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Country captain is America's curry dish - American Food Roots

Country captain is America’s curry dish

Today’s country captains include a variety of once-exotic spices. / AFR photo by Michele Kayal

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.

Makes 4 servings

Cecily Brownstone’s Country Captain

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

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.

Makes 4 servings

Bobby Flay Country Captain

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.

Ingredients

  • Curry
  • 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

  • Chicken
  • 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

Instructions

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.

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14 Responses to Country captain is America’s curry dish

  1. David Walbert January 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Even earlier than Leslie… Mary Randolph, in The Virginia Housewife (1824), had a recipe “To make a dish of curry after the East Indian manner,” which is nearly identical to Leslie’s 1857 recipe, even calling for curry powder. (I have to wonder what curry powder consisted of and where it came from in 1824…) Randolph also called for garlic, rather adventurously for the time. Here’s Randolph’s recipe: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/coldfusion/display.cfm?ID=virg&PageNum=84

    So if the name was new in the 1850s the idea was at least a generation or two older.

    • Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti January 5, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

      This is great, David. Thanks so much for your comment and for the link. I have a copy of The Virginia Housewife (not an old copy) and indeed, there it is. How wonderful that these books are still here for us to refer to and learn from.

  2. Profile photo of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal January 6, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    David, thank you so much for this! It seems that Mary Randolph is the source of so much that came later. The other great thing about your comment is that it’s led us to your wonderful blog, which we’re adding to our blog roll. Please do join the AFR community if you haven’t already. We’d love to have your voice.

  3. Stephanie Deutsch January 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    My mother used to made Country Captain often — used the recipe in Joy of Cooking which is the one I have always used. Will have to try some of these! Thanks, AFR!

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal January 7, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

      Stephanie, do you still make country captain often? Do you find it’s a dish people know? Or does it depend on where they’re from? I grew up in the northeast and I’d never heard of it until I wrote the story….

    • John Becker January 9, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

      Joy’s Country Captain recipe was given to Marion and Irma by Cecily Brownstone, and is identical to the one given above.
      As for the ubiquity of the dish, it is quite telling that, when the US Army was revamping their selection of rations (MREs) for soldiers in the field, a poll of servicemen’s wives singled out Country Captain as a dish they would like their spouses to have when away from home. While Southern wives might have been disproportionately represented in the poll, I think that the recipe has had incredibly long legs, given the mail we receive from those who not only know but love the dish.
      Growing up in the Northwest, I can remember the first time I had Country Captain… not only because it was so tasty, but also because it was the first time I saw my mother reach for the box of currants she kept in the cupboard!

      Great article!

      • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
        Michele Kayal January 9, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

        John, so wonderful to hear from you! Always great to have an inside scoop on Joy. I notice that your specialty is ethnic American foods. I have the 1997 edition of Joy and I remember being blown away that it included naan and hummus (I’m of Syrian descent and my husband is from India.) Possible to pick your brain sometime as you go forward on digitizing this classic?

        And now back to the issue at hand: yes yes yes!!! I love that Country Captain was at one point an MRE. I assume you’ve also heard the tale of General Patton and FDR? NYT Sam Sifton had this to say a couple of years ago:
        “Franklin D. Roosevelt was said to be a fan of the dish after tasting it in Warm Springs, Ga., where he took spa treatments for his paralysis and eventually built a home. Gen. George S. Patton visited the president there and was also said to love the dish.
        Nathalie Dupree, the Charleston television chef, cookbook author and former restaurateur, said she once got a letter from a woman who lived near Warm Springs at the time of the president’s convalescence who told her that women in the region would take casseroles of Country Captain to the two men on the train. “She alluded to the fact that the women, particularly in Patton’s case, stayed on the train,” Dupree said. “Since Patton was only exceeded by my father as a drinker and a womanizer, I can believe this easily.”
        So Country Captain is not only a classic American dish, but quite possibly an aphrodisiac!

      • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
        Michele Kayal January 9, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

        also, seriously? Your mom never used currants for anything else?

  4. Diana Parsell January 8, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    I can’t wait to try this. What a wonderful aroma it will surely create in the kitchen as it simmers on a wintry Sunday afternoon.

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal January 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

      Diana, doesn’t it seem like a perfect winter dish?

  5. Profile photo of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal January 11, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Our friend Ann wrote to share this fun story about General Patton and Country Captain. It’s many years old, but then again, so was Patton! Enjoy!

  6. Dileep Gangolli January 30, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Wow I had no idea that this dish was part of American food culture.

    Will have to try it soon. Glad you posted the recipes.

  7. Judith March 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Thank you for the wonderful Country Captain recipes. The Bobby Flay recipe gives the instructions for a curry mix that is never mentioned in the preparation instructions. Is it aded to the dish? Seems like it would be a delicious rub for the chicken or an aromatic addition to the sauce. Where does it get added?

  8. Tim March 30, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    Judith, here’s Bobby Flay’s recipe from The Food Network. It shows adding the curry powder when you are cooking the onion, etc.

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/throwdowns-country-captain-chicken-recipe.html

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