Diana Henry: Chicken dinners for every day

Best-selling food author Diana Henry on her Northern Ireland childhood, and why her latest book is dedicated to her favourite fowl

Before I was a food writer, I worked as a television producer, which is how I ended up, at the end of a long filming day, having dinner with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

In the midst of all the jollity that goes on at crew dinners, he suddenly looked at my plate. “What did you do to that bird?” he asked, shaking his head in admiration. Before me lay the remains of a poussin, with not a scrap of meat left on it. “I stripped it to the bones,” I smiled. “Just as I was taught.”

Great reverence was paid by my family to food. We certainly weren’t foodies but I come from a farming area in Co Derry and my grandfather was a farmer of dairy, beef cattle and poultry. We were well aware how much work goes into producing dinner.

My dad has always been an enthusiastic and adventurous eater, but plain old chicken has always been his favourite. He taught us how to appreciate the best bits – the wings, the little ‘oysters’ on the underside, and encouraged us, as children, to go for thigh meat – more succulent, more flavourful – rather than breast.

My mum’s roast chicken and stuffing was one of our favourite meals, her chicken soup was magically restorative, and when we went on picnics we didn’t take sandwiches but a whole bird whose meat we would tear off and stuff into fluffy white rolls.

Chicken is loved in many cultures. Americans have it fried, Indian friends wax lyrical about korma, and as soon as I arrive in Portugal I head for the chicken shack (as it’s come to be known) for a mouth-burning plateful of chicken piri piri.

It’s the meat most people will eat, and there are very few who won’t pick at the Sunday chicken roast as it sits, in all its golden-skinned glory, waiting to be carved. But, perhaps because it has become cheap, we also tend to take it for granted. We cook it so often we’ve rather run out of inspiration. So I wrote a book – for my dad, for me, for all those people who ask me what on earth they can do with a chicken breast – that would put chicken centre stage and show it in its many guises: as a bird that can be central to a proper feast (I often cook a big chicken at Christmas rather than a turkey), as an everyday ingredient that can be turned into a fantastic supper (what I can’t do with a packet of chicken thighs isn’t worth knowing) and as a boon for the lover of leftovers (for all those pies, pilaffs and gratins from which we take comfort).

Chicken can be grand, it can be simple, it can be creamy or spicy, it really is a food with limitless possibilities.

A Bird in The Hand by Diana Henry, published by Mitchell Beazley, £20. Photography by Laura Edwards

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