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Sometimes when things go past their “tipping point” (as scientists say), a magical transformation takes place. Take this classic French bistro dish: “chicken with 40 cloves of garlic”,Poulet aux Quarante Gousses d’Ail.

Forty cloves sounds extreme, excessive, sinful even. But these aren’t cloves of raw or fried or burnt garlic. This is garlic cooked whole, cocooned in its skin, slowly melting down until it becomes mild, mellow and creamy sweet.

If you don’t fancy the large-scale production and mad palaver of a turkey this Christmas – or simply prefer the taste and value of a good chicken – this chicken dish would make an excellent alternative for three or four people.

Tricks and techniques

  • Use a good quality chicken – preferably organic, definitely free-range
  • And good garlic too. Irish supermarkets are currently flooded with cheap garlic from China, which often turns out to be sour and “off” and as disappointing as a corked wine. Instead I look out for garlic from Spain or, better still, those pink-skinned bulbs from France.
  • Keep the individual garlic cloves in their skins for protection while they cook (don’t worry – you won’t be eating the skins later)
  • The cloves must be relatively slow-cooked – if you overdo the oven temperature they will burn and become bitter
  • You can give them further protection by resting the chicken over them in the roasting dish, or putting some cloves in the chicken’s cavity
  • I’m not suggesting that you use a hair dryer, but always make sure the chicken skin is as dry as possible before cooking (pat it with kitchen paper if you have to), for maximum crispness
  • 30 minutes before cooking, take the chicken out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature
  • And for 10 minutes after cooking, rest the chicken under tin foil

Wet brining

I nearly forgot. Before you even begin to cook the chicken, there is one final, simple yet superb twist: you are going to brine it, preferably overnight. This will tenderise the bird, add flavour and the skin will be crispier.

I used to be cynical about brining – I guess I expected a harsh result (like a jar of factory-pickled beetroot or something), but am now a complete convert. While the technique has become quite common for a once-a-year American Thanksgiving turkey, it works just as well for chicken at any time of the year.

Two main ways to do a “wet brining” are to:

  • Make a standard brine mixture (bring a large pan of water to the boil with half a cup of salt and half a cup of sugar, add cracked peppercorns and 5-6 sprigs of herbs such as sage, rosemary) and let it cool down to room temperature before soaking the chicken in this mixture. Or
  • Use cold buttermilk brine instead – a litre or so of buttermilk, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, no need for heating.

In either case, leave the chicken in the brine mixture in the fridge overnight. Then drain the chicken and pat it well dry with kitchen paper.

If you make your own cheese, you might be wondering what to do with all that leftover whey. It’s also said to be an excellent meat tenderiser instead of the buttermilk, so I might give it a whirl soon.

Dry brining

But usually I end up doing a “dry brine”, especially if it’s just for chicken legs rather than a full bird. The result is a surprisingly moist and flavour-packed meat. Indeed, the technique is very similar to the first steps in making a duck confit (and reminds me of making gravadlax), but it works just as well for a whole chicken.

For a dry rub, mix together:

  • Equal parts sea salt and sugar (white or brown, though I sometimes skip the sugar altogether)
  • Plenty of crushed black pepper (and red peppercorns if you have them)
  • Half a dozen bay leaves
  • A sprig each of thyme and rosemary, a pinch of dried Herbes de Provence and a sprinkle of dried oregano
  • A handful of garlic cloves (even though you are doing the “40 cloves” recipe), peeled and roughly crushed

Rub this mix into the chicken, including its cavities. Leave the chicken in the fridge in the rub overnight (or up to a couple of days).

When time comes to cook the bird, take it out of the fridge, wash off as much of the dry rub as you can (“dry” is a bit of a misnomer, because the salt draws out some moisture), and pat the skin dry with kitchen paper as before.

Chicken with 40 cloves: the main ingredients

  • 1 chicken, preferably brined (see above)
  • 40 individual cloves of garlic
  • Fresh herbs – thyme, bay leaf, perhaps some tarragon
  • Olive olive (or butter if you’re feeling extravagant)

Before cooking, the garlic cloves should still be in their individual skins but taken off the main bulb’s central stem.

The recipe

If you know how to roast a chicken, the following basic recipe is a doddle…

  1. Put the chicken in a roasting dish. No need to season it with salt and black pepper if you are using brined chicken
  2. Sprinkle lightly with the olive oil (or rub in the butter)
  3. Chuck in whatever herbs you are using, and the garlic cloves
  4. Optional: do a “wet roast” by adding a large glug of white wine (or water or chicken stock or vegetable stock) to the roasting dish
  5. Cover with foil – or the lid if the dish comes with one
  6. Cook in a medium oven (180C / gas mark 4) for about an hour
  7. Take off the foil or lid and turn up the heat to about 220C to brown the skin for a further 15 minutes or so
  8. Check that the chicken is thoroughly cooked and the juices run clear, let it rest in the usual way, serve

A traditional French accompaniment is toast or crusty bread, buttered, with the garlic squeezed  out of its skins and spread on the toast.

Or squeeze the garlic stuff out of the skins and use a fork to mix the gooey paste into mashed potatoes or straight into the gravy. Happy Chrimbo and bon appetit!

Garlic photo credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga)