Chicken Country Captain

from Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking

Every southern seaport claims this wonderful dish. Country Captain is a fairly straightforward chicken “curry” from northern India. You can find the dish throughout the British Isles as well, but the recipe often calls for “curry powder” – much admired in Britain but unheard of in India. In Charleston fresh exotic spices have always come through our port from afar, so we’ve always had the luxury of the intense flavor of freshly ground and roasted spices.

If you usually rely on curry powder, you’re in for a real treat if you’re willing to spend a little extra time. Go to your local natural foods store and buy small quantities of bulk spices, then roast and grind them at home yourself. You will be stunned by the complexities and subtleties on the palate.

At the 2004 International Antiques Symposium in Charleston, which focused on the Charleston-Caribbean connection, we served this stunning dish to experts from around the globe as I spoke about the culinary aspects of those ties. The luncheon was a resounding success.

Begin the dish several hours or the day before.

To prepare the chicken and the stock:

1 3½ to 4 pound chicken
salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
3 quarts water
2 to 3 celery ribs, broken into pieces
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
2 bay leaves
2 carrots, broken into pieces
a few fresh thyme sprigs and other fresh herbs of your choice

Rinse the chicken in cold water and pat dry. Sprinkle it all over with the salt, pepper, and cayenne. (I put several peppercorns in a spice mill and grind them, then pinch the freshly ground spice between thumb and index finger, rubbing it all over the bird.) Put the chicken in a large stockpot and cover with the water. Add the neck and other giblets (except the liver) if they are included. (I fry the liver in a little butter as the cook’s bonus.) Add the remaining ingredients, bring almost to a boil, reduce the heat, and allow to simmer until the meat is cooked evenly, about 1 hour.

Remove the chicken and allow to cool. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard, then pull the chicken meat from the bird, tearing it into small pieces. Put the meat in a covered dish in the refrigerator. You should have a good pound of meat, about 4 cups. Crack the bones of the carcass with a meat cleaver and return them to the stockpot. Continue simmering the mixture until it has a distinct chicken flavor (about 30 minutes to 1 hour more), then strain all of the solids out of the stock. Allow to cool, then refrigerate the stock. Remove any congealed fat from the surface of the stock before using.

For the curry mix:
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground
2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes or 1 large dried pod
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
½ teaspoon (about 12) whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground ginger
2 bay leaves, crumbled

To assemble the dish:
½ cup blanched and slivered almonds
3 tablespoons peanut oil or clarified butter*
2 large onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
2 large green bell peppers, chopped (2 to 3 cups)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes with their juice
4-1/2 cups reserved chicken stock
4 cups reserved chicken meat
½ cup dried currants

Roast the whole coriander and cumin seeds in a heavy Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they begin to darken, 2 to 3 minutes. If you are using ground cumin, add it about a minute after the coriander. Remove to a spice mill or blender. Add the rest of the dried spices and bay leaves to the spice mill and grind thoroughly. Dump them out onto a plate; you should have about ¼ cup of the curry mix.

Add the almonds to the pot and roast, stirring constantly, until they are browned evenly. Remove and set aside.

Add the oil to the pot. Add the chopped onion, bell pepper, and garlic to the oil and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onions begin to get transparent, about 10 minutes. Put the tomatoes in a blender or a food processor and puree. Add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture, and 1-1/2 cups of the reserved stock to the onion and bell pepper mixture and simmer, uncovered, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes so that the vegetables do not stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 30 to 45 minutes or until almost all of the liquid is cooked out.

Add the reserved chicken meat and currants and stir all together thoroughly, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Store the remaining curry mix in a jar in a cool, dark, and dry place for use in other recipes.

To finish the dish:
1-½ cups long-grain white rice, preferably a Basmati type
3 cups reserved stock
¼ teaspoon salt
chopped parsley for garnish
reserved roasted almonds for garnish

Thirty minutes before serving, add the rice, remaining stock, and salt to a stockpot that has a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil, immediately reduce the heat to a simmer, and cover the pot. Do not stir and do not lift the lid. After 13 minutes, remove from the heat and set aside for 12 minutes more. Meanwhile, reheat the chicken. When the 12 minutes are up, fluff the rice with a fork and spread on a platter, top with the chicken mixture, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and almonds. Serve with Lowcountry Pickle Mix, Dilly Beans, fried eggplant, and traditional curry accompaniments such as roasted peanuts, freshly grated coconut, and a sweet-and-sour condiment such as Hoppin’ John’s Pear Chutney.

Serves 8.

*Clarified butter is the pure butterfat separated from the water and the milk solids (which burn). It is made by heating butter over very low heat. The clarified butter is the clear yellow liquid. Skim the foam from the surface; discard the milky white substance in the bottom of the pot as well.