Christmas Country Captain

Although I was born in Ohio, I’ve spent most of my life in the South, specifically South Carolina and for the last 20 years Virginia. I know that doesn’t officially qualify me as a Southerner — darn it — but to the depths of my soul I feel more Southern than Midwestern.

I have lots of Southerners in my family tree, some of which I’ve written about on this blog, and my research interests lie almost entirely in the antebellum South. I subscribe to Garden & Gun and The Bitter Southerner, for goodness sake, but I know none of this matters.

Like I said, I was born in Ohio and true Southerners are sticklers about these things. But despite my shortcomings, I’m a big fan of Southern cuisine, particularly Lowcountry and Creole food.

For a few years after college, I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, which is famous for its Lowcountry cuisine — shrimp and grits and that sort of thing. Because I worked as a newspaper reporter and then a police officer while I lived there, I could never afford to eat at Poogan’s Porch, 82 Queen, or any of those iconic Lowcountry restaurants.

You might expect that to be followed by, “So, I bought a copy of ‘Charleston Receipts’ and learned to make shrimp and grits!” but I wasn’t much of a cook back then. Thinking about it, I don’t remember cooking anything fancier than the occasional holiday turkey before age 40.

Thinking about it further, I don’t think I really started cooking, at least not anything interesting, until I was laid off from my marketing job in 2009. After that, as a freelance writer, I had more time to cook. Working at home, I could start dinner at 3 p.m. instead of arriving home at 5:30 or 6, hungry and with no interest in cooking for two hours.

So, except for the money thing, I guess losing that job wasn’t a complete loss. Huh.

Enough on that. What I’m really blogging about today is chicken country captain, the dish I’m making for Christmas dinner on Sunday. I’ve made it a couple-three times before, including for Christmas two years ago. Hopefully, no one minds the repeat.

Country captain is an old recipe, originating during the Colonial period. It found its way to the Lowcountry from British-occupied India. According to the “Food Lover’s Companion,” country captain is “said to have taken its name from a British army officer who brought the recipe back from his station in India.”

Generally speaking, country captain is a slow-cooked stew consisting of chicken, onions, peppers, celery, tomatoes, raisins or currants, slivered almonds, and curry powder and other spices. It’s served over rice.

The list of ingredients is about 8 inches long, but don’t be intimidated by that. It’s not difficult to make. It doesn’t have to be all that expensive either. For example, the recipe I use calls for three pounds of chicken breasts and two pounds of thighs, but I’m using all thighs.

Thighs are less expensive and better tasting, in my opinion, anyway.

It calls for two-and-a-half cups of white wine, so I bought a $6 bottle of Pinot Grigio. That should work fine. That said, my wine advice: Don’t buy anything for cooking that you wouldn’t want to drink the rest of.

Onions, peppers and celery are relatively cheap, and it’s likely most of the spices are already in your pantry. My recipe also calls for a pound of breakfast sausage, and you can go as plain or as fancy as you want with that.

It serves 12 to 16 people and freezes wonderfully, so the 20 bucks you might spend results in several meals, depending on the size of your family.

There are many recipes out there for country captain. The one I use was created by native Southerner and celebrity chef Alex Hitz. It ran in House Beautiful magazine a few years ago.

As he puts it, it’s been “revved up … for today’s foodie palates.” To be honest, this is the only country captain I’ve ever made (or eaten), but I don’t plan to switch recipes. It’s perfect.

Happy Holidays and happy eating!

Chicken Country Captain

(Serves 12 to 16)

Ingredients:

1 pound bulk pork sausage, mild
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon salt, divided
2 teaspoons ground black pepper, divided
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) salted butter, divided
3 cups medium-diced white or yellow onions
1 cup medium-diced red bell pepper
1 cup medium-diced celery
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1½ tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
1½ teaspoons dried thyme
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
¾ cup flour
2½ cups tomatoes, peeled (I use good-quality canned ones)
5½ cups chicken stock
2½ cups white wine
½ cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 cups golden raisins
4 cups cooked rice
¾ cup snipped chives
1½ cups toasted slivered almonds
½ cup chopped parsley

Directions

  1. In a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, brown the sausage, fully breaking it up, and then drain off the excess fat. Reserve.
  2. Wash the chicken breasts and thighs and pat them dry. Place them in a mixing bowl and toss with 2 teaspoons of the salt and 1 teaspoon of the black pepper.
  3. In another large, heavy skillet over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. When the foaming has subsided, add the chicken and sear it in batches on both sides until it is brown on the surface but still raw inside, about three minutes per side. Remove chicken from the heat, let it rest for at least five minutes, and then cut it into approximately 1½-inch chunks and reserve it in a bowl. Do not worry that the chicken is still raw on the inside, as it will finish cooking later.
  4. In a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat, melt the remaining 8 tablespoons butter. When the foaming has subsided, add the onions and sauté for three minutes, until they start to get soft. Then add the peppers and celery, and sauté for another three minutes. Add the garlic, the remaining tablespoon of salt, the remaining teaspoon of pepper, the dark brown sugar, and the curry, thyme, cumin, and ginger and continue to sauté these ingredients until the onions are translucent, approximately four to eight more minutes. Add the cooked sausage, then the flour, and stir the mixture thoroughly. It will become very thick.
  5. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, wine, lemon juice, vinegar, and raisins and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue to simmer for five more minutes.
  6. Add the chicken and simmer the mixture for five more minutes, until the chicken is completely cooked through, and then turn off the heat. Stir in the cooked rice, chives, almonds, and parsley and serve it with buttered crusty French bread.
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