It sounds like a whiskey, one that doesn’t leave you feeling very well the morning after. But country captain actually is a chicken dish, an American “curry” that comes in and out of favor but has never completely disappeared.
The great thing about this dish – besides its comforting blend of onion, spices and sometimes tomato – is the mystery (and argument) surrounding its origin. Charleston, S.C., claims it. Savannah, Ga., also a port city where spices and sea captains once were in abundance, says, “Not so fast.” Another group of food historians, primarily the legendary Associated Press food editor Cecily Brownstone, trace its origins to 19th century New England (also known to have its share of captains).
It’s a dish that makes perfect sense in our culinary culture. One of first identified recipes comes from “Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book,” published in Philadelphia in 1857. Calling it “an East India dish,” Miss Leslie suggests it was imported to the United States by a British sea captain returned from India. Her recipe features items that would have been plentiful, “a fine full brown fowl,” onions and lard. A sprinkling of coconut and a curry powder rub attest to the country’s growing involvement with the world.
Country captain recipes populated Junior League and community cookbooks in the South during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indian food is the fastest growing ethnic food in the U.S., according to a 2009 survey by market research firm Mintel. The country’s South Asian population also is firmly established. Many Americans today know their kulcha from their naan. And those changes aren’t lost on chefs, who have begun playing to a more sophisticated American palate, even in an old-fashioned dish like this one.
Southern culture expert and former chef Scott Peacock makes his own masala – spice mixture – for country captain, toasting coriander, cumin, cardamom and cloves just as Indian cooks do. Food Network chef Bobby Flay mixes his masala with Mexican chili de arbol for a multi-cultural flair, while southern chefs Matt and Ted Lee use garam masala and freshly grated ginger. Even Emeril and Rachel Ray make country captain.
As the weather grows colder, it seems a good time to dig up a couple of recipes. For contrast, here are the recipes of Cecily Brownstone (which borrowed from Miss Leslie and from a 1906 recipe by Alexander Filippini, then chef at New York’s famed Delmonico restaurant) and from Bobby Flay.
Cecily Brownstone, Associated Press food editor from the 1940s until 1986, believed country captain was actually a northern dish, and traced its provenance to “Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book,” published in Philadelphia in 1857. Her version of the dish, adapted here from James Beard’s classic “American Cookery” (Little, Brown and Company, 1972), is similar to one served at the turn of the 20th century by chef Alexander Filippini of New York’s storied Delmonico’s restaurant.
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 whole chicken (2 ½ pounds) cut into parts
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup finely diced onion
- 1/3 cup finely diced green pepper
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 ½ teaspoons curry powder
- ½ teaspoon dried crushed thyme
- 1 15-ounce can stewed tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons dried currants
- Blanched and toasted almonds
Mix together flour, salt and pepper. Coat chicken lightly with flour mixture.
In a large skillet, heat butter over medium-high heat. When foam subsides, add chicken skin side down and cook until browned. Remove chicken to a platter and set aside.
Add to the skillet onion, green pepper, garlic, curry powder and thyme. Cook, stirring, until vegetables just begin to soften. Reduce heat to low and add tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen the browned bits.
Return chicken to skillet skin side up. Cover and cook over low until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir currants into the sauce. Serve with almonds as a condiment.
In this recipe, adapted from foodnetwork.com, Bobby Flay updates country captain for the modern American palate by mixing Indian spices with ancho chilies and other Southwestern flavors. Pairing it with coconut rice adds a South Indian flair.
- 3 tablespoons ancho chili powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons ground fennel
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground chili de arbol
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Coconut Rice
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup finely diced Spanish onion
- 2 cups long-grain rice
- 1 (13- to 14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 green onions, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon canola oil, divided
- 6 slices bacon, diced
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
- 1 medium Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 large bell pepper, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/2 serrano chile, finely diced
- 2 heaping teaspoons curry mix (recipe above)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups chicken stock, canned or home made
- 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained well and coarsely chopped
- Scant 1/4 cup currants or raisins
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
- Slivered almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
To make the curry mix, in a small bowl combine all the spices.
For the coconut rice, in a medium saucepan, melt butter over high heat. Add onion and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat grains. Add coconut milk, water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Stir once, cover the pot, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until tender, about 16 minutes.
Remove from heat and let rice sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove lid, fluff with a fork and fold in the green onion. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.
Preheat the oven to 325 F.
In a large, high-sided saute pan, heat 2 teaspoons canola oil over medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook until golden brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Add butter and remaining tablespoon of canola oil to the rendered bacon fat in the pan and heat until it begins to shimmer.
In a shallow bowl, put the flour and season liberally with salt and pepper. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper, dredge in the flour and tap off any excess. Sear chicken on both sides until golden brown. Remove to plate.
Add onion and bell pepper to pan, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and serrano chili and cook 1 minute. Stir mix and cook 1 minute. Add wine and cook until reduced by 3/4. Add chicken stock, bring to a simmer and reduce slightly. Stir in tomatoes, currants or raisins, thyme, 2 teaspoons honey and season with a little salt and pepper and bring to a simmer.
Nestle chicken thighs into the pan, cover with a tight fitting lid and bake in for 35 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake an additional 15 minutes.
Remove chicken to a platter and tent slightly to keep warm. Put pan and sauce back on burner over high heat and bring to a boil. Let sauce reduce slightly, then season with salt, pepper and honey, to taste. Stir in parsley. Spoon sauce over chicken and top with bacon, almonds and more parsley. Serve with coconut rice.