The oldest recipe AKA Chicken Stew for Tired People

Chicken Stew 014
Photo by Matt Russell and styling by Kitty Coles

Thank you so much to everyone who has cooked this recipe so far from THE SECRET OF COOKING. I felt it was time to add it to the website. I know that spring may not feel like stew weather but this is a sprightly sort of stew, rich in herbs. It reminds me of French moules marinières even though it's made with chicken not mussels.

This recipe comes from the chapter in THE SECRET OF COOKING about cooking for children. I have never felt so tired, nor so in need of homemade stews as when my children were little. The flavours here are based on the stews my mother used to make which were heady with parsley.🌿

I was so happy when I met someone recently in Bath who said she had been making this recipe for herself on repeat.

Many friends have also told me that they have cooked it and indeed a friend cooked it for me this week. Photos here!

NB I’ve given many herb variations at the end and all are good but the way I like it best is with parsley and tarragon. There‘s just something about chicken with tarragon, as French cooks know. I made the tarragon version when photographer Fabio de Paola came to take my picture for The Guardian and when I met him again a year and a half later he was still talking about it and referred to it as the „the chicken with tarragon“.

Chicken – like all meat – tastes better cooked on the bone. But tell that to a tired parent who hasn’t slept properly in months. This is a pragmatic stew which uses skinless boneless chicken thighs to make it much quicker to cook and prep but is nevertheless delicious: chicken stew for the soul.

This is much easier than most casseroles because instead of laboriously softening onions, you just throw in a lot of chopped leeks and carrots and potatoes, which happily cook in the broth without any sautéing. But I do think it tastes a lot better if you can spare a little time to brown the chicken thoroughly in butter before the vegetables go in. If you make a big batch of it, you can live off this for a couple of days and it tastes both restorative and comforting. It’s a way to stretch a little bit of meat a long way. My mother taught me that meat stew should be more vegetable than meat and I think she was right, both on grounds of sustainability and taste. But if you are feeling meat-hungry, double the quantity of chicken.

The reason I call it ‘the oldest recipe’ is that the oldest recorded recipes are on a group of clay tablets from Mesopotamia dating from four thousand years ago, give or take. There’s a book by Jean Bottero called THE OLDEST CUISINE IN THE WORLD which reproduces the recipes.

Most of the Mesopotamian recipes – twenty-one of them – take the form of various kinds of simple meat broths, with meat or poultry cooked in water and usually flavoured with leeks and garlic, sometimes with herbs added and sometimes with barley. I’m pretty sure that modern chicken, even the free-range kind, is nothing like the game birds they ate in Mesopotamia. But I still find it extraordinary to think that when I take some chicken and cook it in water with leeks, I am more or less cooking the same way that people were cooking four thousand years ago.

Serves 6–10 children or 4-6 adults
500g boneless skinless chicken thighs (organic and/or free-range) 25g unsalted butter
400g leeks
700g carrots
500g baby new potatoes
250ml white wine (the alcohol burns off so you won’t make your children
drunk, but if you are at all worried just leave it out and use all water, with an extra squeeze of lemon at the end

6 cloves of garlic
30g flat-leaf parsley, chopped (I add this because all my mother’s stews tasted
of parsley but if either you or your child object, leave it out or use different
herbs such as dill, tarragon, chives or oregano. My preference is half parsley half tarragon but don’t not make it because you don’t have tarragon)
At the end: a squeeze of lemon plus some zest, a spoonful or two of
double cream
Trim any big pieces of fat off the chicken thighs and cut each thigh into 4 or 5 pieces. If you are truly shattered, you can skip this stage and just chuck the meat from package to pan. In a large shallow lidded pan, heat the butter and add the chicken and a light sprinkle of salt. While the chicken is browning, clean your chopping board and knife and prep the veg. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, rinse out any grit and cut them into 1cm pieces. Peel the carrots and cut them into thick coins. Halve the potatoes.
After each prepping job, check on the chicken in the pan and turn it to brown on all sides. Pour the wine into the pan. It will create billows of savoury steam and pick up all the lovely brown chicken bits in the pan. Add all the vegetables including the unpeeled separated cloves of garlic, plus half the parsley, 1 teaspoon of salt (optional – if cooking for babies, just leave it out and season at the table) and 400ml of water. Cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender (check a couple of potatoes). Taste to see if it needs lemon and add a couple of spoonfuls of cream and the remaining parsley (or hold this back to add at the table if you are feeding any parsley objectors). For babies, chop or blend to whatever texture they can manage. Eat in bowls and feel restored.