Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Chicken Country Captain – A Low Country Classic
Chicken Country Captain is one of the Low Country’s favorite dishes. You’ll find it served in restaurants and home dining rooms throughout the southern cities of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Both lay claim to this Southern classic, which may have been brought to America by a ship’s captain ferrying spices from the Far East.
According to an article in the New York Times, “Chicken Country Captain is, simply, chicken fried in butter or bacon fat, then stewed in the oven with tomatoes fragrant with curry and pepper and served over white Carolina rice. But what a history it has. Charleston and Savannah are ports, and the cuisine of each city benefited from their access to the spices that arrived aboard ships that also hauled rum, molasses, tropical fruit and human chattel. Country Captain, some say, arrived in the South stowed away on one. It was, the story goes, the favorite recipe of an English skipper who served in Bengal and introduced the dish to friends in Savannah. Or Charleston. Or neither; its provenance has been much debated.”
A staple of Southeastern Junior League cookbooks since the 1950’s, the recipe for Chicken Country Captain can be traced back in various forms to older cookbooks as far back as the 18th century. This dish was said to be a favorite of the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and has gone in and out of fashion through the years.
But it was Cecily Brownstone, the Associated Press food writer, who kept the recipe for Chicken Country Captain alive for decades. Brownstone persuaded James Beard, the dean of American cookery, to teach the recipe in his cooking school and Irma Rombauer to publish it in The Joy of Cooking, one of the world’s most published cookbooks. She herself published the recipe in hundreds of newspapers and was very upset when people would make changes to the original recipe. Miss Brownstone once said, "For years, every variation upset me. I would worry about eroding the image of the dish, about people getting the wrong impression. Using a breast in Chicken Country Captain, can you imagine?"
For Cecily Brownstone’s original recipe, I know you’ll enjoy reading this article written by Molly O’Neill in the New York Times. I’m sorry Cecily, but I too have taken some liberties and changed a couple of things in the recipe, including using the dreaded breast. Here’s my version that we serve often in our home, always of course with the quintessential rice that the low country is so famous for. Enjoy.
Chicken Country Captain
Adapted from A Jug of Wine by Morrison Wood
4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
All purpose flour
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium sized yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1 ½ teaspoons curry powder (I like Madras brand)
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed into pieces, juices reserved
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon brandy
3 tablespoons dried currants or raisins, plumped in a little hot water, then drained
Garnish: sliced almonds, carefully browned, and finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Dry the chicken well and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Dust the chicken pieces lightly with flour. In a large non stick skillet heat the olive oil and sauté the chicken until it is golden brown, turning frequently so that all pieces are done evenly. If they don’t all fit, do in 2 batches. Don’t crowd in the skillet or the chicken will steam instead of browning. When the chicken is browned nicely on both sides, remove to a platter and keep warm.
In the same skillet sauté the chopped onions and the chopped green pepper in the olive oil until softened and slightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more. Add the curry powder, thyme, salt, freshly ground black pepper and cook a couple of minutes more, allowing the aromatics to flavor the onions and peppers. To that mixture, add the tomato paste and flour, stirring to incorporate them. Cook an additional three to five minutes, then add the crushed tomatoes, wine and brandy. Mix and blend the ingredients well, and allow it to simmer over a medium flame for about 10 minutes. Add the drained currants or raisins, put the chicken back in the sauce, cover the pan, and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is completely tender, taking care not to overcook the chicken. If the sauce is too thick, you may thin it with a little of the reserved tomato juice from the canned tomatoes.
While the chicken is cooking, carefully brown some sliced almonds in a non-stick skillet until they start to brown. Set aside until serving time. After you plate the chicken, sprinkle generously with sliced almonds and a tiny bit of chopped parsley. Serves 4.
Rice is the traditional side dish for Chicken Country Captain. I like to mix my cooked rice with finely chopped parsley, a little good butter, and spoon it into individual small buttered dishes. When you are ready to serve, turn the molds over and carefully unmold on the individual dining plates. The little yellow specks on the top of the rice in the picture come from the butter in the mold and guests never seem to see it, so don’t worry about it. I can always count on getting complimentswhen I serve molded rice.