Rory O’Connell: A meal to delight your guests, not leave them stuffed and exhausted

What most of us want to eat is something nourishing and delicious and this crispy chicken dish followed by a date tart fits the bill

Fried spiced chicken with tomato aioli and salsa cruda

Fried spiced chicken with tomato aioli and salsa cruda

 

I sometimes get asked “how do I create a balanced menu?” Or people will say to me “I am never confident about what I should serve with what”. This is what my new book, Cook Well, Eat Well, is all about. As a result of those questions in the cookbook I have composed a series of seasonal balanced menus that I hope will be of help to all cooks who find themselves in a similar position of uncertainty.

The object of the exercise when creating a balanced meal is to compose a menu that will nourish and delight, and that will leave diners feeling satisfied rather than overfed and exhausted.

What most of us want is something nourishing and delicious to eat, and whether it is cooking for myself or a group of family or friends, cooking and then sharing the results of that effort remains a great pleasure. I have selected two recipes that should satisfy all of these requirements for a great meal.

Crispy fried chicken has always been a personal favourite, and the spiced flour in this recipe adds a tingling kick of heat to the crunch of the chicken skin. The garlic- and tomato-flavoured aioli is a terrific sauce that I also serve with crisp fried fish. A spicy, freshly made salsa of firm, ripe tomatoes, hot chilli and crisp salad leaves brings the whole dish together.

I usually don’t serve cutlery with this dish, but rather encourage diners to dip their crispy drumsticks into their own dipping bowl of aioli, and the salsa is served in little boat-shaped crisp lettuce leaves for an easy pick-up. I do put little finger bowls on the table, though, as by the time everyone has eaten their fill hands tend to be a bit sticky. But if you think that is all too much of a palaver just use cutlery after all.

The tart to finish this meal is a real surprise. Many people feel the same way about dates as they do about prunes – they just do not love them. However, I have witnessed this tart changing guests’ opinions about this immensely important fruit. The dates and vanilla are set in a rich custard to create a delicate and delicious confection. Big, fat Medjool dates are ideal here, and their sweetness and meatiness are a revelation in the creamy, vanilla-flecked filling. This tart is best served slightly warm with chilly, softly whipped cream on the side. This is one of my absolute favourite sweet tarts.

FRIED SPICED CHICKEN WITH TOMATO AIOLI AND SALSA CRUDA 

Serves 6-8
Salsa Cruda

  • 4 firm, ripe, unpeeled tomatoes, cut into 1cm dice
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1-2 medium-hot fresh chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed to a paste
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • Pinch of caster sugar

Tomato Aioli

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 anchovies, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon thick tomato purée
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 125ml sunflower oil
  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 50-75ml chicken poaching liquid from the fried chicken
  • 3 tablespoons chopped
  • fresh coriander
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • lemon juice to taste

For the chicken

  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 12-16 small chicken drumsticks or a mixture of drumsticks and thighs, all on the bone
  • 1 litre sunflower oil for deep frying
  • 250ml buttermilk for dipping the chicken in

Spiced flour mix

  • 150g plain flour
  • 3 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 4 teaspoons ground white pepper
  • 4 teaspoons chilli powder
  • 4 teaspoons curry powder
  • large pinch of fine sea salt

To serve

  • 20-30 small crisp lettuce leaves such as cos or baby gem
  • fresh coriander leaves
  • tomato aioli
  • salsa cruda

Fried chicken can be one of the most delicious and satisfying things to eat. I love the little bit of heat in the spiced flour here. The aioli is somewhat rich, but it pairs beautifully with the crisp chicken. I serve the salsa in small crisp lettuce leaves drizzled with the aioli, which makes them easy to pick up, just like the chicken. Purists will wonder why I have not soaked the chicken pieces in buttermilk before cooking, but in this highly flavoured recipe I don’t find it to be necessary.

To make the salsa cruda
Depending on how much chilli you add, you can make the salsa as hot or as mild as you wish, though I like to serve it with a reasonable kick of heat. Simply mix all the salsa ingredients together, then taste and correct the seasoning. I like to eat this salsa on the day it’s made.

To make the chicken
Place the chicken stock in a saucepan that the chicken pieces will fit into snugly and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken and season with a pinch of salt. Cover the saucepan with a lid, and simmer very gently until the chicken is tender and cooked through. This will take about one hour. Remove the chicken from the stock and allow to cool. Reserve the stock, which will be deliciously flavoured for adding to the aioli.

To make the tomato aioli
While the chicken is cooling, place the egg yolks, anchovies, tomato purée, garlic, vinegar and mustard in a food processor. With the machine running, slowly pour in the oils, as if making a mayonnaise, and process until smooth. Now add just enough of the chicken poaching liquid to attain a coating consistency. Stir in the coriander by hand and taste the aioli, correcting the seasoning with salt and pepper and perhaps a few drops of lemon juice.

To finish the chicken
Preheat the oven to 160°C. Mix all the spiced flour ingredients in a bowl. When you are ready to fry the chicken, heat 10cm of sunflower oil in a deep frier or heavy-bottomed cast iron or stainless steel saucepan until it reaches 180°C. Dip the chicken pieces in the buttermilk and massage the milk onto the skin thoroughly. Shake off the excess milk and dust the chicken pieces thoroughly with the spiced flour.

Drop the chicken gently into the hot oil, which should sizzle on contact with the chicken. Don’t over-fill the pan or the temperature of the oil will drop and the chicken pieces will stew rather than fry. A long-handled tongs is the best piece of equipment to use now, as you will also need to turn the chicken pieces every now and then to get them to colour and crisp evenly. Remember, the chicken is already cooked, so you are just reheating the pieces and also trying to achieve the perfect golden colour and crisp texture. Remove the pieces from the oil and drain on kitchen paper.

Keep them hot in the oven and continue frying until all the pieces are crisp and golden.

Serve the hot chicken with the crisp lettuce leaves, coriander leaves and aioli and salsa on the side. I sometimes pile a little salsa onto the salad leaves, drizzle with some aoili and finish with coriander leaves – this makes the eating a little easier for my guests.

MEDJOOL DATE AND VANILLA TART 

Filling 

  • 15 Medjool dates, halved lengthways and stones removed
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 85g caster sugar
  • ½ vanilla pod 600ml cream. 
     

To make the pastry 

  • 110g cold butter 
  • diced 220g plain flour
  • 25g of caster sugar
  • 1 egg, a few drops of water a little beaten egg. 
     

To serve

  • softly whipped cream

This is a delectable tart. The combination of date, vanilla and cream is quite delicious, and even avowed date haters have been convinced by this. I like it best served slightly warm, but it is still really good the next day served at room temperature.

For the pastry rub the butter into the flour either by hand or using a food processor to achieve a fine crumb. If using a food processor transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the sugar. Beat the egg and add to the flour with a fork, adding a few drops of water if necessary to bring the pastry together. Knead the pastry just enough to achieve a smooth mass. Form into a neat flat disc, cover and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Roll the pastry on a lightly-floured surface and line a deep 23cm flan tin with a loose base with it. Try to achieve a slightly raised pastry edge a few millimetres proud of the top of the flan tin. Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Line the tart shell with parchment or greaseproof paper and fill to the very top with dried beans. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, then remove the paper and beans and paint the base of the tart with a little beaten egg to seal it. Return to the oven and cook for a further 10 minutes, until the pastry looks golden and just cooked. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before assembling the tart.

Place the halved and stoned dates on the pastry in circles with the cut side uppermost. Cream the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Cut the vanilla pod in half lengthways. With the blunt side of a knife, scrape out the seeds and add to the mixture. Stir in the cream and mix gently but thoroughly. Gently pour the cream over the dates, being careful not to dislodge them. The filling will come right up to cover the dates.

Bake in the oven for about 90 minutes, until just set. If you think the tart is colouring too much, lay a sheet of parchment paper over the tart once the skin on top has set. I like the top of the tart to be well coloured, somewhat like the colour of a roasted hazelnut.

Once the tart is gently but definitely set remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature with softly whipped cream.

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