Spending ten days becoming reacquainted with the fragility of the human immune system limits my recent experience of foods with which I might seek to tantalise you. Illness is typically associated with bland foods like dry toast. I am sure I need not describe to you the keening, cramping pain of suddenly rediscovered hunger. The first curls of lightly salted butter seeping into that formerly dry toast. The first morals eaten out of appetite, rather than grudging acceptance of necessary sustenance.
Chicken is the one food which manages to be enticing to me, in both illness and health, and how to joint a chicken is the singularly most valuable kitchen skill I have ever learnt. My first boyfriend was Jewish. It was he who introduced me to the medicinal powers of chicken soup, or Jewish penicillin. Stripping a chicken’s carcass of breasts, thighs and drumsticks, I set the remains to gently roast in a hot oven. When it was slightly browned I put it in a deep pot with extra wings nestling in the crevices, covered it in cold water and set it to boil.
Making chicken soup is in itself a therapeutic exercise. The sweet yet savoury smell of boiling chicken, so utterly unlike anything but itself, is deepened by the visceral fragrance of stock vegetables. And the sound of stock making itself – the dim hiss of the gas turned down low and the ticker of the simmering water and faint ‘phut phut’ of bubbles breaking the surface. I’ve always imagined that the stock pot would be the epicentre of any professional kitchen, steadying the heart as you skim the surface with a slotted spoon.
Now I have my appetite again, I’m approaching the freezer and the rest of my bird. Roasting chicken is possibly, probably the best way to eat it. Rubbed with lemon and garlic, the puckered skin of a chicken leg peels away so deliciously. The most perfect of accompaniments? A rough homemade pesto, ground and pummelled into a paste of granular intensity; broccoli and cauliflower tossed in rapeseed oil and a dusting of cumin and chilli, roasted until the extremities of the small florets char slightly in protest at the heat.
As for my breasts – halved horizontally, dipped in flour and egg and dried breadcrumbs – I’ll make a chicken schnitzel. The only things a truly great schnitzel needs are butter, a medium heat and the splicing acidity of fresh lemon juice, sluicing the pan as you turn off the heat. Sometimes I eat it with a salad of mozzarella and tomato, sometimes with sweetheart cabbage sautéed with white onions and caraway, sometimes with tagliatelle and tomato sauce. It’s chicken: it needs little adulteration.
Now I am well again, I am scoffing pork pies and corned beef and other fatty foods, the mere smell of which turned my stomach a few days ago. But I still have the craving for chicken, that much maligned of meats – so much so that I’ve set another pot of soup broiling on the hob.