Tuesday 13 May 2014

Creamy Low-Carb Chicken Breasts, Fennel & Bacon with a Cauliflower and Nutmeg Mash

A luscious dish packed with all the delectables permitted on a low-carb diet: bacon, cream, dry white wine and golden chicken skin. I've developed this recipe for Woolworths's new Flavour Society, on May's theme of winter food. Along with my friend Nina Timm, I'm one of the bloggers contributing my original recipes to Woolies' Flavour Society Winter Pinterest board - hop over and have a look!

Creamy Low-Carb Chicken, Fennel &  Bacon, with a Cauliflower and Nutmeg Mash

Chicken breasts toughen fast in the pan, so it's important to cook them gently over a very low heat once you've added them to the sauce. I always cut the breasts in half crossways - making the thickest end into a slightly smaller piece than the thinner end - because I think whole ones look ungainly and intimidating on a plate.

Another crucial step in this recipe is to a achieve a handsome golden crust on the chicken pieces.  The golden stickiness left on the bottom of the pan (that holy grail among flavours) will add gorgous depth to the sauce.

Cauliflower - the new darling of the low-carb world - is a good enough substitute for mashed potatoes (I'm stifling a sob as I type because I sorely miss mash, particularly buttery champ), and is much improved by cream, butter and particularly nutmeg, with which it has a wonderful affinity.

I've tried many different ways of preparing cauliflower mash, purée and 'couscous', and concluded that microwaving is the best method, because it keeps the florets nice and dry, and minimises that farty whiff so characteristic of boiled brassicas.  If you don't believe in microwaving, you can steam the florets instead.

Fennel isn't everyone's cup of tea (though I've managed to convert my family) and if you don't fancy its delicate aniseed flavour, you can leave it out and use two more big leeks in the recipe.

This luscious dish depends for its depth of flavour on the gorgeous golden
residue that forms on the bottom of the pan when you fry the chicken skin.

Creamy Low-Carb Chicken, Fennel &  Bacon, with a Cauliflower and Nutmeg Mash

8 large bone-in chicken breasts, skin on
2 Tbsp (30 ml) sunflower oil, for frying
500 g baby fennel bulbs
3 large leeks
1½ cups (375 ml) dry white wine
1½ cups (375 ml) organic Woolies chicken stock (or water to which you've added two teaspoonsful of a good condensed chicken stock, such as a Nomu fond, or a Knorr Chicken Stock Pot)
1½ cups (375 ml) cream
1 Tbsp (15 ml) Dijon mustard
250 g bacon, chopped
a squeeze of lemon juice
milled black pepper
3 Tbsp (45 ml) finely chopped curly parsley

For the cauliflower mash:
2 heads cauliflower, trimmed of leaves
1 Tbsp (15 ml) water
½ cup (125 ml) cream, or milk, or a mixture (plus a little extra, see recipe below)
3 Tbsp (45 ml) butter
a pinch or two of freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
salt and white pepper

Trim all globules of fat from the chicken breasts. If the breasts have skinny little ribs attached to them, snip these off using kitchen scissors and discard. Slice each breast in half, crossways, using a heavy knife and a chopping action to cut through the small bone. 

The breasts should still be raw on the insides after frying.
Heat the oil over a medium-high flame in a large shallow pan. When it is very hot and just beginning to shimmer, fry the breast pieces, skin-side down, in batches of 8 at a time, for 3-5 minutes, or until the skin is crisp and a beautiful golden-brown. (See Cook's Notes at the end of this post).

Set the chicken pieces aside, skin-side up, on a plate. The insides of the breasts must still be quite raw.

In the meantime, prepare the veggies. Trim the fennel pieces and remove any tough stalks or out leaves, leaving about half a centimetre of stalk on each bulb. Slice off the dark-green upper parts of the leeks and make a long horizontal slit three-quarters of the way through their lengths. Fan out the ‘pages’ of the leeks under a cold running tap and rinse away any grit hiding in the outer leaves. Now cut them into slices 4 mm thick. 

Drain away all but a teaspoon or two of the fat from the pan in which you fried the chicken, return it to a medium heat and gently fry the fennel and leeks for 3-4 minutes, or until lightly coloured. Now turn up the heat, add the wine and briskly deglaze the pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape away the sticky residue so it dissolves into the liquid. 

The stock and wine will reduce to a rich syrup.
Cover and gently braise the vegetables for 10-12 minutes, or until the fennel pieces are just tender, the leeks are soft, and the wine reduced by half.  

Add the chicken stock and bubble over a low heat, uncovered, for a further 6-8 minutes, or until the liquid in the pan has halved, and looks slightly thickened.

Add the cream and mustard and stir well. Return the chicken pieces to the pan, skin-side up, along with any juices that have accumulated underneath them. The sauce should come about a third of the way up the sides of the breasts. 

Turn the heat down to its lowest setting, cover the pan with a tilted lid and let it burble for 12-17 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked right through to the bone, but is still very tender and succulent.  How long this will take depends on the size of your chicken breasts (see Cook's Note's, below). 

While the chicken is braising, fry the bacon bits in a hot pan until crisp. Blot on kitchen paper and keep warm. 

Sprinkle the crisped bacon bits over the chicken at the end.
To make the cauliflower mash, cut off the florets - discarding any thick stalks -  and place in a large microwave-safe bowl with one tablespoon of water.

Cover and microwave on high for 12-15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is very soft and yielding. Alternatively, you can steam the cauliflower over boiling water. 

Drain the cauliflower in a colander and let it dry out for at least 10 minutes. Process it together with the cream (or cream/milk mixture) to a fine, smooth mash using a stick blender or food processor, adding more cream if necessary to keep the blades turning.

Stir in the butter and nutmeg, season with salt and a pinch of white pepper, and keep hot.  

When you're ready to serve the chicken, sprinkle with a little fresh lemon juice to give the sauce a whisper of acidity, and stir gently.  Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Scatter over the bacon bits and parsley, and serve hot with the cauliflower mash.

Serves 8.

Cook's Notes

  • Take your time frying the chicken breasts so they brown nicely without catching or burning. Don't prod them or turn them over. The skin may stick to the bottom of the pan at first, but as the fat renders and turns golden, you will find that the pieces can easily be lifted out.  The trick here is to keep adjusting the heat under the pan. 
  • Be careful not to over-cook the breasts, or they will become stiff and dry.  To check whether they are done, poke the tip of a sharp knife into the thickest part of the biggest piece. If the juices run clear and the bone feels very hot to a finger-touch, they're ready, and you must remove the pan from the heat. 
  • This dish can be prepared well in advance. When the chicken pieces are almost cooked through, with just a touch of pinkness in the middle, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and set aside to cool.  If you're going to reheat the dish within two hours, you can leave it on the counter. If it's a very hot day, or you'd like to serve it the next day, refrigerate the whole pan, covered.  To serve, remove the pan from the fridge, let it come up to room temperature for an hour or more, and then reheat it over a very gentle flame until the sauce is bubbling and the chicken is hot to the bone.

Note: I was paid a fee by Woolworths for this recipe. 

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