British Hen Welfare Trust: happy hens make for yummy yolks

I often think about what exactly it is that draws me to food and food writing. Obviously, there is the fact that I am a glutton, greedy to sample anything and everything that can possibly pass my lips on this planet of ours. There is also the creativity that comes with cooking; I've always loved all sorts of creative acts - drawing, painting, writing, music - and food is perhaps the most unselfish creative act there is, in that it brings not only happiness to people but also fulfils one of the most basic physical human needs. What makes me love not only cooking and eating food, but also reading and writing obsessively about it, is the way it is fundamentally and inextricably linked with so many other things. Just look at the way the credit crunch brought about a huge change in the way people cook and eat, the way Jamie Oliver started extolling the virtues of back-to-basics cooking in a way that made people think twice before reaching for the phone to dial an expensive takeaway. Or the way our concerns with environmental sustainability have impacted on food, prompting a huge rethink in the way we catch and consume fish. Or the way food is so closely bound up with national identity, yet at the same time crosses cultural boundaries like nothing else; it is often said that the British national dish is now curry, a fact certainly evident from the dishes that have made the final of Great British Menu recently: coronation chicken, Indian spiced sea bass, masala-spiced monkfish. Food is not just something to be eaten as fuel; it is bound up with a whole host of sociopolitical, economic, and ethical concerns. When you hear the words veal, cod, bluefin tuna, farmed salmon, you are no longer listening to a list of appetising things for dinner, but a collection that invokes a whole host of issues that go far beyond the plate.

The same is true of eggs and chicken. I'd like to think that most people in this country are at least partially aware of the horrors of battery farming, though I am frequently confronted with examples that prove that, sadly, this is not the case. A friend of mine remarked that he doesn't care where his chicken has come from, provided he gets to eat it. This kind of thing shocks and disgusts me. Hens are crammed into cages, often with less space per hen than a piece of A4 paper, allowing them no room to move freely or stretch their wings. This creates an increase in disease, cannibalism, and odd pecking behaviours caused by boredom and stress. If you want more horrible details about the conditions in which your chicken and eggs are produced, read here or here. Hideously, it is estimated at 60% of the world's eggs are produced in these conditions. It basically amounts to torture, and yet it's sanctioned and taking place all around us.

What really surprises me about people who buy battery eggs is that they're barely any cheaper than free-range. Surely for about 30p more per half dozen, you could get eggs that don't come with such a horrible ethical burden. When it comes to chicken for eating, free-range chickens are often a bit more expensive than the pallid, blue-tinged, shrink-wrapped specimens on the supermarket shelves, so naturally people are inclined towards those without sparing a thought for the conditions in which the chicken was raised. I firmly believe this is an issue of supply and demand. Because, as a culture, we are obsessed with the idea that a meal is not a meal unless it contains meat, we are driven to purchasing lower quality, less ethical meat simply to satisfy our own demand for the stuff. Personally I would rather go vegetarian for a few days each week, then save up and buy a really gorgeous free-range chicken to roast for lunch at the weekend. What's the point in filling meals with tasteless, chewy, battery-farmed chicken breast just for the sake of having some meat involved? I'd much rather have a chicken that tasted of something and that I treated with respect, making the most of it for its chicken-ness rather than to fill an animal-protein gap that culturally I have been made to believe exists.

I don't want this to sound like a lecture, and I know a lot of people can't afford free range chicken all the time. But the simple solution, to me, is to just eat less meat and buy better when you can. That doesn't sound so difficult to me. If we didn't all buy this horrible stuff, consumers would stop producing it. M&S and Waitrose no longer sell battery eggs, a fact that makes me happy, and other supermarkets like Sainsbury's are planning to phase out battery eggs. However, there is another problem: while you can go free-range when buying boxes of eggs from the shelf or a chicken from the meat counter, you have no way of telling where the eggs come from in a lot of products. Mayonnaise, for example, and ready-meals containing eggs, like quiche. 3 billion eggs go into these processed food products each year, a third of which are imported, and even if Britain did ban caged eggs altogether, there would be no clear way of identifying which eggs were free-range and which were imported from battery farms. Hellmans recently started selling a free-range mayonnaise, though, which I suppose is a step forward. The government plans to phase out battery farms totally by 2012, but there is a lot of contention as to whether this will actually happen. Especially because I read an article recently saying there was a plan to bring back battery rabbit farming. Why on earth, given all the controversy over battery chicken, would you actually take the active step of implementing further horrors on other animals?

As the old saying goes, which came first: the chicken or the egg? I believe it is a case of putting the chickens first, not the need for cheap eggs.

For most battery hens, their life will be a miserable journey from cage to slaughter, once they have passed their peak egg-laying potential. However, the British Hen Welfare Trust, set up in 2005, is a charity that aims to give ex-battery hens a new lease of life. Each year they save approximately 60,000 hens from slaughter by giving them to people to adopt as pets. The BHWT was actually responsible for bringing about the Hellman's free range mayonnaise, and aims to educate people about the horrors of battery farming and what they can do as consumers to make informed choices regarding egg-containing products. Most importantly, they turn battery hens into happy hens, giving them up for adoption by people who can provide space for the hens to roam. If you don't have space for your own hens, you can sponsor a hen for a small cost to guarantee it a better life. I am incredibly keen to have my own hens at some point - you really can't beat fresh eggs, and it's not always apparent, but supermarket eggs may have been lying around for weeks before sale. I remember staying in Italy on a farm in Perugia a few summers ago, and eating eggs still warm from the chickens for breakfast. They're not only tastier, but also better for a variety of culinary usages - it's well known that only fresh eggs will poach properly.

My friend Laura recently adopted some ex-battery hens from the Trust, and I was lucky enough to be given some of their eggs to sample. I thought they were delicious; much more flavoursome than supermarket eggs. Laura tells me that now the hens have been out of the battery farm for a bit longer, the eggs are even better (I look forward to receiving another batch). The hens were a bit scrawny and decrepit-looking when she first got them, but she tells me that she has noticed "such a difference in their perkiness and featheriness already". You can see some photos here of the happy hens (Eliza, Matilda, Jennifer and Prudence), freed from their hideous prisons. I imagine it must be immensely satisfying to watch their journey from traumatised, brutalised animal into freely roaming, happy outdoor hen. It's a mutually beneficial relationship, too: happiness for the hens, and yummy eggs for the human. It also just goes to show that, despite a large part of their lives being spent in such traumatic conditions, a hen is not a worthless creature to be discarded afterwards. They are susceptible to habilitation, and I think it's great that charities like the British Hen Welfare Trust are working to achieve this. To transform a hen from a scraggy, tormented thing to a proud and splendid animal is something I envy all ex-battery hen-adopters.

So if you're reading this, I hope you'll consider changing your egg and chicken-buying habits if you haven't already. Think of poor Eliza, Matilda, Jennifer and Prudence. And if you are considering getting hens, definitely have a look at the BHWT's website - there's loads of useful information on there about getting your hens (they're free, but they suggest a small donation to help maintain the charity), caring for them, recommended vets, etc. There's also a lot of information about British free-range chicken farmers and the need for an educated, egg-wise consumer.

And, below - what better way to eat delicious, free-range, fresh eggs than poached on toast with a generous helping of smoked salmon? Guilt-free indulgence. Thank you Laura!

Sumac and za'atar roasted chicken

This week Simona from briciole is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I've been using two of my favourite Middle Eastern spices: sumac and za'atar. Sumac is made from the crushed berries of a small Mediterranean tree, and used liberally all over the Middle East, where it can be sprinkled over food or infused in water and used to flavour dishes, rather like tamarind. It has a sharp flavour, like lemon juice, and is used in the same sort of way. Za'atar is not a spice but a spice and herb mixture, comprising dried thyme or marjoram, sesame seeds and salt. It can sometimes contain sumac as well. One of my favourite ways to eat za'atar I discovered in Jordan, where they mix it with olive oil to form a vivid green paste which is then spread on rounds of flatbread, to form a sort of za'atar pizza. It's incredibly delicious; you wouldn't have thought dried herbs on bread could taste so good, but the olive oil gives it an almost buttery flavour. I could happily have subsisted off those little pizzas for the entire time I was there. Supplemented by some falafel, naturally. And baklava.

I'm quite fond of my jar of za'atar, having travelled with it through Syria and Jordan and then back to the UK. I stumbled across it in Aleppo, after spying a little nondescript shop on the corner of a street whose windows were full of these gorgeous jars, where the various ingredients in the za'atar mix had been layered atop one another. It was an effect reminiscent of those jars of coloured sand you can sometimes buy in touristy areas, where the colours are layered in stripes. I was captivated and intrigued, so ventured in to ask the stallholder what the substance was. When he told me, I immediately purchased a large bag. I already had some that I'd bought from the Moroccan deli in Oxford, but this was the real deal and I wasn't going to miss out. Particularly as I bought twice as much for half the price. As well as some huge blocks of olive oil soap, which I still have because I can't bear to use them. I was also informed that rubbing them on clothing keeps biting insects away, so I think I probably purchased them in a desperate bid to ward off the mosquitoes; they are drawn to my flesh as I am drawn to baklava.

It's hard to describe the flavour of za'atar; almost musky in a way, and much less pungent than simple dried thyme. I think it's the mellowing effect of the sesame seeds. The salt and sumac also give it a slight tartness, which means it's good for coating food to be roasted. I've had it on potato wedges, and also sprinkled over a bowl of homemade labneh (Middle Eastern cheese), but my favourite use is to scatter it liberally over roast chicken. 

This is a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, and it's superb. It's also incredibly simple, but the end result is much more than the sum of its parts. I cook a lot, and some of the things I attempt can be quite complex and fiddly (the quail egg ravioli springs to mind...), so it's sometimes quite nice to cook something as easy yet as impressive as this. Jointed chicken pieces are marinated in a lemony, garlicky mixture for a few hours then covered in za'atar before being roasted in the oven. It's the kind of food I like serving to people; it's full of flavour, hearty, rustic, and pretty much guaranteed to please everyone. After all, it's essentially roast chicken, just updated with a moreish Middle Eastern twist. The sumac and lemon combination make it incredibly addictive; they have a sourness that works so well with the crispy chicken skin, and are simultaneously quite refreshing. You can get sumac and za'atar in supermarkets now, but your best bet is a Middle Eastern grocers, if you don't have the time, money (or suicidal streak, given the current political climate) to go to Syria.

The main reason I made this was because I'd been craving the crisp, herby skin of a roast chicken against the cool tartness of Greek yoghurt, ever since eating some incredible Persian food at the Real Food Festival last weekend. I hate yoghurt on its own, as anyone who knows me will be sick of hearing, but I don't mind it with savoury dishes, and it can be the perfect accompaniment to spicy roast meats. 

To serve with this, I mixed Greek yoghurt with grated cucumber and chopped mint, tzatziki-style. For the carbohydrate element, I went with bulgur wheat, mainly because I fancied a change from couscous and because I love its nutty, larger grains. I caramelised some onion slices and pine nuts to go on top, partly for decoration and partly because caramelised onions paired with roast meat can only be a good thing.

The crispy, tart skin of the roast chicken with the nutty, almost creamy wheat, the crunchy pine nuts and the cooling yoghurt is a beautiful combination. The best bits, however, are the onions and lemon slices from the marinade, which go in the oven on top of the chicken and turn sweet and crispy. The lemon mellows enough to eat, skin and all, and when you get a mouthful of chicken with a little bit of lemon slice the flavour is incredible, particularly because the tartness is heightened by the sumac. It's a real feast for the tastebuds, with all the tart, herbal, caramelised flavours in there, and an immensely satisfying combination. It's also guaranteed to please a crowd of hungry diners; there's a sort of barbecue element to the pieces of crisped chicken, charred in places, served with a simple sauce and big spoonfuls of wheat.

Incidentally, I served this lemon and mint cheesecake after the chicken; its creamy, tangy citrus flavour is the perfect complement to a rich meal.

Sumac and za'atar roasted chicken (serves 4):

1 large chicken, jointed into four or eight pieces
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp sumac
1 lemon, thinly sliced
200ml chicken stock or water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp za'atar

400g Greek yoghurt
Half a cucumber, grated
20g fresh mint, finely chopped

200g bulgur wheat
500ml water
2 onions, thinly sliced
A handful of pine nuts
2 tbsp olive oil

First, marinate the chicken. Mix the onions, garlic, olive oil, spices (not the za'atar), lemon, stock/water, salt and pepper. Add the chicken pieces, coat in the mixture and leave to marinate overnight or for a few hours in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the chicken and its marinade on a large baking tray, skin-side up. Sprinkle over the za'atar. Roast for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Meanwhile, mix the yoghurt, cucumber and mint and set aside. Boil the bulgur wheat in the water until tender, then season generously. Caramelise the onions in the olive oil (this will take about 20 minutes), then add the pine nuts and let them colour. Spoon the bulgur into a serving bowl and spread the onions and pine nuts on top.

Serve the chicken pieces with the bulgur and mint yoghurt, and some chopped parsley scattered over, if you like. You can also sprinkle over more sumac and za'atar.

(Chicken recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's Ottolenghi cookbook)

Teriyaki chicken, Nigella-style

Whilst I love Nigella Lawson's cookery books, I'm not sure I can say the same for her TV shows. Or at least, not her current one, Nigella Kitchen. Whilst I am definitely someone who revels in the beauty of food, I find Nigella's mini odes to whatever ingredients she is using rather tedious. It's an avocado, Nigella, not an array of "jade cubes". We can all see it's a lovely-looking trifle, but do we really need our attention called to "how beautiful these juicy beaded blackberries look glinting darkly out of that pale billowing duvet of cream"? Every single ingredient is preceded with a comment beginning "I love..." - it might be the "peppery heat of ginger", or the crunch of pine nuts, or the sound of a chicken's backbone breaking (I found the manic smile of satisfaction on her face as she crushed the poor bird before braising rather disturbing), but cooking for Nigella is not just cooking: it's an excuse for waxing rhapsodical about every ingredient under the sun, with a lustful enthusiasm that makes me feel slightly ill.

I also find her recipes fairly uninspiring - apart from a couple of strokes of genius (the pork knuckles and the Venetian carrot cake have gone on my "to-make" list), her entire repertoire seems to consist of dishes in which one can "indulge", and which require very little skill or imagination, but at least four forms of saturated fat (I am thinking in particular of the 'Grasshopper Pie' - butter, cream, chocolate, Oreo cookies, milk, creme de menthe...). Whilst I'm sure her linguine from the last episode would have tasted great, to me, mixing double cream, truffle oil, an egg and huge handfuls of grated parmesan into a mound of slippery pasta is neither cooking nor nutrition.

Meat comes out of the oven, and it's a "carnal unveiling". Which leads me onto my next point, and that is, the reason why I continue to watch Nigella Kitchen. Its plethora of food-related innuendoes is highly entertaining. Whether it's a gratuitous shot of Mrs Lawson's cleavage as she discusses her "glistening lemon cream", her constant remarks that she loves to "use her hands", or the way she comes downstairs in a negligee to make a bowl of "slut's spaghetti" and take it back with her to bed (the bowl, I might add, containing enough carbohydrate to feed a family of nine), or the remark, "I can't tell you how good it is squidging things out of that bag" (referring, of course, to using a piping bag to make churros doughnuts), I never fail to be amused by the way she can turn even the most innocent foodstuff into something filthy. 

So there I was, now on episode eight of Nigella Kitchen (I just can't stay feels so wrong it's almost right), and the buxom lady herself started to whip up a teriyaki chicken with rice noodles and sugar snap peas. Fairly simple and not particularly life-changing, admittedly, but it did look rather good. 48 hours later and I found myself emulating the domestic goddess: marinating chicken thighs in a mixture of mirin, sake, soy sauce, brown sugar, grated ginger and sesame oil, before stir-frying them and their marinade with sugar snap peas and baby corn.

Now, I am no Nigella. For one thing, my cleavage does not have a life of its own. Nor do I decorate my kitchen with fairy lights. I don't feel the need to include double cream in nearly every meal, and the idea of eating in bed disgusts me. But I'm pretty sure my teriyaki chicken tasted every bit as good as hers. 

Thanks to Jon for the photos.

Chicken, orange and pomegranate salad

I always used to discount the humble roast chicken as not really worth bothering with. I think it's because I never really liked roast chicken as a child - I found the combination of it, its gravy (bisto-enriched, of course), and roast potatoes far too heavy and cloying, and that is how we usually had it in my house. Come to think of it, I'm not sure any of my family are really hugely bothered about roast chicken. However, take a lovely, crispy, bronze chicken and pair it with some slightly unexpected ingredients, and you have something beautiful. Shreds of leftover roast chicken are infinitely superior to those bland, skinless chicken breasts you can buy in packets at the supermarket, and the real added bonus is the cooking juice from the chicken. This will add huge depth of flavour to whatever you decide to do with it. It is for this reason that I have found roast chicken to be a perfect partner to rice and couscous salads: the juices soak into the grains and make them moist and tasty, and then you can add a whole host of other ingredients. 

Ottolenghi has a nice recipe for a chicken and rice salad with rocket, fish sauce, lime juice and chilli. It works very well. Diana Henry, in her new cookbook that I am salivating over, has one for wild rice, chicken and blueberry salad which I am keen to try. This one is also a new favourite of mine. It's just couscous, mixed with the juice of a lemon and two oranges, the flesh of two oranges sliced into segments, the seeds from half a pomegranate, lots of salt and pepper, lots of torn basil and mint, the roasting juices from the chicken, and finally the chicken itself. It's nice served on a bed of watercress to cut through the sweetness of the fruit, and I think rocket would work well too. Because of the roasting juices, the whole thing is savoury rather than sweet, and the mint, basil and citrus stop it being too heavy. You will feel rather healthy after tucking in...though probably less so if, like me, your favourite part is the salty, crispy chicken skin.

My boyfriend tells me that roast chicken is not a normal student lunch. I think, actually, it is the ideal student lunch - my chicken cost a grand total of £4.49 (admittedly because I flirt with the butcher). The couscous salad will make four meals, and the stock that I am going to make from the carcass will make a very nice risotto or soup. So there. Frugal cooking that tastes lovely. OK, so baked beans on toast might be cheaper, but a) I don't want to be a stereotype and b) I don't like baked beans.

A salad to wake you up, and dessert heaven

I was going to start this post by saying that the above pear tart is the best dessert I have had in ages/my new favourite dessert. But my boyfriend cruelly mocked me yesterday for apparently starting all my blog posts (or at least those that are dessert-related) with that phrase, so in defiance I am not going to use such an opening. I will instead say that this pear tart is simply "a dessert worth making". (Even though it is in fact one of my new favourite desserts. Sshh...)

The recipe came from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cookery, a book I have only recently discovered amid my mother's recipe book collection. It is quite an old one, I think, and has no photos, but does have some charming illustrations and is a complete bible of Italian food. It taught me how to make pasta - quite an accolade - and has all the information you could ever need about Italian ingredients, how to match pasta to sauces, how to make a proper risotto... The recipe for "A farm wife's fresh pear tart" caught my eye, as the words "pear tart" are generally quite likely to do in any circumstance. Better still, it involved no faffing around making pastry. You simply take about a kilo of pears (I used conference), peel, core and slice them, then fold them into a batter of eggs, milk, flour and sugar. Pour into a tin greased and dusted with breadcrumbs, stud with cloves, and bake for about 45 minutes. A sort of pear clafoutis, I suppose, but more fruity than cakey. I could stress how incredibly delicious it is, warm from the oven, with vanilla ice cream, but I am now wary of saying such things thanks to Jon. So, I will just say, try it yourself. Ask me if you want the recipe.

Preceding this dessert I made a salad from Ottolenghi's first cookbook. I am beginning to think that anything he creates is guaranteed to be mouthwateringly delicious; I've never had an average Ottolenghi recipe yet. Sometimes the list of ingredients may strike me as a bit bizarre, and I find it hard to imagine how it would taste. This was one such recipe. It involves roasting a chicken (easy), then making a salad using three types of rice: basmati, wild and brown. To this you add chopped spring onions, sauteed whole onion, chopped red chilli, loads of mint and coriander, chopped rocket, and a dressing made from the chicken roasting juices, sesame oil, Thai fish sauce, olive oil and lemon juice. The result is truly delicious: it has a kick from the chilli and is quite sharp from the lemon juice and fish sauce, but you end up with beautifully moist rice from the chicken juices and then tasty pieces of chicken meat scattered throughout. Not a difficult dish to make and well worth the effort it takes to separately cook three types of rice. Yotam himself remarks that it is "delicious and nutritious". I could not agree more.