Thursday, May 4, 2023

Cooking School and Coronation Chicken

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times - going to cooking school in London in the late 1970’s. The good - cooking every single day for 9 months. I’m still convinced after all these years that the only way to properly learn pastry and other finicky cooking techniques is under the watchful eye of a teacher or chef at close hand. The bad - those same teachers were not kind, especially to the foreigners, i.e. non-British, among us, which certainly included me. 

There were 40 women in our program. No men allowed, because they had other options like apprenticeships, which were not freely given to women then. About a quarter of the class were foreigners, and we all bonded together in reaction to the rather snotty and witchy treatment by the teachers…and the other students. I shouldn’t have been too bothered by this, because I was a good four years older than these 18 year old privileged Englishwomen who came to the Cordon Bleu instead of going to university. 

I had applied to the Cordon Bleu on a whim while I was in graduate school in London. (There was no negativity there and there were gobs of foreigners.) The CB people laughed when I first contacted them in January. They said people have been on our waiting list since they were babies. Funnily enough, in July or August (I suppose when the money was due), they contacted me and said we have a place if you still want one. And so there I was.
It’s hard to explain or even remember why it was so tough. I loved my friends there, but it was challenging to deal with the unrelenting criticism and coldness of the place. I guess the English folks were used a total lack of positive reinforcement, but we foreigners were treated with an unsaid disdain that they didn’t face. And we were a diverse group - from the States, Japan, South Africa, Canada, Belgium. 

Once I had the audacity, or honestly it was just ineptitude, to stir flour into a cake batter with a wooden spoon. My hand was actually slapped, because, of course, it should have been a metal spoon. Metal spoons are for folding, wooden spoons are for beating! …Cooking students too, I suppose! 
Having said all that, focusing on the actual cooking everyday got many of us through. There was no way that you couldn’t become proficient after being so closely watched and repeating many basics day after day, which felt good.
This was where I first became familiar with Coronation Chicken, a recipe which had been developed in that very place more than 20 years earlier by the founders of the London Cordon Bleu to honor the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. 


>Jump to Coronation Chicken

Seventy years later, here we are again at another coronation. This time, the official luncheon dish that citizens are being encouraged to serve is Coronation Quiche, a savory spinach and cheese quiche, with the very odd addition of fava beans. I’ll take Coronation Chicken every time! It’s a luxurious curried chicken salad, served with a bright and flavorful rice salad. 

One more aside – Probably as a way of therapy, I calligraphized every single recipe that we were taught that year and put them in a loose-sleeved binder (remember those?) with the Queen and Prince Philip on the cover. (I thought it was fitting.)


This particular recipe was called Poulet Reine Elizabeth and it’s a great example of a real throwback. In those days, England was not metricated and they used the old imperial weights and measures system. This recipe had ingredients measured in “gills”. Have you ever even heard of a gill, pronounced "jill"? It’s a liquid 5 fluid ounce measurement. It was the equivalent of a “teacup”, which was another actual measurement that we used, along with the rather charming "dessertspoon". 

My version has some of the same basics as the original, like cooking the curry powder before it’s added to the mayonnaise. (And, of course, we made our own hand. Not today, though.) I also add some mango chutney to the mayo and some mango to the rice salad.

Back in the day, we poached the chicken, but I love Ina’s method of cooking chicken for a chicken salad. She roasts whole breasts and shreds the meat off the bone. It stays super flavorful and juicy that way.

God Save The King and make sure you save time to make this Coronation Chicken!





Coronation Chicken
(serves 4, but you’ll have extra mayonnaise*)

4 large chicken breasts on the bone (about 3 lbs.)
A quick drizzle of olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 celery stalks, diced
Big handful of chopped parsley
Curry Mayonnaise
1/4 cup onion

2 tsps. olive oil
1 cup Hellman’s Mayonnaise
2 tbls. sour cream
1-2 tsps. curry powder**
1 tbl. tomato juice
2 tbls. mango chutney
2 tbls. apricot jam
2 tsps. red wine vinegar 

Rice Salad
1 cup brown rice
1/2 red pepper
1/2 orange pepper
2 plum tomatoes, diced
Big handful of chopped parsley
1/2 cup olive oil
3 tbls. red wine vinegar
1 tbls. Dijon mustard
½ tsp. sugar
Extra chopped parsley for garnish

Place chicken breasts on foil lined baking sheet that has sprayed with nonstick spray. Cook in a preheated 425°F. oven for 30 minutes or until breasts just test 165°F. Let cool. Cut the chicken into nice chunks, discarding or snacking on the skin. Place in large bowl.
For the curried mayonnaise, add the onion to a small frying pan with the olive oil. Add a big pinch of salt. Start cooking on medium high heat. When you hear a sizzle, turn heat down to low, cover, and cook until completely soft, maybe up to 10 minutes. (You cannot overcook it.) Add the curry powder, and cook on the lowest heat, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes. Cool to room temperature. 

Add mayonnaise and all the remaining mayonnaise ingredients to a medium bowl. Stir in cooked onion mixture. Taste for seasoning. Set aside until ready to use. If making in advance, cover well and refrigerate. 

For the rice salad, place rice and 2 cups of water in a large saucepan with a big pinch of salt. Bring to a rolling boil. Cover and turn down heat to the lowest possible. Cook undisturbed for 45 minutes. 

Meanwhile, make vinaigrette. Place all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. 

As soon as the rice is cooked, stir in a few spoonfuls of the vinaigrette and turn cooked rice out onto a dinner plate, which will cool it faster. 
Mix chicken with diced celery, chopped parsley and enough curry mayonnaise to coat well. Taste for seasoning. 

Place rice salad in one half of a large serving dish. Spoon the chicken salad in the other half. If desired, add additional drizzles of curried mayonnaise to the chicken and vinaigrette to the rice salad. Garnish with extra parsley.


*This recipe makes a lot of curried mayonnaise, but I like the feeling of having enough to give the finished product an extra mayo smear at the end if I want. I also like to use the extra to dunk my leftover celery sticks in. By all means, halve the mayonnaise recipe if you’re a leftover-phobe. 

Also the original recipe calls for putting the flavored mayonnaise through a sieve. I like the very slightly lumpy and bumpy texture, when it's unsieved. 

**Every curry powder is so different, it’s difficult to say how much to use. Freshness is also a factor. If I were serving this in an hour, I would add 2 teaspoons. But since the flavors definitely develop overnight, if making in advance, I would use 1 teaspoon of curry powder.

Also this recipe is not about heat, so I use a mild curry powder. If you like things hot, go ahead and use a hot curry powder or even stir in a bit of sriracha. The Queen probably wouldn’t have approved, but I won’t tell her.

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