One of the things I love to do is entertain at home.
Cooking for friends, picking the wine, setting the table, choosing the flowers, candles music…it’s all part of what I love to do. And if I’m going to cook for someone, they’d better eat! In fact, in my book of hospitality, the empty plate of a guest is a crime of etiquette.
Before I got back into the world of restaurants and had no time for my friends, I would have dinner parties at least once month, informal gatherings of friends or large Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers that involved creating more complex menus, cooking over two days and the best part, choosing the right wines and opening a bottle as soon as I put on my apron! You can’t cook without a glass of wine!
Now, in this time of social distancing, I have, ironically, reconnected with these friends and we get together every couple of days at 6pm, via FaceTime for a drink. A few days ago, one of them reminded me about the dinners I would have for monthly column I used to write. It was a column about wine-pairing, written for people who wanted to enjoy wine without breaking the bank.
My editor would send me a receipe and it was my job to make it and pair the dish with a red, white, rose or sparkling wine, with the caveat that the bottle was under $25.
So every month, I’d invite half a dozen friends and we would all gather in my kitchen for a glass of champagne, the opening aperitif, that was my welcome drink of choice. I would cook, and we would all catch up, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying one another’s company.
When the dish in question was ready, we would sit at the dining table and I would present the wines and everyone would taste and sip and I would take notes until I had enough. After that, the diner party would take on a positively raucous edge and indubitably, much more wine was opened than the requisite ones that were to be part of the article.
So I got to thinking…why couldn’t we do the same? Virtually? The suggestion was met with definitive enthusiasm and we agreed to Friday night to cook via FaceTime.
The opening recipe was Harissa Chicken. A simple roasted chicken with the added kick of one of my favourite North African spice paste.
Just as I was in the kitchen washing vegetables, K and L both texted me at the same time. “What are we drinking?”
Ah! The most important part of cooking is what you have in your glass, that liquid that makes the world look slightly better in the midst of all this instability. Since K and L only drink white wine, I suggested a pinot blanc or a pinot gris, something with a little more fruit that would stand up to the spice in the harissa.
And for myself, I pulled out a bottle of Cour-Cheverney, a little-known appellation in the Loire where the local varietal is the rare Romorantin, an old Burgundian varietal now only grown in Cheverney. On the nose it’s all pear and apple and white flowers and on the palate, it’s delicate, elegant and a touch honeyed, which would be perfect with the chicken.
My harissa chicken receipe is incredibly easy to make: everything goes in one dish. Essentially, the chicken is rubbed with the harissa and salt and laid on a bed of a sort of mirepoix of peppers and onions, themselves seasoned with olive oil and salt. And into the oven it goes for about an hour and a bit.
As everyone’s chicken cooked (on FaceTime), we had a drink together and chatted. When everything was ready, we all sat down at our respective tables. I had my chicken with pita bread, yoghurt with cucumber and an extra squidge of lemon; K had hers with naan and tzatziki sauce and L had hers with coucous.
It was delicious and it was a great evening, even though we couldn’t all be in the same room. So much so that next Friday, we’re doing the same, this time, the receipe that is being clamoured for is a lamb ragù that I learned from a farmer’s wife in Sardinia about 30 years ago whilst on holiday there with a college friend.
The receipe for the Harissa Chicken is below:
Makes 4 servings:
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 green pepper
1 red onion
One chicken (if you do a whole chicken, cut through the backbone, so you can lay it flat) or pieces of a chicken, breasts, thighs, drumsticks on the bone
2 tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper
Harissa (can be store bought or see my receipe)
Fresh lemon wedges
Chop all the vegetables, season well with salt and pepper and toss in lots of good olive oil and a tablespoon of the Harissa.
Place in a baking dish.
Season chicken with salt and pepper and take a good dollop of the harissa, at least 2-3 tablespoons and rub the chicken all over before placing it on the vegetables. Drizzle honey over the chicken.
Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.
Place the dish in the oven and let the meat sear…about 15-20 minutes, depending on the oven.
Once a crust has formed, lower the oven to 350 degrees and cook the chicken for about 55 minutes.
Take out of the oven and let rest.
Serve with naan bread, pita bread or couscous.
Squeeze the juice of the fresh lemon on the chicken and dig in.
(about 2 cups)
8 fresh red serrano chilies
8 dried red chilies (can be chile de arbol, chipotle, ancho guajillo)
2 red peppers
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
4 whole black pepper
6 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
Juice of half a lemon
Salt to taste
Rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water, about 40 minutes.
Chop the heads off the fresh chilies and keep aside.
Chop the two red peppers and roast them in the oven at 450 degrees until the skin is charred and the peppers are soft. Peel off the charred skin and keep aside.
In a skillet, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves and black pepper.
Grind the dried spices in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.
Drain the dried chilies and keep the water.
Combine all chilies, roasted peppers, spices, garlic, lemon and salt in a blender or food processor.
Once coarse, slowly add the olive oil to create a paste. If still too dry, add some of the water from the rehydrated chilies.
Add a few sprigs of fresh mint.
Place in a jar and store in the fridge.
You will need to add a little olive oil each time you use the paste after refrigeration.