Remembered But Not Witnessed… Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazelnuts And Apple Brandy

If I was to choose a flower that per­fectly evokes the past, I would pick the mocked and reviled dah­lia. It’s so ridicu­lously, frothily retro and has been out of fash­ion for so long. And yet dog­gedly and resi­li­ently it’s hung on in the shad­ows, wait­ing for its chance to creep back onto the stage. This year I’ve grown dah­lias for the first time — if truth be told, they pretty much grew them­selves, actu­ally. And look how beau­ti­ful they are — like mini­ature wed­ding hats from the 1950s.

In Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-nominated novel The Sense of an End­ing, we’re warned that ‘what you end up remem­ber­ing isn’t always the same as what you have wit­nessed.’ I thought of that phrase when buy­ing a birth­day card for a friend, to go with the dah­lias. I found one in an antiques shop in Oxford; clipped to its front is an old black and white pho­to­graph that must have been taken eighty years ago. I’d like to think the pic­ture was taken on the couple’s hon­ey­moon, but since I neither remem­ber not wit­nessed, it’s impossible to be sure. And yet there they are, trapped on a card, with a frag­ment of rib­bon, some shreds of ini­tialled tape and a large black but­ton; a whole new present tense cre­ated out of their past. I hope they’d be pleased.

I thought again of the past in cre­at­ing this recipe. It’s a re-imagining of the dish I always chose as a child from the menu of a small candle-lit bis­tro on the south coast of Eng­land. I have no idea how they made it, but I thought it was the height of soph­ist­ic­a­tion. This is what I remem­ber, even if it’s not what I wit­nessed. But, like the card, I’ve made a new present tense out of the past.

Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazel­nuts and Apple Brandy

Serves 4

  • 4 chicken breasts, skin on
  • 1 table­spoon olive oil
  • 2 ripe, firm pears such as Comice, cored, peeled, quartered and cut into slices 1–2 mm thick
  • 1 knob butter
  • 1/4 cup Cal­va­dos — brandy will do if you can’t find Calvados
  • 100 g blanched hazel­nuts, toasted until light brown in a dry fry­ing pan and then crushed
  • 200 g creme fraiche
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • salt and black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Heat the olive oil in a fry­ing pan until very hot and start­ing to smoke. Place the chicken breasts, skin-side down in the pan and leave for 4 minutes without mov­ing them at all — don’t be temp­ted to turn them over. Remove the chicken to an oven-proof dish and, still skin-side down, place in the pre­heated oven for 9 to 10 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the oven and rest the chicken, before sli­cing each piece into 4. Reserve the unwashed fry­ing pan for the sauce.

Return the unwashed fry­ing pan to the heat and once hot again, add the brandy. Stir to deglaze the pan and to let the alco­hol evap­or­ate. After three minutes, add the knob of but­ter and once it has melted, add the sliced pears. Bubble in the pan for 5 minutes until very slightly brown at the edges. Add the crushed hazel­nuts and stir gently for a fur­ther 3 minutes. Add the creme fraiche, stir in, and then add the white wine, plus plenty of salt and black pep­per. Cook for a fur­ther 5 minutes or until the pears are soft. Check the season­ing and then spoon the sauce around the chicken. Serve with mashed pota­toes and cavolo nero cabbage.

I served the chicken-I-remember-but-may-not-have-witnessed, on the clock plates given to me thirty years ago by a great friend called Brian. He died a long time ago, but I love using his plates — the per­fect way to think of the past while watch­ing the long hand of the clock tick around the rim.

Now-ness Pitta

I’m on the hunt for now-ness or the glor­ies of the present tense. It’s a trans­port­ing concept, expressed mag­ni­fi­cently by the play­wright Den­nis Pot­ter in his final inter­view. He was already griev­ously ill and as he laboured to fin­ish writ­ing Cold Laz­arus and Karaoke, he glimpsed the plum tree out­side his window.

…it is the whitest, froth­i­est, blos­somest blos­som that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more import­ant than they ever were, and the dif­fer­ence between the trivial and the import­ant doesn’t seem to mat­ter. But the now­ness of everything is abso­lutely wondrous.’

I’ve exper­i­enced now­ness twice this week. One was import­ant, the other per­haps trivial; but as Den­nis Pot­ter said ‘the dif­fer­ence between the trivial and the import­ant doesn’t seem to mat­ter.’ Last night I atten­ded the Oxford Cham­ber Music Fest­ival spring con­cert. Priya Mitchell, Lars Anders Tomter and David Cohen per­formed Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­ations arranged for string trio. Played on violin, viola and cello instead of the cus­tom­ary harp­si­chord, it’s a work of exquis­ite fra­gil­ity and del­ic­acy. The set­ting was an Oxford­shire barn, its rick­ety walls lit­er­ally lined with his­tory in the form of reclaimed wood pan­el­ling from Glyn­dbourne Opera. It was cold, it was drafty, but the now­ness was exquis­ite — the per­fect present tense. And it was ‘abso­lutely wondrous’.

Earlier this week I pre­pared the easi­est, quick­est sup­per. The only remotely com­plic­ated part was mak­ing fresh pitta. Much like my DIY Miso Soup, it’s a meal to assemble at the table. Per­haps because the recipe evolves as you eat it, we exper­i­enced a per­fect moment of liv­ing in the minute.

Now-Ness Pitta

Roast a chicken — my stand­ard method is to stuff it with a lemon I’ve pierced sev­eral times with a fork, cram masses of fresh tar­ragon and thyme under the skin, sprinkle with plenty of salt and black pep­per and brush with a gen­er­ous amount of extra vir­gin olive oil.

Pre­pare a vari­ety of raw veget­ables to stuff the pitta with. I prefer car­rot, radish, pea shoots, avo­cado, spring onion and sweet red pep­pers. I also opt for a good dol­lop of may­on­naise, but my chil­dren prefer hum­mus. Either is good, but not both. A fin­ish­ing flour­ish which is also excel­lent is a whole baked head of gar­lic. You can add this to the chicken tray for the last thirty minutes of cook­ing. The soft gar­lic spread into the pitta is delicious.

For the pitta bread — makes 10–12

1 heaped tea­spoon quick action dried yeast

1 heaped tea­spoon caster sugar

300ml warm water

450g plain white flour

1 table­spoon finely ground sea salt

1 table­spoon extra vir­gin oil­ive oil

Com­bine the yeast, sugar and water in a large bowl and leave for a few minutes to form bubbles. Add the flour, salt and oil and knead the mix­ture together in the bowl for ten minutes. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place for about two hours.

Pre­heat the oven to its highest set­ting which will be around 240 degrees C. It sounds alarm­ingly hot, but you need that level of heat to get the pitta to rise suf­fi­ciently to make an air pocket inside while crisp­ing up at the same time.

After the dough has sat hap­pily for two hours, punch it down and knead it for another couple of minutes. Divide it into ten to twelve equal-sized balls, cover them with the cloth and put to one side for ten minutes. Roll each piece to form oval shapes around about 5–6 mm thick. Lightly flour a tin or sheet and line up the pit­tas — make sure they’re not touch­ing. Bake for just 6–7 minutes and they will puff up deliciously.

Tip the pitta onto the table, slit them open as you go and stuff each one with whichever com­bin­a­tion of chicken, salad, hum­mus or may­on­naise you fancy.

The meal was cer­tainly unim­press­ive, it was pos­sibly trivial, but in its humble, unas­sum­ing way it was as good a way of exper­i­en­cing now­ness as Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­ations for string trio.