If you have ever watched Heston Blumenthal (of Fat Duck fame)'s programme 'In Search of Perfection' you will be aware of the frankly ridiculous lengths he goes to in order to find the perfect dish of chilli con carne, peking duck, or whatever -
To achieve the perfect roast chicken, you must first take a bath, wearing the chicken as a shower cap - this really helps to keep the bird moist, as well as giving it that faint 'Head and Shoulders' whiff that really adds so much to a roast lunch. Next season the chicken by standing at the bottom of a stairwell and getting a mate whose name is either Bruno or Malcolm (other names don't work as well) to sprinkle freshly ground black pepper and salt (that you have crystallised from the waters of the Aegean sea that morning) from at least three floors up. Next turn the oven on by getting on your knees and doing it with your teeth (no one wants suds on the oven knob), before stuffing an onion that you have peeled and played cricket with and a lemon that is exactly 8.9cm in diameter up the chicken's rear end. Now you can start preparing the chicken....
That sort of thing.
But seriously, Heston, of whom I'm a huge fan, really drills home the idea that however good a recipe is, it can always be refined. As a home cook I just think you need to draw the line at where cooking stops being enjoyable, and starts being a complete nightmare.
Take chicken curry. I probably make this, in one shape or other (though usually just the one) about once a month. Standard, peaceful procedure. Grind a random combination of cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic and chilli powder. Add it to sweating onions, add some coconut milk, tin tomatoes, chopped chillies and reduce. Liquidize if you can be arsed. Add chicken, cook, serve with rice. And I love it. It's really pretty good. But it could be so much better. I usually find that, while the sauce is the right consistency at first, the liquid leaking from the chicken waters it down, so I need to fart around taking out the meat with a slotted spoon and reducing it further. Until last night, that is...
Perfect chicken, lentil and butternut squash korma
This is a little hotter than your average korma. Deseed the chillies if you want it milder, but don't then rub your eyes. Or your balls.
5 large chicken breasts
20g fresh coriander
2 fresh red chillies
1 plump clove of garlic, peeled
Half a teaspoon ground cumin
Juice of half a lemon
A good slug of olive oil
A large onion, peeled and sliced
10 cardamom pods
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seed
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon hot chilli powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tin coconut milk
2 tablespoons tomato puree
300 ml chicken stock
A small butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped into chunks
Chop the chicken into large chunks and place in a bowl. Put the coriander, chillies, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, olive oil and a little salt in a food processor. Blend thoroughly. Add to the chicken, stir well to coat the meat, cover and leave in a fridge for a couple of hours, or preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 210C.
In olive oil, sweat the onion in a large pan. Meanwhile remove the seeds from the cardamom and discard the pods, or save to boil with the rice. Grind with the cloves, coriander and cumin seeds, and add the turmeric, chilli powder, ginger and cinnamon. Increase the heat in the saucepan, stir the onions for 2 minutes then add the spices. Stir for a further minute then add the coconut milk, tomato puree and stock. Bring to the boil and stir in the lentils and squash. Season with salt and pepper, cover and simmer over a low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
After 20 minutes, tip the chicken and marinade into an oven proof dish and bake for 25 minutes. Check the consitency of the squash and lentil component and simmer uncovered until reduced, if necessary. Add the chicken, stir through and serve with basmati rice and a glass of cold beer or a punchy red wine (Shiraz would be good).