Country Captain – A Southern Classic

December 13th, 2009

“The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook makes me daydream of a long ago summer on a Pawleys Island back porch, the aroma of the marsh and the dinner table mingling with laughter of many generations of families and a few too many glasses of wine. Oh to the magic of being at table together in the South.” –Frank Stitt, author of Frank Stitt’s Southern Table

While browsing in an artists’ co-op in historic downtown Sanford, I found a bookmarked copy of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. The book belonged to the group of artists who had just hosted a studio walk and had made recipes from this recently published cookbook; wonderful things like St. Cecilia Punch, cheese straws and spiced pecans. While my husband was looking at the artwork I stayed with the cookbook and found many tantalizing recipes.

The Lee brothers grew up in Charleston, SC but now make New York City their home. They are food writers for the New York Times and have a mail order company for all things southern. On a snowy winter day back in 1994 in a tiny tenement apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhatten the brothers made their first batch of boiled peanuts. They were homesick for this regional favorite. They found other expat southerners who loved the peanuts and needed a fix and the mail order business was born. In order to expand their line of southern specialties they traveled from Kentucky to Northern Florida finding sources for such esoteric foods as sorgham molasses and fig preserves. They learned what made a good barbecue sauce from the vinegar based Eastern North Carolina sauce to the South Carolina mustard based sauce. Their searches began to be chronicled in such magazines as Food and Wine and Travel and Leisure.

I had to have the cookbook. It is a compilation of recipes from all regions of the south and many from their native Charleston. The first recipe I made from the cookbook was Country Captain. I have been making a version of this for many years. It is a mainstay of Junior League cookbooks all over the south. The port of Charleston saw many products from the orient in the eighteenth and nineteeth centuries. Curry powder was one of them. This dish became very popular during FDR’s presidency when it became his favorite while vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia. According to the Lee brothers a southern curry is not a fiery thing and it is often softened further by sweet raisins or currants. I find that the curry flavor is not at all pronounced.

The country captain makes a good dish for a buffet. I made it with a combination of chicken thighs and boneless chicken breasts which I added to the liquid after the thighs had cooked for awhile. It is visually lovely with the red tomato sauce, browned almonds, plump cranberries (my substitution) , bacon, and green parsley. Serve the dish over rice.

COUNTRY CAPTAIN (Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook)

1/2 cup Chicken broth
1/2 cup dried currants, raisins, or cranberries
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/4 pound slab bacon or 4 strips thick-cut bacon, diced
12 chicken thighs ( I used 4 skinless chicken thighs and 3 boneless breasts cut in half)
2 1/2 cups carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 cups yellow bell peppers diced (I used green)
2 cups yellow onions, diced (about 2 medium onions)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes, with juice
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
4 cups cooked white rice
2/3 cup slivered, toasted almons
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Pour the broth into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Place the currants in a small bowl and pour enough broth over them to cover; let stand. In another small bowl, combine the curry powder, salt, and pepper and reserve.

3. Scatter the bacon in a 3 to 4 quart enameled cast iron pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. With a slotted spoon, move the pieces around occasionally until the bacon is firm and crisp. With the slotted spoon, transfer to a small bowl lined with paper towel and reserve.

4. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pot, reserving the excess fat in a small bowl. Brown the chicken pieces in batches over medium high heat, taking care not to crowd them in the pot, until they are 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.

5. Add the carrots, bell peppers, onions and garlic to the pot and cook until slightly softened, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, spice mixture, ginger, and currants and their 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.

6. Nest the chicken thighs gently in the vegetable sauce. Cover the pot and transfer to oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove cover, add the chicken breasts and bake uncovered for an additional 20 minutes.

7. Remove from oven and sprinkle with almonds, bacon and parley. Serve over rice.

14 responses to “Country Captain – A Southern Classic”

  1. Susan says:

    Interesting recipe, Penny. What stuck in my mind with your posting was the ‘boiled peanuts’ mention. At least once or twice a week, when running into town, I come across a little man who has a truck and wagon and big sign offering “Boiled Peanuts.” I have not stopped or tried, but have been tempted to take a picture of him and his contraption and blog about it. Do you know anything about boiled peanuts?

  2. I love Country Captain chicken. It’s a favorite at our house. I also like the Lee Bros. Cookbook. I’ve checked it out from our library numerous times. I keep telling myself I should buy a copy, yet I continue to make copies of their recipes (especially all of the grits recipes) for my files.

    I’m with Susan. People sell boiled peanuts around here, but I’ve never stopped to taste or buy. Have you?

  3. Penny says:

    Hi Susan and Sam, Boiled peanuts are definitely an acquired taste. I have tried them fresh and hot from vendors and have to say I am not crazy about them. They taste like warm butter beans to me and snacking on butter beans does not appeal to me. Has anyone else tried and liked boiled peanuts?

  4. Katy ~ says:

    Oh gosh, does this every sound GOOOOOOD!!!

  5. This sounds like my kind of dish. Am saving this one.

  6. Penny, what a coincident; just this past Friday both Matt & Ted Lee were on Walter Edgar’s Journal on my local NPR station talking about this every cookbook. So, I immediately ordered a copy. They have some terrific southern recipes with their add twist. Can’t wait to get it and try some.

    But thanks to you, I can try this incredible Captain’s Chicken now. Many Thanks

  7. Mary says:

    We love Country Captain, though I suspect I’m guilty of using a damn Yankee recipe. Yours sounds wonderful, Penny.

  8. That does sound nice and mild and soothing. Who knew Southerners ate curry?

  9. what a great story about the brothers. I love “when a passion becomes a business” tales

  10. Toni says:

    Who knew that a dish like this was considered “southern”. This looks a lot like what I do with leftovers — perhaps a bit more upscale with almonds and flat leaf parsley. But if I had them, I’d be adding them as well.

    Can’t say as I’ve even heard of boiled peanuts.

  11. Barbara says:

    Lovely post, Penny. An interesting story and the cookbook sounds wonderful.
    I’ll definitely try Country Captains chicken recipe!

  12. cityfarmer says:

    I can clearly see I won’t be losing any weight being your friend … hehe

    seriously …thanks for stopping in …let’s chat

    let me know how you liked the # cake

  13. Robin Sue says:

    I have never heard of this dish and I lived in the south for a short time. I do love Southern cooking so I will have to add this into my rotation.

© Penny Klett, Lake Lure Cottage Kitchen. All rights reserved.