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.