So there I was standing in a strange kitchen and a strange country all alone at 4pm (Italy time) facing about a 1/4 of a metric tonne (seriously! seriously!) okay it was about 1kg, but really like 1kg of chicken breasts and thinking “How am I going to turn this into anything edible?”
It must have been 32C in that kitchen and I hadn’t even turned the oven on.
It was hubris – the Lord strike me down! – I had offered to cook dinner for everyone well before we had set out for the week in Tuscany to celebrate my sister’s wedding – because I thought I was such a damned great cook and also I thought I’d be at my leisure because I was leaving my husband at home with my children.
But all that happened was that I spent days drugged up to the eyeballs on Nytol, occasionally “babysitting” my nephews (iPad) doing my hair for two hours a day and having 1.5hr naps. The rest of the time I was swimming and forgot entirely about this promise to cook on my last night.
I scavenged the main kitchen of the house and brought it down to the kitchenette in the funny little garden flat I had been assigned, just so that no-one could see me sweating and panicking and swearing about cooking dinner for 12 people using only chicken breasts, vegetable oil and paper doilies.
I am exaggerating – me? I had more than that. I also had about another kilo of mozzarella, a tub of the finest and sloppiest burrata I think I’ve ever seen, (and as you can imagine, I’ve seen some burrata), a huge tray of cherry tomatoes and a lot of that nasty unsalted bread you get in bloody Tuscany that is edible for about twenty minutes once it’s out of the oven and then hardens to a brick.
What’s vaguely interesting about this dinner was what I did with the chicken. I don’t like chicken breasts, they are just so annoying. Any other part of a chicken is easy and forgiving because it’s so fatty. But chicken breasts are lean and dry. You can poach them, but then you have to conjure up some kind of sauce to disguise their corpse-like appearance. You can fry them but there was so much of it, it would have taken me about 8,000 years and I was a bit foggy what with all that Nytol still washing around me. Not to mention hot, have I said how hot it was?
So I just shoved it all in the fucking oven with some lemon, garlic and rosemary, oil and salt at 180C for 25 minutes and then set about disguising it with something else.
I laboriously chopped up a lot of that hateful bread into teeny weeny bits, (there was an ancient food processor in a cupboard but I was so hot, you see, running with sweat I was, that I just couldn’t face getting it out and trying to make it work), and then fried it slowly with very finely chopped garlic and about 150g of butter. Then once the chicken was cooked and setting about cooling and turning into shoe leather, I covered it with the garlic crumb.
I’ve never really cooked in another country, not properly. But cooking that dinner in that kitchen made me realise why all Italian food is the way that it is. What you have at your disposal is a lot of quite good fresh produce and then these enormous bushes of sage and rosemary everywhere you look. (Not basil though, I didn’t see one basil plant in my 5-day tour of Tuscany, which makes me think that Italian snails are as keen on it as English snails).
So I went outside and pulled up huge branches of sage and rosemary and put them in everything. Gnocchi got covered in 300g of grated Pecorino and then I chopped in some fresh sage and also a handful of leaves fried in more butter. Then a huge tomato salad, just the cherry tomatoes chopped, a few slices of very finely-sliced red onion, with burrata spooned over and salt – this recipe was courtesy of next-eldest sister who had made it two days previously.
So in the end the shoe leather chicken was okay, with the gnocchi and the very wet tomato salad on the side. I call it Chicken Sesti because Sesti was the name of the place we were staying and it’s not a million miles away from Chicken Kiev.
And that’s what to do when you find yourself in Italy with no shops nearby and you have a lot of chicken breasts and 12 people for dinner.
Look at my sister’s fackin amazing huge dress: