An excellent Christmas option if you don’t want to cook a turkey. It’s as bronze as a footballer’s WAG (the brine, because it contains sugar, means that the skin becomes a good deep colour) and looks glorious. Some farmers produce really big chickens for Christmas and Easter: Fosse Meadows have them, while SJ Fredericks do Label Anglais chickens that weigh as much as 3.5kg (7lb 10oz) especially for these times of year, so you could opt for a really big chicken instead of a turkey. Brining may seem like a hassle, but I’m a bit of a convert. It really does season the meat right through to the bone – providing a conduit for all manner of fl avours, too – and ensures moistness. The only troublesome thing is fi nding a cold place where you can brine your chook for 24 hours. It usually means taking the veg drawer out of the fridge, but you may have a very cold room in the house. It’s important that you don’t brine the chicken for any longer than suggested, or it will be too salty. Be careful with the prune dish. The prunes must be soft and tender, but not collapsing into a chutney. You need to use heat judiciously.
for the brine
125g (4½oz) sea salt flakes
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1½ tbsp juniper berries
2 tbsp allspice berries
300ml (½ pint) maple syrup
75g (2¾oz) soft light brown sugar
8 sprigs of thyme
4 bay leaves
1 litre (1¾ pints) dry cider
2.5kg (5lb 8oz) chicken to soak the prunes
30 plump Agen prunes
200ml (7fl oz) apple brandy
½ tbsp granulated sugar
TO STUFF THE CHICKEN AND FOR THE GRAVY
handful of parsley stalks
1 orange, halved
1 onion, halved
150ml (5fl oz) dry cider
600ml (1 pint) well-flavoured
TO FINISH THE PRUNES
15g (½oz) unsalted butter
20 baby onions, peeled
100ml (3½fl oz) apple brandy
200ml (7fl oz) chicken stock
2 sprigs of thyme
20 cooked chestnuts
1 tsp sherry vinegar
To make the brine, put all the ingredients into a very large saucepan with 3 litres (5¼ pints) of water. Gently heat, stirring to help the salt and sugar dissolve, until boiling. Leave to cool completely. Put this into a scrupulously clean bucket or other large plastic container. (Remember the level of the liquid will rise after you put in the chicken, so make sure there’s enough room.) Put in the chicken and weigh it down with a plate (you may need something else too, a bottle of vodka does the trick). Leave somewhere cold for 24 hours. Unless there’s snow on the ground – that’s when one of the rooms in my house gets very cold – I take the veg drawers out of the fridge and put it there.
Start the prunes the day before, too, if possible. Put them into a saucepan with 200ml (7fl oz) of the apple brandy, the sugar and 100ml (3½fl oz) of water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the prunes are soft and plump and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. This is best done the day before so they have time to plump up, but you can do it early in the day on which you want to serve the chicken.
After 24 hours, take the chicken out of the brine and dry it thoroughly with kitchen paper. Leave it to dry in the fridge – uncovered – for a couple of hours, then bring it to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Put the chicken into a roasting tin and put the parsley stalks, orange and onion inside the cavity. Roast for 1 hour 40 minutes, basting every so often. (Because of the sugar in the brine the skin can darken quite quickly. If it gets too dark, cover the chicken with foil.)
The chicken is ready when the juices that run out from between the leg and the body are clear, with no trace of pink. Pour the juices off into a heatproof glass jug and put the bird on to a heated platter. Cover with a double layer of foil and let the chicken rest for 15 minutes.
Skim the fat from the chicken roasting juices. Make a ‘gravy’ by deglazing the roasting tin with the cider: add the cider and bring to the boil while stirring with a wooden spoon to dislodge all the bits stuck to the bottom of the tin. Reduce the alcohol by half, add the chicken stock and the skimmed chicken juices and boil until you have a light syrup.
While all this is going on, fi nish the prunes. Heat most of the butter in a frying pan and sauté the onions until golden all over, about 10 minutes. Be careful not to burn the fat. Add the apple brandy and boil until only about 4 tbsp of liquid remains. Add the chicken stock and thyme to the onions, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, then remove the lid and continue to cook until the onions are tender and the liquid has really reduced. Remove the thyme. Melt the last bit of butter in another frying pan and quickly sauté the chestnuts until they are glossy. Add these and the onions to the prunes and stir in the sherry vinegar. Heat everything through, but don’t boil the mixture or the prunes will start to fall apart; you don’t want a chutney. Taste for seasoning. There should be a touch of sweet-savoury going on but the dish shouldn’t be too sweet.
Either serve the prune, onions and chestnuts in a bowl, or spoon them round the bird on its platter. Offer the reduced cooking juices in a warmed jug. Of course, it goes with all the usual Christmas razzamatazz of side dishes.
Diana Henry’s A Bird In The Hand is available here.