First published online by Felicity Cloake.
Chicken kiev is a dish so rooted in the psyche of the 1970s that it may surprise some to realise it was quietly oozing butter before Abigail had even sent out the invitations. Its exact origins seem to be missing in action behind the Iron Curtain. My 1990 copy of The Cooking of Russia, for example, asserts it was “in fact only created about 30 years ago for the opening of the Moscow hotel in Kiev”, a “fact” repeated by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his River Cottage Meat Book, but a little more research suggests this isn’t quite the case.
A Ukrainian hotelier quoted in the New York Times dates it to 1819, while the Russian Tea Room cookbook credits it to “the great French Chef Carême at the Court of Alexander I” and the food historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin believed its decadence typical of the last days of the Tsarist regime. A mention in the Chicago Daily Record in 1937, in relation to that city’s Yar Restaurant which was owned by a former officer of the Imperial Army, is about as far back as concrete evidence seems to go.
Whatever the history, the kiev became a staple of Soviet catering (Intourist brochures apparently warned tourists of the danger it presented to the diner’s clothing) and had its glory days in this country in the 70s and 80s. The first chilled ready-meal to be marketed by Marks & Spencer, it was a Friday evening treat in our household. As Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham note in The Prawn Cocktail Years, it has since “disappeared, almost without trace, from the tables of good restaurants, … along with … beef stroganoff and trout with almonds” a victim of changing culinary fashions.
The combination of crisp fried chicken and molten garlic butter green with herbs may be a lethal one for school uniforms, but it’s well worth a few minutes with the Vanish. Supermarket versions have a certain nostalgic charm, but if you want to experience this “decadent” dish in all its pomp and glory, make your own. You won’t regret it.
The authentic dish, according to both Hugh and Simon and Lindsey, is made with a chicken breast with the wing still attached. It’s unclear why – Darra Goldstein suggests in A Taste of Russia that it’s simply to allow it to be “outfitted with an aluminium or paper frill to look fancy”, which frankly isn’t really my style. It also means some crisp breadcrumb coating goes to waste. Usually I’m a fan of meat that looks like meat, but if it’s just for show, then I’m not going to bother.
Jesse Dunford Wood, head chef at the Mall Tavern in Notting Hill, is one man who doesn’t believe chicken kiev has gone out of fashion. He’s famous for his take on the dish, which wraps chicken around a ping-pong ball of garlic butter to create a sphere which, he reports, has caused diners to complain that they didn’t order the scotch egg. It certainly looks impressive, but, for me, it’s too much of a deviation from the kiev of memory – I want something chicken breast-shaped, bone or no bone.
I had assumed, that garlic butter is the very cornerstone of the chicken kiev’s identity, so was surprised to find that the Time Life book of Russian Cooking describes it as “chilled fingers of sweet butter wrapped in boned, flattened chicken breasts with ends neatly tucked in, the whole dipped in seasoned flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs”. The New York Times says that, as even the authors of this book “admit the dish is bland, it is best enjoyed for its texture and for the surprise of the hot geyser of butter”.
Flavourings are apparently a modern touch: “A fancy food shop in Washington does offer it with Muenster cheese,” the writer sniffs. “Others use parsley, garlic, basil, tarragon and who knows what else.” That’s as may be, but in this country we’re used to garlic and herb butter, and that’s what I’ll be making. After all, much as I love butter, even I’m not sold on the idea of it as a stuffing, especially without the benefit of salt.
The plainest recipe I find is in The Cooking of Russia, by Karen Craig and Seva Novgorodsey, which calls for a butter flavoured with chopped tarragon or parsley, chives and lemon juice. Although it’s surprisingly tasty, and I prefer it to the American magazine Cooks Illustrated’s version which uses shallots and tarragon and gives the dish a faintly French flavour, it’s not kiev as far as I’m concerned.
The Prawn Cocktail Years recipe uses all three herbs, along with lemon zest and juice, Tabasco and Pernod. I can’t really pick out the zest or the Tabasco, but the pastis gangs up with the tarragon to ensure I can’t hear a whisper from the garlic – it’s all anise. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall perhaps feels the same: he eschews the tarragon altogether, preferring just parsley, but, as long as you don’t allow it to dominate, it’s a classic pairing. Chives, however, are an unnecessary distraction from the garlic.
Dunford Wood makes a garlic confit butter, by bringing cloves of garlic to the boil 10 times, then slowly poaching in oil until tender, giving the butter “a lovely garlic taste without the strong element”. It is indeed delicious, but as I don’t run particularly shy of garlic, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort for a home cook. Chicken kiev isn’t exactly a first date dish, let’s be honest.
Little experimentation with the crumbing of a chicken kiev seems to have been undertaken (as if we all know that it’s only really there to keep the butter in). Cooks Illustrated mixes the egg wash with Dijon mustard, but seasoning is all the dolling up this coating needs. Dunford Wood suggests using panko breadcrumbs which, as usual, are worth their weight in crunch, and double coating, as Hugh suggests, “is extra insurance against escaping garlic butter,” (although, sadly, not in his case) and also makes it “doubly crispy”.
Simon and Lindsey are firm that “for best results it really is necessary to deep fry,” and there’s surprisingly little deviation from this point. Jesse Dunford Wood fries them until golden and then cooks through in a hot oven, which seems an unnecessary faff, and Cooks Illustrated bakes them at 180C for 45 minutes, which is actually surprisingly tasty, but fails to supply the crisp crust I desire – and really, given all the garlic butter involved it’s a bit like ordering a diet Coke with your burger and chips.
Keeping the garlic butter in is, as anyone who’s ever been cheated of that spurting garlicky geyser will testify, the single most important question in kiev cookery (my brother was always an expert at spotting a leaking kiev and passing the offending plate along the table). I only have one disaster in the five kievs I cook, which isn’t a bad ratio – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s butter has melted into the oil, leaving a dry, herb-stuffed hollow of disappointment. His method (so you can avoid it) is simply to make a cut in the chicken flesh and insert the butter, then plug it with the mini fillet cut from the breast itself, which clearly has failed to graft magically back on in this case.
Simon and Lindsey take a similar approach, but use flour and egg as a glue, which proves efficacious: although the kiev itself feels fragile as I put it into the fryer, the butter remains trapped within its crispy prison. The Cooking of Russia freezes the butter, and then secures the stuffed chicken with a cocktail stick and chills it for three hours before use – cold butter is easier to work with, and presumably takes longer to melt, lowering the potential for risk, and this works just as well as the egg and flour method, although as I forget to tell my testers about the stick, it does cause some consternation around the table.
Best of all, however, in my opinion, is Jesse Dunford Wood’s method. He wraps the stuffed chicken tightly in clingfilm, and freezes it for a couple of hours, then coats it and allows it to defrost before frying. This is far less fiddly, and works like a dream, although I’ll be rolling my chicken up in a cigar shape rather than the Mall’s signature ball.
Perfect chicken kiev
The shape is largely irrelevant: the only thing that really matters with a kiev is that when you cut into that crisp shell, you’re rewarded with an eruption of vivid green, garlicky butter. And that’s a pleasure that will never go out of fashion.
2 chicken breasts
50g salted butter, at room temperature
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp tarragon, finely chopped
2 tbsp flour, seasoned
2 eggs, beaten
4 tbsp breadcrumbs, panko if possible, seasoned
Vegetable oil, to deep fry
1. Mash together the butter, garlic and herbs, and season with black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Form into 2 sausages, and wrap in clingfilm. Put in the fridge to chill.
2. Butterfly each chicken breast by opening it out using a knife, and then put it between 2 sheets of cling film and bash with a rolling pin or meat tenderiser until about 0.5cm thick, being careful not to create any holes. Season both sides well.
3. Put a sausage of butter near one edge of the chicken and begin rolling the meat up around it, tucking in the ends as you go (use some egg and flour as glue if they prove obstinate). Roll into a tight sausage using the clingfilm, and freeze for 2 hours.
4. Put the seasoned flour, eggs and breadcrumbs into 3 shallow dishes and then roll the frozen kievs in each in turn, then again in the eggs and crumbs to double coat. Put in the fridge to defrost, which should take about an hour. Preheat the oven to 150C.
5. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan or fryer to 160C, or until a crumb of bread turns golden in about 15 seconds, then gently lower the first kiev in. Cook it for 8½ minutes, then drain on kitchen paper and put in the oven to keep warm while you cook the next. Serve immediately, once your guest has tucked a napkin into their collar.
Why did chicken kiev go out of fashion – can we blame the ready meal? And has anyone ever eaten one in its eponymous homeland?