.

This should be a piece of cake, but how many times have you visited expensive restaurants and found the veg a bit soft or a bit hard.

Just popping them into a pan of boiling water and going off to watch Chelsea on the telly or wax your pantyline is not good enough. They require rigorous checking to guarantee that the texture of the carrot, broccoli or whatever is absolutely spot-on.

The secret of cooking is, urr, timing! I reckon that carrots should take about 20 minutes, thinly sliced corgette and the clumps of broccoli (like slices of a lung) a bit less.

Your bird should stand for quarter of an hour after her roasting, so the veg should be going on the stove not long after she comes out.

After one and three quarter hours of roasting, I took out the bird, and Midders tested her with a blade - like a sharp knife through hot butter. Perfecto! The potatoes had also roasted well as had those lovely big onions, always my favourite part of the roastie mix.

The garlic had certainly added to the favouring of the juices, which I filtered off to add to boiling water and an Oxo chicken stock cube to make a delicious gravy, but removing its overcoat had meant it had deteriorated in the pan.

I fried the little sausages in their bacon pyjamas as a side dish rather than a starter.

Another quarter of an hour on, the table was laid, the Champagne opened, the French chicken carved, the veg drained and served – to make the perfect New Year's Eve. If I say so myself, it was pretty damn good fare.

We had a right raucous feast, with blueberries and ice cream and a selection of exotic cheeses for dessert. We drank the two bottles of champers and rounding it all off another bottle of wine and a session on the port, taking us well into the New Year.

Not bad for a first effort at cooking. If you do what I did, you can't go far wrong, me old cocks.

Next time: The Poet Chef makes Shepherds Pie or something.


Lord Midders stayed a couple more days and I was sad to see him return to Iceland. We hope to catch up over there in the summer.

I never drink alcohol in January, and this year the month has seemed more torturously hard than usual.

It has been ghastly cold and is dismally dark when I arise at 6.25am. My only comfort is that I no longer have to go up to the miserable Midlands on a Sunday or Monday or hang out in Lonely Leamington on weekday nights. That glorious thought alone keeps me going at bad times.

There's been the odd joyful moment but I am suffering this month and not being able to drink has made it worse. Today, the fog was so thick crossing The Thames, you could not see the water!

Last week the Serpentine was frozen, which I found quite exciting on my lunchtime constitutional, and beautiful photographically.

And I have done a lot of poetry editing, revising all 140 stanzas so far of my long narrative poem, and all of my other 2008 poetry.

In 2009 I want to break out of my poetry web-cage and publish poems more widely.

It is a wretched time, though.

Every night robotic Robert Peston brings more bad news, delivered with his trademark, extraordinary intonation; the Palestinians are taking another pasting (and there was I thinking that Tony Blair has sorted that one out, just like he did with Iraq), and the train is unbearably crowded, despite all the redundancies Peston keeps telling me about. The appalling people who gravitate towards where I'm sitting, well, I won't start. . .

Did I tell you my big toenails are falling off (after skiing). Sorry, overshare!

It would be fair to say I am not coping with January at all well.

My mind has turned once again to the idea of retracing old friends. This is a difficult one because not everyone would want to see me.

Conversely, I am occasionally contacted by blasts from the past whom - for very good reasons - I do not want to meet again.

On my lunchtime walks I have been thinking a lot about this. It reaches to the core of the nature of friendship. Friends often come about through circumstance and, only when there is a genuine commonality, do they survive a change of that circumstance.

Personal time is limited, and people are constantly reprioritising their friendships to segue with their current situation.

Most of us will know people who have vanished off the radar after forming a relationship or moving to a different town; all contact, emails, phone calls, Christmas card drying up without explanation.

In a little town like Leamington the lives of the indigenous population were dominated by their extended families and old schoolfriends. Incomers did not even register socially. Only when small town people move to a new town or city, do they suddenly start trying to socialise with those they previously would have shunned.

In terms of the old friends I want to contact, I am worried about being cold-shouldered or finding I have nothing left in common with them.

The people I would most like to see again go way back – and may not even remember me.

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