In this era of barbecue food trucks, molecular gastronomy and foodie obsessions even among kindergartners, a renewed fascination with country captain -- an Americanized "curry" recipe dating back at least 154 years -- seems either horribly quaint or painfully hip.
Considered Southern fare for most of its long life, classic country captain combines seared chicken with bell peppers, tomatoes and bottled curry powder. Golden raisins or currants provide sweetness, and slivered almonds offer crunch. An array of condiments such as bacon, coconut, scallions and peanuts make the dish festive.
In its heyday several decades ago, country captain was a treasured staple of bridal showers and Junior League luncheons, the kind of food mentioned in the same breath as turkey tetrazzini or curried chicken salad with grapes.
"It was in the artillery of the country clubs," says Scott Peacock, former chef of Georgia's Watershed restaurant and the protege of Southern cooking doyenne Edna Lewis.
But recently, country captain has seen new life. And new flavor. It reflects its past, but doesn't necessarily taste much of it.
Today's country captain is more likely to have cumin than currants, asafetida than almonds. And while it is still firmly an American dish, the greater availability of formerly "exotic" spices, the proliferation of Indian restaurants, and the number of Americans who have experienced authentic Indian fare have influenced these revisions.
Legend holds that country captain was imported to the South by a British sea captain returned from India.
But the late Cecily Brownstone, Associated Press food editor for nearly 40 years until 1986, offered a Yankee provenance, tracing country captain's roots to "Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book," published in Philadelphia in 1857.
Brownstone's favorite recipe came from a 1906 cookbook by Alexander Filippini, the chef at New York's iconic Delmonico restaurant. James Beard's "American Cookery," considered the repository of an American food canon, offers three recipes for the dish: Miss Leslie's, Filippini's and Brownstone's.
Fashionable from the 1950s on, country captain peaked in the 1960s and '70s with myriad recipes in newspaper food columns, then ran aground in the 1980s.
But during the last few years, magazines, cookbooks and even television chefs have registered renewed fascination with the dish.
Food Network stars Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray have offered their interpretations, and in 2009 Bobby Flay challenged competitors to a country captain "throwdown."
Old and new
There's always risk when tinkering with an old recipe, one likely to be invested with comforting memories by many.
So we started with a version made popular by Brownstone. Then we updated it for the contemporary kitchen with better techniques (the toasting of spices for better flavor, for example) and better ingredients.
Country Captain (Original)
1 frying chicken (about 2 1/2 pounds)
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
4 to 5 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup finely diced onion
1/3 cup finely diced green pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed thyme
1 can (1 pound) stewed tomatoes
3 tablespoons dried currants, washed and drained
Blanched toasted almonds
Have chicken cut so there are 2 pieces of breast, 2 wings, 2 legs, 2 second joints, 2 pieces of bony back. (Wing tips, neck and giblets may be used for stock for another dish.) Wash and clean chicken pieces in cold water; drain.
Mix flour, salt and pepper; coat chicken pieces with mixture, rubbing it in where necessary.
Heat butter in 10- or 12-inch skillet until very hot; add chicken and brown well on all sides. If 10-inch skillet is used, squeeze in bony back pieces at sides. Start with 4 tablespoons butter and add remaining tablespoon if necessary to brown chicken well or if there are not enough drippings in pan for next step.
Remove chicken pieces; add onion, green pepper, garlic, curry powder and thyme to drippings in skillet. Stir over low heat to get up browned particles and cook slightly; add stewed tomatoes, including liquid in can.
Return chicken to skillet, skin side up. Cover skillet and cook slowly until tender -- 20 to 30 minutes. Stir currants into sauce. Serve accompanied by almonds.
-- Recipe from "Cecily Brownstone's Associated Press Cookbook," The Plimpton Press, 1972)
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 pounds of chicken thighs and legs, bone-in and skin-on
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, cored and diced
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cored and diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
14 1/2-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup golden raisins
Toasted slivered almonds, to garnish
In a small, dry skillet over low heat, combine the curry powder, paprika, cumin and cinnamon. Toast, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the spices become fragrant. Transfer the spices to a small plate and set aside.
In a shallow bowl, mix together the flour, salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces through the flour mixture, being sure to thoroughly coat all sides, but shaking off any excess.
In a large skillet over medium-high, combine the butter and the oil. Heat until the butter is melted. Add the chicken, searing the pieces on all sides until well browned. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.
Add the onion, both bell peppers, garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes, reserved toasted spice blend and thyme. Reduce heat to medium and saute until the onion is soft and translucent, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, broth, raisins and chicken. Bring to a simmer, then cover and continue simmering until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes are tender. Adjust the seasoning with additional salt and black pepper, to taste. Serve garnished with the toasted almonds.