Braised Country Captain Chicken from India to South Carolina
October 8, 2021
While country captain as a dish finds its roots in the Indian subcontinent, it has become a widely admired dish in the American South today. It became popular throughout the Western world due to the western soldiers who encountered it in India mostly during World War II. It was so popular that the dish was once included in the U.S. military’s Ready-to-Eat packs, in honor of it being a favorite of George S. Patton, the renowned US Army General.
The Cajun Holy Trinity
Typically the holy trinity of cajun cooking consists of equal parts onion, celery, and bell pepper. It’s the southern answer to the classic French Mirepoix that consists of two parts onions, one part celery, and one part carrot.
In this recipe, I combined the two using two parts onion to one part green bell pepper and one part carrot. This is to balance out the dish with the spiciness of the onion, the sweetness of the carrot, and the bitterness of the green pepper.
Chicken is great because it’s available year-round and it’s super versatile. You can use any cut of chicken for this dish, but there are a few reasons why bone-in cuts are better: dark meat muscles do more work which in turn means the pigmented myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle cells which in turn makes it taste stronger. The second reason is that the marrow from the bone (especially in a stew) adds a lot of flavor to the dish, mostly through fat content.
The Roux & Spices
Roux is a French method of thickening stews that are used religiously in southern cooking. The difference typically lies in that while the French use butter, southern cooking uses lard or high smoke cooking oil. The reason for this is so that a much darker roux can be achieved without burning it.
Roux is made simply by melting the fat in a pot or pan, followed by whisking in flour. Fat is used instead of water because it doesn’t make the starch molecules swell. This mixture is then fried to neutralize the floury taste and to attain a richer, nuttier flavor that you get from toasted flour and butter.
Homemade Curry Powder
One of the biggest things that separate a cook from a chef is the use of whole spices (in my opinion). The reason for this is that whole spices make a significant difference even to people who have untrained pallets. They require a bit more work, but if you’re passionate about cooking there’s no substitute for the increase in complexity of flavors.
You can make an epic curry powder at home if using whole spices, although it takes quite a few spices and a bit extra effort. That being said, the payoff is great and it’s easy to make a batch because even a batch made from fresh spices is better than anything bought from a store. The ingredients are as follows:
- Coriander Seeds
- Cumin Seeds
- Chili Powder
- Garlic Powder
- Ground Tumeric
- Ground Ginger
- Ground Cinnamon
- Mustard Seed
- Fennel Seed
- Onion Powder
- Ground Cloves
- Ground Black Pepper
- Ground Bay Leaves
To make ground spices like ginger, turmeric, chili, cardamom, garlic, and onion powder, all you have to do is place them in a dehydrator for a few hours, then place them into a spice grinder. Whole spices benefits from toasting the seeds in a hot, dry frying pan for a few minutes to release and bloom all the oils that contain the flavor.
After you’ve prepared them, all you have to do is add the correct ratios of each ingredient into a spice grinder and grind until it’s smooth and uniform. Of course, there is also one fairly simple alternative:
If you don’t use curry powder often it’s totally viable to make a curry paste. In this case, you’d still have to toast and grind whole spices, but things like turmeric, ginger, garlic, and onions can be used fresh. All you have to do is add everything to a food processor or blender with the toasted, ground spices and a bit of oil and/or water, then blitz away.
Black Eyed Peas
Black-eyed peas are an incredibly drought-resistant legume originally from Africa, brought to the South during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It’s become a staple in a lot of Southern sub-cuisines and is used particularly often in soul food.
While no one would blame you for using canned beans, it’s also simple to use dried beans as well. All you have to do is soak the beans in salted water overnight, strain them before adding them to a dish, then simply toss them in.
Making the Stew
Sauteeing the Vegetables
There are two important guidelines to follow when you saute vegetables: the first is to keep all the pieces nice and uniform so they cook evenly, and the second is to not overcrowd the pan to keep the vegetables from stewing in their juices.
We saute the vegetables first for two reasons: firstly, it dehydrates them slightly, making for a more intense flavor (this is why you add salt as it draws out moisture), and secondly, to caramelize them to add some color and flavor.
Searing the Chicken & Deglazing a Pan
Searing meat for stewing both locks in flavor and activates the Maillard reaction occurring when amino acids and reducing sugars react with heat to give color and flavor.
Unfortunately, when you sear something on high heat it leaves a lot of that good stuff stuck to the frying pan, which is when deglazing is a useful technique. Deglazing utilizes liquid to lift all that goodness from the pan within seconds. You can deglaze using practically any liquid from wine, to stock, even water, but in this case, I used apple cider vinegar because it’s an element the dish was lacking and because it’s a southern favorite.
To deglaze you simply add vinegar, or whichever liquid you choose, to a very hot pan after searing the meat. Use a whisk or wooden spoon to scrape up the residue. Do this with caution, however, because the vapor from the vinegar can burn your eyes as badly as fresh chilies can – so stand back as you do this!
Making the Roux
Because we’re making this roux using butter, it’s important to use low heat and constant stirring. A roux can go from toasted to burn in mere seconds so it’s important to keep this in mind and whisk constantly!
Typically, a roux calls for equal parts fat and flour by weight, but in this case, since we’re adding the spices to the roux, you can use slightly more butter. Just melt the butter in the pan, add the seasoned flour, then use a dry whisk to combine them all. Toast it slowly for 2-3 minutes, then quickly turn off the heat to mix in the vegetables.
Alternatively, if you’re using a curry paste, you can simply add it after the roux has been toasted.
Braising Country Captain
Braising is a cooking method that involves using low, wet heat (and a lot of time) to break down the collagen that binds muscle fibers. You’ll know all about braising turkeys for Thanksgiving, and this same method can be applied for this recipe. It doesn’t take as long to break the chicken collagen down, so a good two-hour braise should be plenty.
Like deglazing, braising can be done in any liquid whether it’s wine, water, or stock. The one thing you have to ensure is that the meat is fully submerged in the stock the entire time. If too much evaporates just top up with more stock or water.
How to Make Perfect Rice
Making rice can prove unnecessarily challenging and there’s really no reason for it. There are a few very simple guidelines to follow when making most types of rice. The biggest difference comes in the length and color of the rice, so for the sake of this recipe, we’ll stick with white, long-grain rice.
There’s a general rule of thumb to follow for long grain rice which is one and a half cups of water per cup of rice. This changes the type of rice you use, but you’ll usually work with volume measurements not too far astray from this.
Soaking isn’t a necessary step for good rice by any means, but it helps a lot in that it’ll take less time and energy to cook. It also helps pull out any excess starch resulting in fluffier, less clumpy or sticky rice. Note that not all rice does well being soaked – Risotto rice or pudding rice for example should not be soaked as the starch adds a much-needed creamy consistency, when making those dishes.
Rinsing is a necessary step for all long rain, white rice because it washes off any excess starch that would otherwise make the rice sticky, dense, and clumpy. You don’t have to wash the rice thoroughly until the water runs clear. Rinsing it with cold water and giving it a little mix with your hands will do the trick. This is an important step to achieving fluffy, perfect rice every time!
Simmering & Steaming
Always start rice off in cold water. This helps to control the cooking time and gives you more flexibility. . Add the rice, salt, and cold water into a saucepan (optionally, with an acid like citrus juice or vinegar), bring it up to a boil, then turn the heat way down and simmer the rice until around 90-95% of the water has been absorbed. Turn the heat off, close the lid, then just let it steam until the rest of the water has been absorbed – about 30 minutes, and don’t touch the lid during this time!
Fluffing is the last, important step of the process, turning a big clump of cooked rice into fluffy, distinguishable grains with a nice consistency. To fluff rice simply get a fork and run it through all the rice until light and fluffy, taking care not to overdo it.
- 1 Yellow Onion, Chopped
- 1 Green Bell Pepper, Chopped
- 2 Medium Carrots, Chopped
- 3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
- 4-6 Chicken Thighs (Bone-In or Out)
- Sea Salt & Freshly Cracked Pepper
- Sunflower Oil
- 3-4 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
- 2 ½ Tbsp Unsalted Butter
- 3 ¾ Tbsp AP Flour
- 1 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
- 2 Tsp Smoked Paprika
- 2 Tsp Homemade Curry Powder
- 3 Large Tomatoes, Diced
- 15 Ounces Black Eyes Peas
- 4 Cups Chicken Stock
- Fresh Parsley, Chopped
- To Serve:
- 1 ½ Cups Uncooked Longrain Rice
- 2 Cups Cold Water
- 1 Tsp Sea Salt
- Extra Parsley to Garnish
- Place the chicken thighs onto a place and season both sides generously with salt and pepper.
- Heat a frying pan over high heat then add a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil to sautee the holy cajun trinity with the garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt in two batches.
- Transfer the vegetables to a bowl, set aside, and wipe down the pan.
- Place the pan back over high heat and let it get really hot before adding a few more tablespoons of oil then sear the seasoned chicken on both sides, then set aside with the vegetables.
- Once the chicken is seared, add the apple cider vinegar to the hot pan and deglaze it using a whisk. Transfer the liquid to a bowl and set it aside.
- In a small bowl combine the flour, cayenne, pepper, paprika, and homemade curry powder.
- Place a heavy-bottomed pot onto medium-high heat, melt the butter, then add the seasoned flour and whisk to make a roux.
- Turn the heat down to a low flame, toast the roux for 2-3 minutes to get rid of any flour flavor then mix in the holy trinity, tomatoes, beans, and vinegar mixture.
- Lay the seared chicken on top of the vegetables, then add the chicken stock until it's just covering the chicken.
- Cover the pot (ideally with a lid) and let the chicken braise for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until the chicken falls apart easily. Stir occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn't burn.
- Once the chicken is finished take the pot off the heat, and stir in the chopped parsley. Close the lid and set the pot aside while you make the rice.
- Make the rice:
- To make the rice, rinse it under cold running water to rinse off any excess starch.
- Add the rice to a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add some salt, then add one and half times the volume of the rice in cold water to the saucepan.
- Place it over medium heat then as soon as it boils, turn it down to a low simmer and leave it until 90% of the water has been absorbed.
- Take the saucepan off the heat, close the lid, and let the rice steam for 10-15 minutes or until the remaining water has been absorbed.
- Fluff the rice using a fork, add some to a wide bowl, top with the country captain, and some freshly chopped parsley.