Chicken with squash

Grandpa Josh

My father-in-law, Josh, or Shoo-WA as Nana called him, didn’t talk a lot. He was an Iraqi Jew who left Iraq around 1950, and ended up living in London. He’d wake at 5 am, and sit in front of an electric fire, smoking and playing with worry beads, drinking tea, for hours. At weekends, he’d start cooking while everyone else was still in bed. You’d be woken by the most delicious aromas drifting up from the kitchen, and know that you’d have to wait until mid-afternoon to eat the amazing dishes that he was making. It was a mixture of ecstasy and agony.

He didn’t have a wide repertoire, but the dishes that he made were all masterpieces.

Josh never used a recipe book. I doubt if he would have known what to do with one. He knew his ingredients, and the steps required. If you asked him how to make something, he would say “cook it es-slowly”. That was it.

One strand of cooking was called (by us, in English) Chicken-And. There was chicken and chickpeas, chicken and carrots, chicken and pumpkin. And others. All the dishes were variations on the same basic technique, where he would fry some onion with ground black pepper and then add the chicken to be sweated for a while before adding tomato puree and water. The sweating causes gentle burning of some of the fats and skin, which adds a rich background flavour to the dish. Throughout the cooking process, he would keep the pan tightly covered, so the intense flavours couldn’t escape.

This dish is adapted from Josh’s chicken and pumpkin. It is rich and sweet and stunning to look at. I prefer squash to pumpkin, it’s richer and has a better texture. But pumpkin is far easier, and quite acceptable.

The dish should be prepared well in advance, so that there’s time to let it rest and let the flavours develop. You will need a big sharp knife, a big chopping board, a big wooden spoon, and a big pan with a lid. I mean big, mine is 11 litres.

Ingredients

1 large squash
1 large chicken
3 cloves garlic
1 lime (or lemon)
Tomato puree 200g
Salt
Muscovado sugar
Sunflower oil

The squash

Get a large squash or two or three small ones. Butternut is good, and available most of the year, but in the autumn you can get Crown Prince, which is amazing. Onion squash is good. Varieties differ enormously in density and how much cooking they need, so experiment.

Using the biggest and sharpest knife you can find, cut the squash into segments. Josh was a master at cutting. For most vegetables, he would cut down the centre to give a flat surface, which he placed downward on the chopping board. This made the object stable so you could cut into it. This is vital for safety with some squash, where the shell is tough and hard, and the blade of the knife tends to bounce off. You really don’t want the whole lot rolling while you are trying to cut it.

Use a spoon to remove and discard the stringy bit with the seeds in. Chop into bits and remove the shell. This can be harder that you might expect, with certain types of squash.

One of my sons users a potato peeler to remove the shell before chopping up the squash, but I never got the hang of this technique.

Heat a little sunflower oil in the bottom of a large pan (and I mean large) and add the squash pieces. Cover and sweat on a low flame for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. For a mushy result, or for denser squash, make that 30 minutes. For pumpkin, you need only a few minutes.

The chicken

Cutting up a whole chicken will give you the most flavour (all those little internal bits in the body cavity are stuffed with flavour). You can get away with using chicken pieces such as drumsticks and thighs, but it won’t be the same. Digging all the morsels out of the back was always Nana’s favourite, and it’s mine too. If you get the chicken from a butcher, you can always ask them to cut it up for you.

I like to use a largish organic or high quality free-range chicken, (about 2.5Kg is good). The dish will work fine with a smaller chicken, with some minor adjustment.

While the squash is sweating, cut the chicken up. It’s not as easy as it sounds and it takes practice. When you are cutting through a joint, there is an angle where the knife will separate the joint and cut through without much effort. Always look for this. If you find yourself sawing away at a bone, you haven’t found the correct angle.

  • First trim and discard any fat from inside the body and any bits of skin hanging off. Remove and discard the parson’s nose, the feet (or stubs of the feet) and the tips of the wings. Or use those bits to make chicken stock for some later recipe.
  • Cut through each leg joint where it joins the body, holding the knife parallel to the body. As you cut through, you can pull the thigh outwards to reveal the joint.
  • For each of these pieces, cut the through the joint between the leg and the thigh (unless the chicken is really small).
  • Cut through where each wing joins the body, taking some of the breast with it. The inner joint of the wing is well inside the breast, and anyway, the wing bits don’t have much flesh on them.
  • Cut along the breast bone, dividing the breast into two. Cut each piece of breast from the back. Cut each breast section in two, if the pieces are large. Cut the back in two.

After the squash has sweated, add the chicken to the pan, and use the wooden spoon to mix it in with the squash. Keep it tightly covered. Then finely chop 3 – 4 cloves garlic and add to pan, mix in. Keep it tightly covered.

Use a fine grater to grateUse a sharp knife to cut some of the skin off a lime (or lemon if no lime available) and add to the chicken. Add the juice of the lime. Keep it tightly covered.

Add about 200g of double concentrate tomato puree (that’s the best part of a jar), a large handful of salt, a spoon or two of muscovado sugar (optional) and enough cold water to just cover the chicken. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Leave to rest. Keep it tightly covered. It’s traditional to scream at anyone who tries to lift the lid and have a sniff.

If you taste the sauce at this point, the flavour may be a bit thin. It takes a few hours to develop, so don’t worry.

Before you serve the dish, use a ladle to skim off most of the fat floating on the top of the sauce. If there’s a little bit of fat left, that’s OK, quite tasty. Then bring to the boil and simmer for a further 20 minutes.

Serve with basmati rice.

If you are using a smaller chicken, or smaller chicken pieces, you should reduce the cooking time slightly (maybe simmer 16 minutes each time, rather than 20).