Boiled Chicken, Leeks, and Aïoli

February 15, 2011

Boiled Chicken, Leeks, and Aïoli

Boiling gets a bad rap as a cooking technique. It’s too easy to over-boil something and wind up with mushy vegetables and tasteless meat, which is the usual condemnation of British food. But in the hands of an attentive chef like Fergus Henderson, gentle boiling can infuse food with subtle flavors, as seen in this recipe.

I started with a small chicken and a lot of aromatics: a whole peeled onion, a head of garlic (skin still on), two peeled carrots, two chopped celery stalks (I included some of the leaves from the innermost stalks), two bay leaves, a bundle of thyme and rosemary, and about a tablespoon of black peppercorns. The recipe also calls for ten leeks – two for the stock, and the rest for serving – but I used seven: six for serving and one plus the trimmed tops for the stock.

I placed the chicken and all of the ingredients except the six trimmed leeks into a pot and covered it with cold water.

I brought the pot to a boil, covered it with a lid, and turned off the heat, leaving the chicken to poach as the pot cooled. While I waited, I assembled the ingredients for the aïoli: two and a half cups of olive oil, the juice of two lemons, two egg yolks, and twenty heads of garlic.

Henderson’s aïoli recipe uses a food processor. The garlic and a pinch of salt is turned into a paste, the egg yolks are added, then the oil is slowly added. The final emulsion is flavored with the lemon juice. I started with the food processor, but never got the emulsion to form. According to the recipe in Ratio, the yolks should have been combined with a bit of water (or even lemon juice) before adding the oil, so I added some water to a bowl and slowly whisked in the split emulsion until I had a thick aïoli.

While the aïoli rested in the fridge, I returned to the cooled pot of chicken. I removed the bird,

strained the stock, and returned it (reserving some for the leeks)  to a clean pot. I brought the stock up to a simmer and added the chicken back to the pot, where it simmered for thirty minutes.

During the last ten minutes of cooking, I boiled the leeks in the reserved stock.

I assembled the accompaniments for the dish: Maldon salt, the aïoli, and some toasted bread slices.

To serve, I put some chicken pieces on top of the leeks, added a splash of the chicken stock, spooned aïoli over the top, and garnished with a sprinkle of salt.

You might be thinking “big deal, boiled chicken,” and you’d be wrong. The chicken was moist and perfumed with the aromatics, the leeks were sweet and giving, but not too soft. The aïoli, however, is what elevated the dish from mundane to sophisticated. The lemony, garlicky contrast it provided had She Who Must Be Obeyed and I dolloping huge spoonfuls on top of the chicken and the bread. As Henderson said in the introduction to the recipe:

This may sound complicated, but it is actually quite simple and emphatically worth it.

And as an extra bonus, I now have three quarts of chicken/leek stock and another cup of aïoli in the fridge. FTW!

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