Until last week I had never cooked a chicken thigh. I have nothing against them, they’d just never entered my culinary orbit. Keen to try out a few recipes from Nigella Lawson’s latest tome, Cook, Eat Repeat, I jotted down all the ingredients required to make two of her most comforting dishes: fennel gratin and chicken in a garlic cream sauce, and off to the shops I went. With the pandemic still raging, a trip to the supermarket feels like a reckless, high risk act in the name of good food; the supermarket aisles a battlefield filled with (potentially) deadly combatants.
My strategy is to shop at antisocial hours in the hope that it will be all quiet on the West London front. Not so on my latest visit – the place was rammed and my shop turned into an unwelcome game of dodge. Like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, I sped through the aisles flinging linguine and loo roll into my trolley like my life depended on it. In my haste I made a fundamental error in my ingredient hunt. Having lugged an inordinate amount of food home in the rain, on unpacking I discovered, like a character in a Nick Park animation, that I’d bought the wrong thighs. Rather than the required skin-on thighs, I’d picked up the fillets.
Drenched and exhausted, my heart sank. I’d been looking forward to making the recipe for days, and it depended on gloriously golden crispy skin. The fillets wouldn’t fly. I abandoned my unpacking, put the thighs in my handbag and rushed back to Sainsbury’s. The customer service clerk took mercy on me, allowing me to exchange my thighs, checking the receipt to make sure I’d just bought them. You only have half an hour to return fresh goods and I’d snuck back in the nick of time.
One of the downsides to living alone and experimenting in dinner party-style cooking is that you will always cook too much. With an ice box rather than a freezer, I opted to cook seven of the ten thighs, if only for them to look good in their glamour shot. Their preparation coincided with Boris’ bleak announcement that England would be going into lockdown for a third time with no determined end date. The only way to deal with the news was to drown my sorrows in cream.
It probably wasn’t wise to cook two of Nigella’s richest dishes side by side with only my furry friend Florence to share them with, but I rather liked the idea of whipping up such a lavish feast on a Monday night. Sadly, the fennel gratin wasn’t a triumph. It had all the makings of a great dish, but my timings were off, and, in a bid to coincide its release from the oven with the thighs, what had been a beautiful, bubbling celebration of the aniseed-scented veg emerged caramelised and overcooked, ten minutes too long in the oven taking it beyond the realms of civility.
It tasted good, but was so rich I could only manage a few mouthfuls. The thighs, thankfully, were more successful. Between the gratin and the thighs I used a pot-and-a-half of double cream and a 375ml bottle of dry vermouth from Charante. The recipe begins by frying the thighs, skin side down on a medium heat, for 10 minutes until the skin crisps up. Once golden, you have to drown the thighs in vermouth, with a dash of water, then fling them in the oven to roast for half an hour.
The retro garlic cream sauce couldn’t be easier – you need to warm 250ml of double cream with three fat cloves of minced garlic and a confident grinding of pepper in a saucepan and stir until it thickens. When the thighs are done you can make the most of the vermouth-soused cooking juices by adding a generous glug to the cream sauce for added depth of flavour. Once it has thickened, fling in a handful of parsley then pour liberally over the chicken and dive in. Defeated after three thighs, Florence was happy to devour the leftovers. She’ll be demanding foie gras soon…