The Morel Imperative
We associate gathering wild mushrooms with damp autumn woods, but one of the most elegant and seductive of them all, the morel comes into its own in spring. This beautiful, conical, spongiform beast has the most bewitching flavour, subtly earthy, yet elegant, which has a great affinity with fish and fowl, and a pleasing versatility with wines of any colour.
Much easier, but no less glamorous for small gatherings, than roast turkey or lamb, the chicken is briefly poached in advance, which keeps it moist, and quickly finished. Use dried morels by all means: much more fundamental to the success of the dish is the quality of the chicken, so choose well. Simple accompaniments work best - steamed broccoli, and little new potatoes, or, as the season approaches, asparagus and buttered Jersey Royals.
Two-step Chicken with Morels (Serves 2)
2 plump chicken breasts, with skin
A teaspoon of truffle-infused olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
A clove of garlic, sliced
250ml white wine or dry sherry or a mixture of the two
A few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf, torn
150ml stock or mushroom soaking water
100g fresh morels or 25g of the dried variety
100ml crème fraiche
Put the chicken breasts in a heatproof dish with a lid. Brush the skin with the truffle oil and season well. Pour the wine around and scatter in the thyme, bay and garlic. Marinate in a cool place for a few hours, overnight if possible and be prepared for a powerfully truffly smell to pervade your fridge or larder. It will settle down with cooking.
Place the dish on the hob, add 100ml of the stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Poach the chicken breasts for about ten minutes, or until cooked beyond pinkness. Leave them to cool completely in their liquor.
To finish, clean the morels with a brush or damp cloth. If using the dried variety, soak them for an hour in 250ml of water from a recently boiled kettle. Drain in a sieve lined with kitchen paper, reserving the liquid Cut very large ones in half, and dry thoroughly.
Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Remove the chicken from its liquor and pat the skin dry with kitchen paper. It will look unappetisingly pallid, but fear not. Discard the garlic and herbs, put the dish on the hob, add 100ml of the stock, or mushroom soaking liquid and simmer for a few minutes. Melt the butter in a non-stick pan, add the morels and let them absorb it for a minute or so before removing with a slotted spoon and adding to the boiling liquor. To the frying pan, add the chicken, skin side down and fry for about 5 minutes, until the skin has browned. Transfer carefully to the liquor, skin side up. Put the dish – without the lid - in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, to finish cooking the mushrooms and reheating the chicken. Add a little of the reserved stock if necessary to stop it drying out.
Lift the chicken and morels onto heated plates and keep warm. Put the cooking dish on the hob. Taste the liquor for concentration (reduce a bit more if necessary), adjust the seasoning, and stir in the cream. Heat through until bubbling gently and swirl around the chicken.
This dish works well with whites and reds, creamy white Mâcon would work well, as would new world chardonnays with good acidity. Avoid overly tannic reds and opt instead for pinot noir.
(Easter Wine Without Fuss 2010 – Claret & French Dry White Case)