Chicken Stovies: A Dish of the Highlands Gently Updated
Throughout the centuries, rugged terrains often produced hearty dishes designed to fuel bodies performing heavy labor in harsh environments. They provided those who consumed them with the calories, nutrients, and sometimes, extra fat needed. Scotland, particularly the Highlands of Scotland, cold, windy, beautiful, but frequently inhospitable, is such an environment. Chicken Stovies is such a dish.
Basically, Chicken Stovies is a meal of layers of chicken pieces, onions, and potatoes. Each and every layer is dotted with pats of butter, which can translate to up to one-third or even one-half a cup. Season with salt and pepper. Add a cup of water or stock. Cover the pot with a tight lid, bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer for an hour or so.
Between the butter and the chicken fat, that is a lot of fat. Once upon a time when folks labored on and off, sunrise to sundown, much of that fat could get worked off. Further, since chicken was not the cheap meat it is today, this was not an everyday dish. And for those living on a working farm, they did not eat up the egg laying stock, and/or poultry-to-market stock, by eating several chickens a week.
If people ever needed that much fat, today’s more sedentary population certainly does not. But does reducing the fat mean reducing the flavor? No. There is a difference between no fat and still retaining a little fat—and a little fat can go a long way. The butter itself can be replaced with margarine or one of the newer creations such as Smart Balance or Earth Balance. (Within the recipe, the term butter will be used.) Further, other vegetables can be added to enhance the dish.
Stove, aside from the device we cook on, has a couple of meanings. It means heated. It is also an old Scottish term for stew. While this recipe may sound like a kind of stew, Chicken Stovies has a distinct flavor rather different from what we ordinarily think of as stew. It is not cooked as long and the meat does not disintegrate into a lot of little shreds. The chicken parts stay intact. There is also a basic stovies—no chicken—recipe. Just alternating layers of potatoes and onions, each layer heavily dotted with butter.
A whole chicken, cut into pieces, is usually used for the recipe. For this recipe we will only use thighs. They have a nice flavor and do well as individual servings. This recipe can be proportionately cut down.
- Half a dozen chicken thighs, preferably on the small size
- 4 cups of quarter-inch sliced potatoes
- 2 cups of chopped onions
- 2 cups of sliced green and/or red peppers, sweet, not hot
- 2 cups of sliced or chopped carrots, (Like the potatoes, pieces, whether sliced length or cross-wise, should be a quarter-inch thick.)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of pepper
- 1 cup of water, (Chicken stock may be substituted, but water is recommended.)
Dutch oven or pot of comparable size
Plate for the thighs
Bowls for vegetables
Cut up all the vegetables. Set to one side.
Dot the bottom of the pot with a third to a half of the allotted butter. Then layer the bottom of the pot with approximately half of the potatoes. Cover the bottom. Then sprinkle a little of the salt onto the potatoes.
Salt and pepper the thighs (reserving a little of both) then place the thighs over the potatoes. Cover the chicken thighs with the onions. Cover the onions with the peppers. Cover the peppers with the carrots. Cover the carrots with the rest of the potatoes. The pot should now be full.
Gently pour in the water at the edge of the pot. Sprinkle the rest of the salt and the pepper onto the potatoes. Dot the potatoes with the rest of the butter.
Cover the pot with a lid. Place on a hot burner and rapidly bring the mixture to a boil. Let it boil for a couple of minutes then bring the heat down to a simmer. Simmer for about an hour and a quarter, checking periodically.
Serves six. Serve while hot. This can be reheated. A single serving can be reheated very nicely in either the microwave or on top of the stove.
Things to Avoid
I have tried a technique, common with other chicken recipes, of cooking the chicken by itself for a little while then removing the chicken from the bones and placing that into the above described mixture. This technique changes the flavor and not for the better. Also, be sure to remember to reduce the heat to a simmer. Cooking at a boil for too long will extract all the flavor from the meat.
These last words have nothing to do with enhancing the flavor of the Chicken Stovies. This piece started briefly considering the extra fuel bodies once needed for hard labor. For those interested in little bits of science let us end with a tidbit from NOVA, the science show on PBS. On a program entitled Can I Eat That? Stephen Secor, a biologist from the University of Alabama, and Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, talked about the differences between eating raw food as opposed to cooked food in terms of energy and experiments to measure the energy needed.
Everything the human body does requires energy. Vigorous exercise may need more fuel, in the form of calories, then sedentary activities, but sleeping, breathing, thinking, and eating—all of these require energy. According to the experiments it takes less energy to digest cooked food then it does to digest raw food because the digestive system does not have to work as hard. Wrangham believes that once the human race began to cook, there was now extra time and energy available that the body could use for other things including grow the human brain.
© 2012 Teddi DiCanio