Chicken is an undemanding meat, requiring only that you choose plump, flavoursome, juicy-fleshed, free-range birds rather than their battery-reared, intensely farmed, meagre-flavoured cousins which do little to nourish your soul. At least free-range chickens have done a little scavenging for their food, which is exactly as nature intended.
There’s a robust summery feel to this uncomplicated dish that has its heart deep in the Italian countryside where we holidayed with friends and prepared it from ingredients sourced from the local market. The gravy is packed with the aromatics that chicken loves best – garlic, herbs, lemon, tomatoes and a goodly splash of wine that makes the flavour soar. Green olives are added at the end for a special bitter-salty note.
The blissful thing is that quantities can be imprecise and timing can be inaccurate. The worst thing that can happen (if the dish has to wait about for a lull in the conversation) is that the meat will get ever more tender and fall from the bones to form an unctuous partnership with the sauce.
Chicken thighs work best, as they are succulent and forgiving in terms of cooking time. You could, however, use drumsticks or a whole chicken, jointed and skinned.
Good tomatoes are pivotal to success; source vine-ripened, if possible, as they are more intensely flavoured. Larger tomatoes need to be skinned: score a cross in the base and place in a bowl. Pour over scads of boiling water, leave for about 10 minutes, then lift from the water and slip off the skins with a small knife.
This dish is delicious with a tossed green salad and potatoes that have been skinned and boiled, then fried in olive oil with a generous amount of chopped fresh herbs.
Country Chicken with Tomatoes and Olives
Serves 4 to 5
8 free-range chicken thighs
Sea salt and milled black pepper
Cloves from 1 head of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
½ cup Rosé or dry white wine
2 T lemon juice
3-4 thin strips lemon peel (use a vegetable peeler)
2 sprigs rosemary, snipped into small pieces
Leaves stripped from a small bunch of thyme
2 T snipped fennel
2-3 large, ripe tomatoes, blanched, skinned and quartered
12 green olives
Skin the chicken and trim off all visible fat. Heat a little olive oil in a large saucepan with a well-fitting lid. (The chicken pieces should fit snugly without overlapping.) Over medium high heat, lightly brown the chicken all over; watch carefully and turn frequently so that the pieces don’t stick to the pan. Season with a little salt and pepper and stir in the garlic.
Warm the wine and lemon juice in a small saucepan with the lemon peel, rosemary, thyme and fennel. Pour over the chicken, add the tomatoes and cover with the lid. Cook over very low heat until the chicken is done (this should take about 40 minutes, with the heat low enough simply to bubble the sauce). Turn the pieces occasionally and add the olives about 10 minutes before the end to heat through.
Transfer the chicken, tomatoes and olives to a warm serving platter with a slotted spoon, cover with foil and keep warm. If the pan juices are a bit thin, boil uncovered, stirring occasionally, until they have reduced and thickened. Strain over the chicken and serve hot.
The above dish is perfect for languid summer days. We recommend pairing it with a Rosé but not too subtle or lacking in structure.