23 July 2012

Chicken & Fennel Ragu using a French chicken from Westin Gourmet

When Westin Gourmet offered me one of their "One time only" selection packs of meat, I didn't have to think twice.

After all, it really isn't every day that you have the potential for so many terrific dishes sent your way!

In the insulated cold box, there was real treasure :

• 1x 6oz Hereford Sirloin Steak
• 1x 6oz Aberdeen Angus Sirloin Steak
• 1x 1kg Packs of Steak Mince
• 2x 7-8oz Pork Loin Steaks
• 1x 1.5kg Whole Corn Fed Chicken
• 10x 4oz Gourmet Steak Burgers
• 24x Award Winning Cumberland Sausages.

Everything went into the freezer, apart from the chicken - which I'd got designs on using for the following two evenings' meals.  As you can imagine, you'll be seeing the name "Westin Gourmet" on a number of blog posts to come as I work my way through the pack!

It was a beautiful chicken - but I was considerably surprised to discover that it was a French chicken, rather than one of the many gorgeous British chickens that are available these days.  With the ordinary price being £9.68, I felt it would have been perfectly possible for Westin Gourmet to have sourced some British chicken and felt rather disappointed that they hadn't.

However, I had a beautiful plump corn-fed chicken sitting there just waiting to be made into something luscious, so I'd better get on with it.

I had decided that I would probably make the most of the chicken by, initially, cooking it in the slow cooker where a) it would be guaranteed to be tender and b) it would generate some lovely stock whilst cooking.  I could then use that stock in whatever recipes I decided upon.

So hence, it started its culinary journey by being tucked up in the slow cooker with two carrots, two celery sticks an onion, some garlic, some fresh sage, fresh parsley and a Knorr herb infusion stock pot which would bring additional parsley flavours, along with thyme and bay.

Don't you think it looks lovely, all cosied up with its pals?

I was cautious with the salt at this stage as the stock pot will have its own salt content and only seasoned the meat a little, but did give the whole thing a good sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.

Some 6 hours later, I had a chicken that was just falling apart and some truly gorgeous stock.

I divided the chicken up into two quantities - one amount which was heavy with breast meat (for the Chicken & Fennel Ragu) and the other which contained mostly leg meat for a Chicken & Sweetcorn pie for the following day.

In taking the chicken meat from the bones, it was absolutely apparent what good quality the meat was.  The difference between a standard supermarket chicken and this chicken was just chalk and cheese.  The meat was softly tender - the breast was almost butter-soft - and superbly moist.

One downside was my surprise at how bruised the meat was in places - and wondered about this poor old chicken's end.  It didn't appear to have come particularly comfortably, if the bruises were anything to go by.  Another reason for using a British chicken that has been despatched under our more humane welfare system, methinks - and something that Westin Gourmet would do well to investigate further.

Having drained the stock from the vegetables, I decanted a certain amount into a saucepan to reduce for the ragu's sauce and the rest went into the fridge for the pie.

Making the ragu after that was a relatively simple matter of sweating down the vegetables (onion, fennel and button mushrooms) and thickening the stock into a sauce with the addition of some cream and mushroom ketchup.

We had found some "out of the ordinary" pasta - Casarecce - in the supermarket and I had decided to give that a try-out with the ragu.  It certainly was robust and took considerably longer than it said on the packet to cook!  The Casarecce was interesting, however, in that it made a change from our standard Fusilli or Spirali pasta and also proved a good pairing with the ragu as it held the sauce perfectly.

Aside from the couple of niggles regarding the origin of the chicken and how it met its end, as above, I was overall very pleased with it.  The flavour was streets ahead of your standard chicken which, of course, you would expect but not necessarily receive.  It was good to find a product that almost lived up to the supplier's claims.

As for the Ragu, well, does "yum!" cover it?  Oh yes, I think so.

CHICKEN & FENNEL RAGU   (serves 3)

Ingredients :

1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
1 onion, sliced finely
2 bulbs fennel, cored and sliced finely
150g baby button mushrooms, each sliced into 3
400ml chicken stock (reduced home made is best, but a good shop-bought will do)
1 tsp tomato puree
1 tbsp mushroom ketchup (or if using Worcestershire sauce, slightly less)
2 tbsp double cream
1-2 tbsp cornflour, slaked with a small amount of water
half a previously cooked chicken, meat removed from the bones and sliced
sea salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped parsley, to serve.

Method :

1.   In a large frying pan, heat the oil and add the onion.  Cook on a gentle to medium heat until the onion is transparent, but not taking on colour.

2.  Add the sliced fennel and button mushrooms and continue to cook on a medium heat until the fennel has softened but is al dente.

3.  Add the chicken stock, tomato puree, mushroom ketchup and cream and season to taste.  Heat through until simmering.

4.  Simmer until the fennel is completely soft, then remove from the heat and add half the slaked cornflour.  Stir through quickly, then return to the heat to cook the cornflour out.  The sauce should thicken through this process.  Continue to add cornflour and stir until your preferred consistency is reached.

5.  Keep the sauce ticking over on a gentle heat and add the sliced chicken.  Allow it time to heat through properly, until piping hot.  You may need to increase the heat under the pan.  Try not to stir the mixture too often, or you might break the chicken pieces too much.

6.  Taste once more for seasoning and serve with plain boiled pasta and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.

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