One thing foodies never do is buy any of those pre-roasted chickens from the hot display at the supermarket. Never, never, never! (Well, just that once, I swear it!)
They’re definitely pre-fab food, but you can easily doctor them. In fact, medieval recipes often called for chicken to be roasted or baked and then stewed in a sauce. The first stage browned the meat desirably while the stewing stage was a necessity, because before the 20th century most chickens were tough old hens past their egg-laying days who needed a good course of moist heat to become tender.
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It’s actually hard to find an elderly stewing hen these days, so we have to make do anyway. I say why not accept a compromise with the times and let the supermarket do part of the work? The pre-roasted chickens are generally what used to be considered frying size (often far smaller than any chickens you can find in the butcher section) so they’re naturally tender and don’t really need any stewing at all. You only need to make the sauce part of the recipe and warm the chicken up in it.
A royal recipe with pre-roasted chickens
So here’s a quick, 21st-century way of making Chekyns in Musc, from “Ancient Cookery,” a collection of 14th- and 15th- century royal recipes written down during the reigns of various English monarchs beginning with Edward III.
Inevitably, earlier stages of a language look quaint and rustic. This recipe begins, “Take smale chekyns and make hom clene, and choppe hom, and do hom in a pot, and put therto gode brothe of fressh flesh and wyn, and let hom seethe.” Among the flavorings you should “do therto” were “raisynges of corance” and “zolkes (sic) of raw eggus,” and finally you were supposed to boil everything “togedur” and “serve hit forthe.”
It may look bizarre on the page, but this was a royal recipe, and it aimed at the sophisticated effect of its time: rich and sweet-sour, with an intoxicating jumble of aromas. I presume “musc” was musk, and perhaps there is something musky about the combination of sage, clove, mace, saffron and raisins.
The recipe actually calls for currants. These are the “raisynges of corance,” that is, raisins of Corinth, called for in the recipe. But currants are hard to find outside the holiday season, when they get enough play for the rest of the year in mincemeat and fruitcake. If you can find them, currants are actually nicer than raisins for this dish, but the difference is not huge. Personally, I would toast the pine nuts because I happen to find raw pine nuts insipid, while toasted pine nuts are everything popcorn promised but didn’t deliver.
The recipe calls for verjuice (verjus), which is sour grape juice. You can sometimes find it in import stores, particularly Middle Eastern ones. In Arabic it’s called ‘asir hisrim and in Farsi it’s ab ghureh. You can substitute lemon juice. In fact, the Italians have done so quite systematically, as their medieval word for verjuice, agresto, is now just a term for lemon juice.
Anyway, this is a fine cool-weather dish for two people, or one medieval-style glutton.
Chekyns in Musc
Serves 2 to 3
1 (1½- to 2-pound) chicken, roasted or baked
½ cup strong chicken stock or 1 teaspoon chicken concentrate mixed with ½ cup water
1 cup white wine
6-8 leaves fresh sage
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 clove, freshly ground
¼ teaspoon mace, freshly ground
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup currants or raisins
10 threads saffron, ground
2 egg yolks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon verjuice or lemon juice
1. If the chicken is not already separated, divide it into drumsticks, thighs, wings and breast. Dismantle the breast into 6 to 8 pieces. Remove the skin and the bones if you like.
2. Put the stock and wine in a saucepan and boil until the smell of alcohol goes away. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the sage, parsley clove, mace, pine nuts, currants and saffron and cook until the currants are plumped, 5 minutes. Add the chicken parts and heat through.
3. Remove the chicken parts. Beat the egg yolks with 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot cooking liquid, then stir the eggs into sauce to thicken it. There will not be much sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Stir in the verjuice or lemon juice, add the chicken parts and warm up again before serving.
Pre-roasted chicken. Credit: iStockphoto