Coronation Chicken, that classic dish of the 1950s, isn't something you're likely to see on a restaurant menu these days. In fact, I don't recall ever having seeing this on a printed menu. The only time you might encounter Coronation Chicken is if you have lunch with an old granny with strong British connections, or you might be lucky enough to find it between two slices of wholegrain organic bread in a swanky sandwich bar in London.
What a pity this recipe has fallen out of favour, because - given a little healthy tweak and updated with fresh spices - it's delicious.
At a gloved and lipsticked suburban ladies' luncheon in, say, 1959, you might have been served up a dish of cold, poached chicken, coated with a thick, tangy-mayonnaise-and-whipped-cream sauce, flavoured with tomato paste, lemon, apricot purée and a few teaspoonsful of dusty, aged curry powder. A bed of shredded iceberg lettuce might have featured, plus many tufts of parsley and a few artfully carved lemon halves.
The dish was invented, apparently, by florist Constance Spry and her associate Rosemary Hume (original recipe here) for Queen Elizabeth's coronation luncheon in 1953. The recipe appeared in the The Constance Spry Cookbook, published in 1956, and within a few years had become an established classic.
My light, bright and delicate version of this dish uses virtually the same ingredients, but with a healthy twist: skinless, deboned chicken breasts, fresh spices, some good mayonnaise, and tangy white yoghurt. And, because I live in Africa, where mangos are in season, mango slices instead of apricots. But apricots or sliced, peeled fresh peaches would be just as good.
Postscript: I have abandoned the cheffy method of cooking chicken breasts in clingfilm, below, in favour of oven-poaching, which produces a lovely, moist, flavoursome result. Here's how to oven-poach chicken breasts
21st Century Coronation Chicken: light, bright and spicy
10 skinless, deboned chicken breasts, poached, or an equivalent amount of cold sliced cooked chicken (see notes below)
2 T (30 ml) olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and very finely chopped or minced
4 t (20 ml) fresh, mild curry powder
3 ml ground cumin
3 ml turmeric
a two-centimetre-long piece of cinnamon stick
2 whole cardamom pods
a bay leaf
4 t (20 ml) tomato paste
4 t (20 ml) apricot jam
the juice of one fat lemon
2 thin slices lemon, peel and all
1/4 cup (60 ml) stock (chicken stock, vegetable stock or water)
1/4 cup (60 ml) white wine
salt and milled black pepper
2/3 cup (160 ml) good home-made mayonnaise, or Hellman's mayonnaise
2/3 cup (160 ml) plain white full-fat yoghurt
First prepare the chicken (see notes, below) and set aside to cool.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the finely chopped onion. Cook over a brisk heat until softened and beginning to turn a golden brown. Add the curry powder, cumin, turmeric, whole clove, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and bay leaf, and cook for another minute or so, to allow the spices to release their oils. Now turn down the heat and stir in the tomato paste, the apricot jam, the lemon juice and the lemon slices. Stir well to combine all ingredients, and then stir in the stock and the wine. Season with salt and pepper, and allow to bubble on a low heat for ten to fifteen minutes, or until the mixture is slightly reduced and glossy. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
At this point, you can strain the mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl (press down, using the back of a spoon, on the solids) or, if, you would like to keep the sauce a bit chunky, with all its oniony bits - as I do - pick out the whole spices and discard them.
In a new, clean bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise and the yoghurt. Add two-thirds of the cooled spicy mixture, and stir well to combine. Now taste the mixture, and add more of the cooked sauce to achieve the strength that suits your tastebuds. If the sauce seems very thick (this depends on what sort of yoghurt and mayonnaise you have used) thin it down with a little milk or water. Chill the sauce.
Just before serving, slice the cooked, cooled chicken and arrange on a platter, or individual plates. Coat the chicken with the cool sauce. Serve with with peeled mango, apricot or peach slices, and a few green salad leaves.
Serves 6 to 8.
Cooking Chicken for this dish:
I detest chicken breasts poached in water or stock: they go all stiff , in seconds, and the liquid gets all milky and curdled. I am also not very fond of pan-fried chicken breasts, which always seem a bit stringy.
Here are my suggestions: if you are making up a big, tossed platter of Coronation Chicken for a crowd, gently poach a whole chicken in stock or water, remove the skin, and then shred the chicken into biggish pieces, before tossing in the sauce.
If you are looking for something more fancy and cheffy, cook skinned, deboned chicken breasts as follows:
Half-fill a large pot with water and bring to the boil. Place a single piece of clingfilm on the counter top, and on to put put two chicken breasts, fillet side up, side by side. Season with salt and pepper.
Now place the salted sides together to make a sandwich. Pick up the edge of the clingfilm and roll the breasts into a tight sausage, as if you are making a Christmas cracker. Twist the ends of the 'cracker' in opposite direction so that you have a neat and uniform roll. Tuck the twists of clingfilm under the chicken roll. Now repeat the process with another sheet of clingfilm to make the package waterproof. Do the same to the remaining breasts. Put the the chicken rolls in the boiling water and turn the heat down to a simmer. Cook gently for 20-30 minutes, or until the breasts are just cooked through (how long will depend on how thick the breasts are: to test, slice right through one of the packages. If there is any pinkness remaining, re-wrap in a fresh layer of clingfilm and poach for another five minutes).
Remove the chicken parcels from the boiling water using a slotted spoon, and place on a plate to cool. Refrigerate for an hour or so. Then peel off the clingfilm and, using a very sharp knife, carve into disks.