Monday, 7 December 2009

TGRWT #20 - Chicken And Pumpkin

Launched in April 2007 by Norwegian organometallic chemist and gastronomist Martin Lersch of, They Go Really Well Together (TGRWT) is all about unusual flavour pairings - combining culinary ingredients in ways that we aren't necessarily familiar with from classical cooking. The scientific hypothesis behind these experiments is that if two foods have one or more key odorants in common, they might go well together and perhaps even complement and enhance each other.

I was pleased to host TGRWT #18 and when I saw that the current event TGRWT #20 was being hosted by my friend and professional mentor John Sconzo, aka. Doc Sconz, I was quick to volunteer an entry. I couldn't do anything at first because I was busy moving myself from Valencia to Catalunya and getting ready for my Christmas trip back to Blighty. And it was while I was packing my things and considering options for a chicken and pumpkin dish that I came up with an even better idea. I'd get my staff to do it.TGRWT #20, hosted by Doc Sconz

I've got a year's experience as a chef de partie under my belt now and in shortlisting potential employers for my next job I've focused on larger kitchens where I would get the opportunity to manage a team. So why not test my powers of delegation on TGRWT #20? After all, my dad thinks he knows something about food these days and, after eating with me at Quique Dacosta the other week, he should have learnt something about technique and presentation. More importantly, I've discussed the taste spectrum with him many times, so he should know where to start when designing a dish. So I briefed my father... and what follows is the result. All his own handiwork, including the photos.

The host of TGRWT #20 initially chose cooked chicken and lemongrass for the ingredients, before amending the challenge to fit the technical criteria by replacing lemongrass with pumpkin. So I decided to follow his initial line of thought and attempt a dish using all three of these ingredients. My offering is a slow-cooked chicken and pumpkin roulade on a bed of pilaf rice, with a sauce of coconut and lemongrass. Mostly Cambodian, in tribute to my son's love of Khmer cooking, with a bit of Thai and some French and Persian influences. The place to start, so Aidan explained to me, is analysing the principal flavours of the key ingredients. For pumpkin, the dominant flavour is sweet and for chicken the dominant basic flavours are umami and sweet. So my first thought is to cut through these with salt, sour and bitter flavours along with some astringency and pungency if possible. It was that line of reasoning, together with the lemongrass hint, that led me to the cuisines of Cambodia and Thailand.

Kabocha, or Japanese pumpkinThe pumpkin choice now became obvious, although I had a lot of trouble finding one until last Friday, when Waitrose in Otley obliged. Kabocha is generally assumed to be indigenous to Japan (it's commonly called Japanese pumpkin), but it surprised me when I first discovered that its origins were in Cambodia, from where it was brought to Japan by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century. The Japanese name has roots in the words 'Kambuja' and 'Kampuchea' (the Khmer names for the ancient and modern states of Cambodia), while in Khmer it's called 'Lpoeu'. On the left is my trophy. She's not the most beautiful of vegetables (actually, if we're going to be correct, like all squashes, she's a fruit), but she's really delicious all the same.

My first task, the night before cooking, was to remove the breasts from a corn-fed free-range chicken (who said I had to make a peasant dish?) and marinate them in home-made kroeung paste. The use of kroeung lends this dish its distinctly Khmer character. I used finely chopped shallot, sliced lemongrass stalks, crushed kaffir lime leaves, some dried lime, a little chopped chilli, crushed and finely chopped garlic, a teaspoon each of galangal paste and powdered turmeric (rhizomes of the latter two are difficult to obtain in Britain and especially so in Yorkshire!).Chicken breast marinating in kroeung

Sour coconut and kroeung soup, reducing downThe kroeung didn't entirely go to waste after use as a marinade because I used some of it in the next component of the dish, a soured variant of Somlor Machoo Ktiss, or lemongrass and coconut soup, inspired by this dish from Bay Area Cambodian food blogger Khatiya of Khatiya Korner that I found quite easily via a Google search. For my version I used coconut milk, the kroeung paste made for the marinade, some nam pla, shrimp paste and tamarind paste - cooking slowly for 30 mins before straining through muslin and reducing to a thick sauce. Wow, those flavours were intense!

Next I prepared my chicken roulades, starting by carefully trimming and slicing into each breast of marinated meat to create large, thin sheets. Having already cooked down my pumpkin pieces (setting a few aside for the final plating) and roughly blitzed the resulting purée together with sautéed spinach and finely chopped mushroom, I seasoned this mixture and spread it across the chicken breasts. They were then rolled in clingfilm and tied at each end to create stuffed meat sausages, which I cooked for half an hour in a water bath maintained at around 85°C.Chicken roulades with pumpkin, spinach and mushroom stuffing

Frying the rice in rendered chicken fat before adding stock and cooking in the ovenWhile the chicken was slow cooking, I tossed some pre-soaked short grain rice in fat that I had set aside when trimming the chicken the previous day and subsequently rendered down. I used Thai kao niao (sticky rice) on the assumption that this would not be dissimilar to a Cambodian sticky rice, although with hindsight I would probably have substituted a less glutinous product for this part of the dish. After adding some chopped Thai basil leaves, I covered the rice in stock made from the chicken offcuts and bones and put the rice in the oven to cook.

Just before serving the rice, I unwrapped the chicken roulades and seared them in very hot chicken fat. Plating up, I made a mound of pilaf on which I placed slices of the stuffed chicken. I poured some of the reduced sour lemongrass and coconut soup into the bowl and finished off the dish with some pieces of reserved pumpkin lightly caramelised in chicken fat with a sprinkling of palm sugar. So here's the final dish - Kroeung Marinated Chicken Roulade with Pumpkin, Spinach and Mushroom on a bed of Chicken and Thai Basil Pilaf with Caramelized Pumpkin and a Reduced Sour Coconut and Lemongrass Sauce.
Kroeung Marinated Chicken Roulade with Pumpkin, Spinach and Mushroom on a bed of Chicken and Thai Basil Pilaf with Caramelized Pumpkin and a Reduced Sour Coconut and Lemongrass Sauce
So, how was the pairing? I don't know if chicken and pumpkin is a traditional combination in other cuisines, but a quick search on Google turns up recipes for Thai, Moroccan, American, Italian and even British dishes. Anyhow, it's certainly a combination that works. It stood up well to competition from the intense flavours of coconut and lemongrass, shrimp and tamarind. My pilaf, combining sticky rice fried in rendered chicken fat with chicken stock, was simply too rich and sweet. If I repeated the dish, I'd also think more carefully about the colours. The combination of turmeric and tamarind turned an otherwise beautiful soup into a muddy brown liquor, so next time I'd make part of the kroeung without haldi and look for a clear tamarind extract or use another souring agent. I'd also make the dish more sour, because the sweetness still dominated. It took me ages to make this meal, but it was happily consumed within minutes. And it certainly convinced me that chicken and pumpkin go really well together. Mike.

OK, so I wouldn't advise dad to give up the day job (actually he's retired) - but for someone whose idea of fine dining used to be a pickled gherkin with his spare ribs and chips, that's not at all a bad effort.


Mike said...

I'd definitely give that another go, some time when I've got a few hours to spare and a lot of clean pans, crockery and cutlery. My kitchen was almost destroyed in the effort.

The Boston Foodie said...

I'd love to taste it but I would never attempt it. Kudos to Dad, tho. That was ambitious and unique!

James said...

Nice work Aidan's Dad! Retired eh? I can see a commis job on the horizon one day.

Mike said...

Thanks James. The cheque is in the post.

Tri2Cook said...

That's awesome!

Anonymous said...

i would love to try that!!!

Mike said...

So try it. It wasn't difficult. If an old man like me can manage it, I'm sure you can.

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