Dinner party invites have never filled me with much joy. I think my issue is that I want to be the one who’s cooking. Luckily my friends know who to call when they have a table to fill with friends and food – and more often than not, I’m the one doing the catering.
This week I took over a friend’s flat to prepare a feast for 10 people for her birthday. Her request was for a tasty meal that I was to be part of – enjoying eating and not just stuck in the kitchen all evening.
My current go-to dish, for a “prep beforehand and bung in the oven so you can enjoy the evening”, is Yotam Ottolenghi’s Chicken with clementines and arak. I was introduced to this delicious dish a year ago, having initially dismissed it after hearing the list of ingredients. I’ve never been a fan of fennel, not to mention arak, and I was quick to write it off. I’d been very wrong to do so.
The combination of chicken soaked in citrus, herbs, mustard, brown sugar and the sweetness of thinly sliced clementines creates total magic. In his recipe Ottolenghi uses a whole chicken divided into 8 pieces, however I prefer using boneless chicken thighs, as personally I think it’s a nicer eating experience not worrying about bones. I strip most of the fat off the thighs too, as they can be a bit too fatty. Having said that, I’d always choose thigh meat over breast, as it brings a succulent juiciness that can never be matched.
Ouzo or Pernod equal the flavour of arak, and the latter is certainly easier to get hold of from a decent supermarket. The fennel and fennel seeds add a delicate softness in flavour, which is in no way overpowering with an anise tang and the arak is perfectly balanced with a sweet/sourness from the citrus and brown sugar. From someone who truly dislikes aniseed, I found the flavours of the fennel and arak subtle, not at all as they would be if eaten/drunk on their own. I played around a bit with the quantities, as the liquid is just too good not to have lots of.
It really is the easiest of meals to prepare in advance and the longer you can do so, the better the intensity of the flavour through marinating.
I serve it with green salad and quinoa as opposed to rice. But on this occasion I made roasted new potatoes with home-prepared rosemary salt (another request from the birthday girl!).
Ingredients – Serves 10
250ml arak, ouzo or Pernod – I used Pernod
150ml olive oil
120ml freshly squeezed orange juice
120ml lemon juice
5 tbsp wholegrain mustard
8 tbsp light brown sugar
4 medium fennel bulbs – trimmed and cut lengthways into 8 wedges
2kg boneless chicken thighs – fat trimmed off and cut in half/quarters (you don’t want the chicken pieces too small). I prefer skinless, again to reduce the fattiness of the thigh meat, however skin on thighs does crisp up and taste delicious
10 clementines, unpeeled – sliced horizontally into approx. 0.5cm slices
2½ tbsp thyme leaves – lemon thyme preferably
5 tsp fennel seeds, slightly crushed
salt and black pepper
In a large bowl combine the first 6 ingredients, adding salt and pepper to taste, then whisk to mix them all together.
Add in the remaining prepared ingredients in the order above and mix around with your hands to ensure everything is coated in all the juices.
Ideally leave to marinade overnight, then when ready to cook spoon into a shallow roasting tin to accommodate everything comfortably in a single layer (I had to use 2 big tins for the quantity listed above).
Place the tin(s) into a pre-heated oven at 220c/gas mark 7 for 35-45 minutes until the chicken is golden and cooked through.
I have to admit I’ve never been patient enough to follow the final step and tend to serve straight from the roasting tin, however if you have more patience than me…
Remove from the oven and lift the chicken, fennel, and clementines from the pan and onto a serving platter; cover and keep warm.
Meanwhile pour the cooking liquid into a small saucepan, place over a medium-high heat, bring to the boil, and then simmer until the sauce is reduced by a third.
Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve.