Sunday, June 5, 2011



Looking for a new way to do chicken? Although it's not well-known in Utah, Country Captain Chicken is actually a very old recipe that carries some Southern lore. 

It's claimed by both Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. 

President Franklin Roosevelt and General George Patton were supposedly both fans of it. 

It's found in numerous cookbooks from the Lowcountry (Charleston and South Carolina's Sea Islands), and from older times when recipes were referred to as "receipts."
While I was in Charleston in April, I learned about this dish from cookbook authors Matt & Ted Lee, whose Country Captain Chicken beat Bobby Flay’s in a Food Network throwdown. The Lee brothers did a “lowcountry cooking” demonstration at the Food News Seminar, sponsored by the National Chicken Council.

Matt & Ted Lee's cooking demonstration in Charleston, S.C.

The Lee Brothers’ recipe calls for chicken thighs, but other recipes use chicken breasts. The chicken is browned in bacon fat, stewed in a tomato-y sauce, and served over rice. 

But reading over the recipe, it sounds more like something from India than a Deep South staple. Curry powder? Garam masala? Ginger? Currants? What's up with that?

Since Charleston and Savannah are ports, the cuisines of each city benefited from their access to the spices that arrived aboard ships that also hauled rum, molasses, tropical fruit and, unfortunately, slaves.

There are several stories about the dish’s origin; one is that is a British sea captain who had been stationed in Bengali, India shared the recipe with friends in the port city of Charleston (or Savannah, depending on who’s telling the story). The dish was named for the officers in India called “Country Captains.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was said to become a fan of the dish after tasting it in Warm Springs, Ga., while taking spa treatments for his paralysis.  Supposedly Gen. George S. Patton tried the dish while visiting President Roosevelt at Warm Springs, and it became a favorite for him as well. 


1/2 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup dried currants or raisins

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon garam masala

 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 pound bacon

12 chicken thighs, skin on, trimmed of excess skin and fat

1 large dried chile, split, seeds removed

2 1/3 cups carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds

2 cups yellow bell peppers, diced

2 cups yellow onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, with juice

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

4 cups cooked white rice

2/3 cup slivered, chopped, toasted almonds

1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In small saucepan over high heat, bring broth to a boil. Place currants in a small bowl and pour enough broth over them to cover; let stand. In another small bowl, combine the curry powder, garam masala, salt and pepper.

In a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven, cook bacon until firm, about 5 minutes. Transfer bacon to a small bowl and reserve.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pot, reserving the excess fat. Place chicken in pot and cook over medium-high heat, until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. (Add the reserved bacon fat, 1 teaspoon at a time, if the pot becomes too dry.)  Remove the chicken and reserve in a medium bowl. 

Add 2 teaspoons reserved bacon fat to the pot. Add chile and toast in the fat, about 30 seconds per side, until fragrant. Add carrots, bell peppers, onions and garlic to the pot; cook until slightly softened about 6 minutes. Add tomatoes, spice mixture, ginger and currants in broth. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the tomatoes have cooked down to a puree and the sauce has thickened around the vegetables, about 8 minutes.

Place chicken thighs gently in the vegetable sauce so the skin side faces up and is above the surface of the gravy. Tent the pot loosely with foil and transfer to the middle rack of the oven. Bake 20 minutes, until the country captain resembles a roiling stew around the chicken thighs, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until the sauce has thickened further and the chicken skin is just beginning to crisp, about 15 minutes more.

Remove from the oven, skim any excess fat from the surface, and season to taste with salt and pepper. With tongs, transfer 3 thighs to each of 4 wide, deep bowls filled with 1 cup hot white rice. Spoon sauce over chicken and rice; garnish with reserved bacon, almonds, and parsley. Discard the chile.

— Matt and Ted Lee, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W. W. Norton & Co, 2006) 

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