If I didn’t know for sure, I’d have said that the English cousins were fading. In the wan light of the massively scaffolded hulk of Victoria Station, being retrofitted high above the comings and goings of the kingdom’s masses, I thought I saw them – just for a second – struggle to keep their young eyes open.
Like a fast-moving movie or a game of Scotland Yard, we kept popping up all over Central London that day: brushing past the British Museum on our way up to Oxford Street. Ducking in to the little park in Soho before taking in Liberty’s, one of London’s coolest department stores. Cruising Carnaby Street for a lunch spot (Leon for wraps). We even took a short jaunt by tube to pop up at Piccadilly Circus, because one of the Leicester cousins had never been.
Mid-afternoon, we ogled designer dog costumes in Harrod’s and salivated over the towering displays in the Food Halls that I love so much. By the time we landed back on the London streets, the evening commute was in full swing and we fell to earth in Hyde Park for a spot of tea in the grass beside Rotten Row. Oh, blessed relief.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wilton Street, a stone’s throw away from Victoria Station, had come up in the world. We went there seeking a good curry and ended instead in the local Nando’s.
Nando’s is one of those places that makes you feel good about the world. An attentive staff guides you through the menu: what to choose, how to order. It’s all bright and casual and friendly. Amidst a colorful tableau of wall ornaments we kicked back around a big table and relaxed. By the time great platters of food arrived, the cousins had revived.
Now while Nando’s has enough side dishes and salads to please the vegetarians among us, the main event here is peri peri chicken. Marinated overnight and then grilled to perfection with your choice of heat, it comes with its own little bottle of hot sauce for the adventurous. This chicken is tender and delicious, and guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the weariest of travelers. Or the hungriest.
Here’s my rendition.
Peri Peri Chicken
1 5-pound roasting chicken, cut in half, breast cartilage removed
½ cup white vinegar
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons paprika
½ – 1 teaspoon New Mexico chili powder, depending on heat preference
2 lemons cut into 8 pieces
¼ cup canola or peanut oil
2 teaspoons American chili powder, divided
6 dried Costena Amarillo or Caterina chile pods (optional)
Peri-peri note: This dish is named for a chili sauce that is made in the South African country of Mozambique and, by connection, in Portugal. It is synonymous with piri-piri, the name for a small and extremely hot chili pepper that grows in hot climates. Tom Stobart in ‘The Cook’s Encyclopedia’ mentions three ways that the sauce is made – by cooking lemon, fresh chilies and oil together, by fermenting them in the sun, or by creating the sauce from powder. Past that, he says, the recipe is open to interpretation.
Marinate the chicken: Put the chicken halves in a large ceramic or stainless steel bowl. Pour on the vinegar and sprinkle with cayenne pepper, salt, garlic, paprika, and New Mexico chili powder. Tuck lemons into the chicken, pour on the oil and top with 1 teaspoon of the American chili powder.
Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate overnight or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Turn the chicken at least once during this time.
1st bake: Put the chicken halves skinside up in a lasagna pan, cover with the marinade and squeeze the lemons over them. Tuck the lemon pieces into the open areas of the pan and bake in a 350° oven for 1 hour, basting with the juices every 20 minutes.
Finish the chicken: You have a choice on how to finish this chicken, just as you would at Nando’s (okay, their choices are a bit different, but you get the picture).
- Baked. Raise oven temperature to 425°. Remove all but 1 cup of the marinade from the pan, sprinkle the chicken with a teaspoon of chili powder and nestle in the dried chiles if desired for a little more heat. Bake for 25 minutes, until the skin is medium brown.
- Woodfired. Your fire should be at least 1½ hours old. Push coals to the back and sweep the ash. Remove all but 1 cup of the marinade from the pan, sprinkle the chicken with a teaspoon of chili powder and nestle in the dried chiles if desired for a little more heat. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the skin is medium brown. Turn pan around halfway.
- Barbecued. Finish for 10 or 15 minutes over mature coals or on a gas grill set at medium heat.
Final note: There are several recipes for peri peri or piri piri sauce available out there that would spice up this dish even more. By all means try them. But I find that this chicken is as moist and flavorful as they come, and stands very well on its own. Enjoy!