To take a break (and why not) from the pasta dishes, today’s recipe is a main course and a guaranteed pasta-free zone. Over the years I’ve eaten several variants of this dish, both in Italy and elsewhere, all of them exquisite and differing from each other mostly in the cut of chicken used (thigh, breast, whole…) or in the method of cooking (pan, oven, casserole, old shoe…). I’ve chosen this one simply because it’s probably the easiest and it’s also one of the quickest. And I know you all lead such busy lives and can hardly find the time to spend more than ten minutes in front of what should be a sort of altar in every home: your cooker! (You do have one, don’t you?)
So, drag your drunken self away from the pub 20 minutes earlier than usual, do without your daily dose of whatever soap opera you are currently addicted to, put the dog’s walk off until after dinner (when it will help you digest, too) and find yourself half an hour to work up a juicy, scrummy, bursting-with-flavoury dish, jam-packed with Mediterranean flavours.
The dish doesn’t call for any extraordinary ingredients. The key ingredient, though, is oregano. Oregano is a (non-smokable) weed which infests fields and roadsides throughout the Med. If you walk through the Italian countryside in summer, you will often turn a bend and be struck by an incredibly strong wave of oregano aroma. You might also be struck by a car whose driver is busy on the phone, so watch out. You will still find Italians combing the fields and roadsides with a basket in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, collecting oregano while it is still fresh, to take it home then and dry out in a dark closet somewhere. Indeed, the oregano in my own kitchen was collected in this way (as was the rosemary and the mint). Of course, you can quite happily buy the stuff in the supermarket, but there’s no doubt that the flavour is better when you’ve gleaned it yourself. And it’s free! You can use either fresh or dried oregano for this recipe, but remember that the dried product is worth about 3 times the fresh, so if you use 1 tablespoon of dried, you’ll need 3 tbsp of fresh.
Another ingredient I ought to mention are the black olives. Now, entire volumes have been written about the humble olive, one of the first fruits/vegetables/thingies cultivated by Man (I use the term in its neuter sense) and prized above all for its glorious oil. Olives are grown all over the Mediterranean, with each country loudly claiming its olives are the best (“Mine’s bigger than yours”). Who cares. As far as I can make out (coming as I do from an olive-free country) all these countries produce excellent (and some less excellent) olives and olive oil.
Eating olives are prepared in a variety of ways: in brine, roasted, in olive oil, with or without all sorts of flavouring agents such as orange peel, aniseed, garlic, and the list goes on. This recipe requires pitted olives. Now if you are so minded you can do this yourself, with a sharp knife, patience and preferably a pair of surgical gloves (black olives release a black dye which lasts on your fingertips for about a week). The first dozen or so will be spent trying to work out the best method of releasing the pit from the fruit. And all too often you will end up destroying the olive. The recipe requires that the olive be cut into rings, so you will need to keep it fairly intact. For this reason, I suggest you procure olives which have already been pitted by someone who knows more about it than you (they’ve got fancy machines for doing it, or as I prefer to think, squadrons of nimble-fingered, dusky Mediterranean maidens with stiletto knives).
Now, with the preliminaries over, I give you my Mediterranean Summertime Chicken. Well, not in the sense of actually “giving” it to you, you get your own…
- 300g Chicken breast fillets
- 1 red pepper
- 1 tbsp dried oregano (or 3 tbsp fresh)
- 100g pitted black olives
- 1 large carrot
- 4 small ripe tomatoes
- 1 large courgette
- chili pepper flakes
- extra virgin olive oil
The longest part of this dish is the preparation, rather than the actual cooking. So, arm yourself with 4 suitable containers: 1 big one for the carrot/courgette/pepper, 1 small one for the tomatoes, 1 very small one for the olives and 1 for the chicken.
First, julienne the pepper, carrot and courgette. For those of you who have just said “Julie who?”, it means cutting the vegetables into small strips, more or less matchstick-sized (very roughly speaking, about 6 cm long by half a cm wide). Watch your bloody fingers while you do this. Fingertips have been known to disappear!
Next, cut your pitted olives into rings, i.e. crosswise, from one end to the other.
Now take your chicken fillets and do unto them as you have done unto the vegetables. You’ll need a sharp knife for this bit, and once again mind your bloody fingertips or they will become bloody fingertips.
Finally, cut the tomatoes in half. Cut each half into thin slices, turn 45 degrees (either the tomato or you, the effect is one and the same) and cut again into thin slices. You will now have produced half a finely-diced tomato. Celebrate by doing the same with the remaining tomatoes and a half.
OK, that’s the preparation done. You have earned yourself a break. I suggest a Campari and soda, but the choice is yours.
Just before we get down to the cooking, get your salt, chili flakes and olive oil out of their respective cubby holes, ready to use.
Add a tbsp or two of oil to your deep, heavy-bottomed frying pan, turn on the heat and allow the oil to heat up. Throw in the courgette-pepper-carrot mix and cook it over a medium heat, stirring frequently. When it all starts to wilt slightly add the olives and stir through.
Then add the chicken, a large pinch of salt, as much chili pepper as you like (though remember the dish is not intended to be spicy) and the oregano. Stir through heartily, separating the chicken pieces.
Once the chicken has completely separated and is well on the way to being cooked, add the tomatoes and, you guessed it, stir through. If, after a couple of minutes the whole thing seems a bit on the dry side, bung in a good dollop of dry white wine and allow about 5 minutes for the whole thing to amalgamate. Your Mediterranean Summertime Chick is now ready and the smell in your kitchen should be indescribable.
I usually serve this with plain rice, preferably Basmati or Thai. But I see no reason why some boiled new potatoes could not be happily used instead.
And last but not least, this dish definitely needs a tangy white wine or even a rosé such as a good Cotes de Provence or Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence.