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A Bird in the Hand, Diana Henry

I really like Diana Henry’s books. I have them all, I think. And I enjoy her on tv. She’s how you want your friends to be – smart, clever, stylish, a good cook – except they aren’t. She should have her own programme. And I’ve been looking forward to her new book about chicken, everyone’s favourite meat. A roast chicken would be what I’d request before that last slow skip to the gibbet. I’d push salt and some tarragon into the cavity, roast some new potatoes around the bird with some garlic still in its skin, eat it with spring veg and a cold glass of Albariño, which may well have some ice in it. I’d be ready to go after that, I reckon. There must be a joke somewhere confusing gibbet and giblets, too, but I don’t know what it is.

I’ve cooked at least a million chickens, maybe more. I’ve tried Delia’s fast roast in your hottest oven, but that always leaves something too black and something else too pink. I’ve slow roasted an older bird for four hours at 140°, which is foolproof and gives you very tasty meat. I’ve poached, which is a lovely way to get moist, tender meat and a good broth but forget the skin. I’ve braised a piece of chicken at least twice a week this winter, varying the vegetables and herbs. The way I roast a chicken most often is the twenty minutes a pound plus twenty minutes at 180° method. I don’t time it too closely these days, you can tell a lot by smell. And once the breast is bubbling and there’s a small pond of juices around the bird it’s probably done. Pierce the thigh with a skewer, if you must, to make sure the juices are clear. Let it rest for twenty minutes and it’ll be ready, as will you.

Every recipe in Ms Henry’s book looks inviting. I’d decided to test four for this piece but I know I won’t stop there. I want to eat everything here, and there hasn’t been another cookbook published that I can say that about. I’ve worked for publishers, I’ve designed cookbooks, and I’d put money on Ms Henry’s pushing her to include some chicken-y desserts. I’m glad she resisted. There are a lot of recipes with fruit, which suits me fine. I wish there was a method for rendering chicken fat. And I’m surprised there are no recipes for the livers, which are delicious. I’ve seen duck livers in the Ginger Pig recently, which I must try. And I was fed chopped liver when I was young and almost nothing else. I’m a fan of chicken livers. I’m surprised there are no recipes for pâté. The book looks good, though, as I expect from Mitchell Beazley. The excellent photography, by Laura Edwards, makes all the food look inviting.

First up is Chicken with Marsala, olives and blood oranges. I knew it would be a breeze to make. I had it with some brown basmati and it was a breeze to eat, too. It was quite bitter, which I loved. I wasn’t expecting the olives and orange to work so well together, but there you are. Can you buy olives stuffed with a sliver of orange skin, sometimes? Have I invented that?

Next I made Chicken with thyme and lemon and smashed garlic potatoes. I’m surprised the potatoes weren’t cooked in the same dish as the chicken, and next time I’ll probably make it like that. And I will make it again. The garlic potatoes may join the menu on my last meal. Oh, man.

Third was Thyme-roasted chicken with Breton onion sauce. I’ve always avoided the technique of pushing my hand between the skin and breast of a chicken to spread some flavoursome fat there. It’s always looked yucky. I’m of the chopping and stirring school of cookery. I would no sooner gut a fish or skin a rabbit than gut or skin myself. Still, in the interest of culinary R+D, (my research, my development), I had a go. There was more resistance than I’d expected. I got my fingers 4 or 5 centimetres in and accepted that as a good first go. I pushed the thyme butter in. Yuk, but also, I hoped, yum. It’s possible I left the giblets inside the bird – such is home cooking – so it may have been that bag, or it may have been the butter under the skin, maybe the quality of the chicken, maybe the perfect way I cooked it, maybe it was Ms Henry’s recipe – whatever the reason, it was a flavourful, tender and more-than-usually juicy chicken. There isn’t a picture of it in the book, it wasn’t very photogenic, but the dish was very good, indeed. I had leftover sauce that I spooned over pork loin later in the week.

Finally I made Chicken, date and lentil brown rice pilau with saffron butter with the leftovers from the roasted chicken. The designer turned the picture on its side to fit the format of the book. Better if they’d briefed the photographer properly or designed the book first so she knew which shape she had to fill. But the food was lovely. I really want to eat it again.

I liked all four recipes very much. I’m giving the one with oranges and olives to my next guests, but I’d give any of them to guests. Best cookbook I’ve bought for a long time. Highly recommended.

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