Bringing up three young boys on her own, our mother occasionally needed a break. Somewhere in between our throwing-rocks-at-cars stage and being kicked out of Sunday School, Doug, Ma’s tattooed, Indian motorcycle owning friend, showed up one morning with his house truck. She needed a break.
Excited was an understatement: a house truck and Doug? We could barely contain ourselves. Not knowing where we were heading, the mystery and intrigue only increased when Doug whispered in a stern and serious voice that we were taking the back-roads, “and if any police pull me over, my names Graham, okay?”. We solemnly set our sights on the road, alert to any possible police cars.
Feeling a little sick a short while into the trip, Doug thought it best if I lay down in the back of the truck. It was a horrifying; on my own in the back for a good hour or two, pots, pans, spoons, the whole damn truck swaying left and right, creaking and roaring at the same time, as we passed through the back country towards our final camping site. I’d never been in the back of a house truck while it was moving; it was an altogether disconcerting experience. I certainly didn’t feel any better when they finally heeded my feverish banging on the walls and stopped to let me in the front. “Wondered what that noise was”, Doug said to me. I didn’t reply; I wasn’t quite sure how to voice my fears that the house truck was actually alive; I slept rather uneasily that night …
We were there for just under a week, eating porridge with honey for breakfast, swinging off ropes onto hay bales in the barn, and speeding around orchards on the back of a ute (which ended rather abruptly for me when I grabbed hold of an apple on a tree while still driving at speed, and unwisely decided not to let go). I can’t remember how young we were, or where we camped; all that really remains in my mind is the pure magic of camping with Doug and his house truck. And maybe the relieved look on Ma’s face as we jumped in at the start …
Camp Riverbend is etched in my memory better, if only for the fact we were older, and the disastrous start to the week we had there. Nothing beats the excitement of three young boys, un-chaperoned, on a train, for five hours. Which is my only defense for losing our pocket money for my twin and I, a shameful act resulting in my own tears in front of the Camp Leader as he told us both that we would have to rely on our older brother for charity; he still had his pocket money. Which was probably why I was crying, Big Bro didn’t like to share. Things went from bad to worse in the opening two hours when my twin brother, driving the only go-cart in the camp, sped into a tree (left! Go left!), damaging the chassis beyond repair for the week. An hour after that my older brother was being extricated from his third fight for the day with what he called ‘bible-bashing geeks’. The true extent of the horror of Camp Riverbend, and what our mother had perhaps wisely chosen to exclude from telling us during her effusive praise for our up-coming adventure, came in the last hour before bed-time on that first day. Tired, exhausted, just wanting to sleep, we were instead shepherded into a small hall, and for the next hour and a half taught the power of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. We’d been kicked out of Sunday School; this seemed to be our punishment. I knew it had to be some kind of punishment when the opening chords of Richard Berryman’s ‘Louie, Louie’ rang out from the tiny stereo in the corner, and we all started singing “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, ooh baby, let my people go …”
A few more school holidays passed at home; I think then we were going through our petty-theft-from-the-local-corner-store stage, mixed with casual vandalism at the local bmx track. Feeling particularly run-down and sick Ma saw our local doctor, and was told perhaps she needed another break. With much resentment and grumbling, thinking it would be far more fun at home, we were sent off to spend a week on a local farm with the charming Dutch couple, Inika and John.
I can still remember the horror we all felt upon learning that the only television station with reception out there had no cartoons, and screened only in black and white. The first morning we were there we were literally woken at the break of dawn, the rooster crowing directly outside our window. We were aghast at the idea of milk fresh from the cow. Let alone the fact Inika would not allow us sugar on our cornflakes. It all seemed like a different world.
That’s what I remember about the start of our holiday on the farm; resentment mixed in with confusion; our familiar routine had been turned upside down. Within a day though, maybe two, our adventure there was in full flight.
A great pine forest lay beyond the house, perfect for exploring. It’s hard to forget the dead cow we found in the river running through the forest, or how we threw rocks at it’s distended belly until it exploded all over us. I swear that smell lingered on our skin for days. I can’t forget either how freaked out we were by a wandering cow walking up to us and licking our hands. Big Bro had spent a bit of time on a farm before, he had seen cows close up. I hadn’t, let alone been licked by one. On the other side of the farm was a small dam, perfect for floating on in an old inflated inner tire. There was a massive vegetable garden out the front of the house, two pigeons named Bluey (he was blue …) and Mechanic (he loved getting into the car’s engine) patrolling the skies above, doing a pathetic job of scaring away the crows. Beside the garden was the chicken run, with the hens’ eggs forming part of Inika’s vanilla ice cream, still to this day the best I have ever tasted. During the middle of the week we were taken to the neighbours for dinner, a few kilometres away, and got to see their dog singing as one of them played the harmonica. We sat there politely but were not fooled; that dog wasn’t singing, it was howling.
It truly was a new adventure every day, and returning home after the week we had there I remember the strange feeling of loss, knowing tomorrow we would be back at school rather than roaming around the pine forest or swimming in the dam. With that in mind we needed no encouragement the following year to return for another week, this time the experience seeming richer with the familiarity of what we were in for.
That first night, eating roast chicken with vegetables from the garden, I asked if the rooster would still be waking us at dawn. Laughing, Inika replied that probably wouldn’t be a problem. “What do you think you’re eating?” she said. It was strange, trying to process that information, the stark reality of where chicken actually comes from staring back at me on my fork. But it made sense. Inika and John grew their own vegetables and raised their own hens for eggs and food. I can’t remember but I’m sure they had pigs too. They milked their own cows, made their own cheese, their own ice cream; woollen rugs from their sheep carpeted the floor. They had a whole kingdom in their backyard. They were happy, satisfied, and truly self-sustaining. Most of all though, they were generous with their love and understanding for three wayward young boys, who had given their mother just a bit too much of a hard time. She needed the break.
Pistachio Stuffed Chicken Breast with Cauliflower Puree & Crispy Jamón Crumble
I’ll always remember the taste of that chicken, and the bounty on Inika and Johns’ farm. It was when I was cooking this dish that I was again reminded of them. I found out on their farm, and I still believe now, that fresh, organic, free-range chicken tastes best. Spend a bit more cash and buy a good bird. You’re guaranteeing a good sleep-in for someone the next day …
- Organic, free-range Chicken Breast
- Roasted Pistachio Nuts
- Fresh Thyme
- Jamón (more on this shortly …)
- Unsalted butter (Jamón plus Pistachios equal lots of salt; make sure your butter has none)
- Smoked Paprika
- Good Quality Olive Oil
First … The Chicken:
Get the filling sorted first. Shell the pistachios; my general rule is for every two I crack open, I eat four … For two breasts you’ll need just under a cup of pistachios. Roughly chop these up then place in a bowl. Add the zest of half a lemon, two cloves of grated garlic, and a good handful of thyme leaves. Add a little pepper, just a dash of salt, and a good dollop of olive oil. Mix all this together then set aside. Next, lay some cling film on your bench and place the chicken breast on top. Cover the chicken with another piece of cling film then start flattening it down with a rolling pin, or a mallet; I have neither, I ended up using a pot … You don’t want to bash it too thin, just enough so you can easily roll it up later.
Remove the top layer of cling film and spread the pistachio mixture evenly over the chicken. Now the fun part, rolling the damn thing …
Use the bottom layer of cling film as a guide, slowly rolling the breast up, and once finished, screw both ends in to create a nice sausage shape. Gently unroll the chicken from the cling film, keeping it’s ‘sausage’ form intact, then using kitchen string securely tie the chicken up in five or so places along the ‘sausage’. You could easily call it a day here; I like to roll it up and screw in the edges once again, before placing the chicken in the fridge and moving on to the cauliflower puree.
Next … The Cauliflower Puree:
(Please clean your hands. Salmonella and campylobacter are just plain nasty)
Take one head of cauliflower and cut into small florets. Place these into a medium saucepan with a small knob of butter, and gently sauté for three to four minutes. Add milk to cover, bring to the boil, and then simmer for around ten minutes, or until the cauliflower is soft.
Next step you have two choices:
Choice A) Blend the cauliflower in a food processor until smooth. If you choose this step, make sure you blend the cauliflower while it’s still hot. If you let it cool down too much before blending you’ll get lumps in the puree, and these won’t be coming out. Choice A is definitely the faster option for those time conscious cooks out there.
Choice B) I have heaps of time. I go to work, come home, and cook. That seems to be my life at the moment. So instead of blending in a food processor, I pass the cauliflower through a sieve, just like the sweet potato mash. It definitely takes longer, but I’m a big believer in the texture and consistency you achieve through this method. Plus I have loads of time to stand there for an hour, spoon in one hand, sieve in the other …
Once you have the desired consistency, season well with salt and pepper, and add about half a teaspoon of smoked paprika. Mix this in well and then place into a pot, to be heated up later.
Next … The Crispy Jamón Crumble:
Jamón is Spanish cured ham, but saying it like that really doesn’t do it justice at all. It’d be better to say something like: “Jamón is Spanish cured ham, handed down directly from God, and beats all other types of ham, including (but not limited to) prosciutto, pancetta, Bayonne ham, or champagne ham”. Jamón Ibérico is the best, being made from the black footed Iberian pig, which is fed an almost exclusive diet of acorns. Nutty, rich, with fat that just dissolves in your mouth, Jamón Ibérico is quite possibly the King of All Cured Hams. But we’re making crumble here, so I just use Jamón Serrano, ‘mountain ham’. Not quite as rich, or nutty, or fatty, but beautiful all the same. Save on money and use bacon if you want; I won’t be angry. Just disappointed.
As lovely as that fat is, you want to get rid of some of it first. So fire up the oven to around 180 deg Celsius, and grill the Jamón (or bacon …) until it’s a little crispy; if you have the oven on fan bake, this should only take two to three minutes on the top shelf. Now take some paper towels and pat dry the Jamón. By now it should be nice and brittle so finely dice it up. If you have a nice crispy consistency, yay for you; you’ve made Crispy Jamón Crumble. If it’s still a little chewy, place on some baking paper in an oven tray, and pop it back in the oven for a few more minutes.
Warning! Pay close attention to your Jamón; Burnt Jamón Crumble sounds as bad as it tastes.
Finally … Cooking and Assembly:
Season the chicken on all sides then sear in a hot pan with a little olive oil, until you achieve a nice golden colour. Place in the oven at 180 degrees for around 10 to 15 minutes, or until cooked. I’ll let you judge that. Let it rest, covered, out of the oven for around 10 or so minutes.
While the chicken is resting, gently re-heat the cauliflower puree. I served this up with some wilted greens and really cool looking purple carrots; the chicken could easily be served on its own with just the puree and crumble, I like a little bit of veg with it though.
Slice up the chicken (cut the string off first, it’s easy to forget, at least for me) smear the puree on the plate (or write your name with it) and then sprinkle the crumble over the chicken. Season with a little salt and some pepper, a dollop of olive oil, and you’re done.
Bringing up three boys on her own was not easy for our mother. Those holidays provided an all to brief break for her from the imposing storm of bills, cooking, cleaning and caring for us three boys. This dish requires a bit of effort, but I find when I’m tying up the chicken, making the cauliflower puree, or cooking off the Jamón, I get my own brief break from the world. It’s just me, my knife, some chicken and a stove, on the road again or down on the farm. Everything else fades away; I just have a plan to cook some chicken.