Country Captain is an old Low Country dish that dates from the days when Charleston and Savannah were important stops on the spice route, and the British influence of trade with India held sway. Early dishes from the Southern repertoire include lots of interesting spices, and the older the recipe, the more exotic it may seem.
Recipes for Country Captain appear in all sorts of Southern community cook books, the same concept with slight variations from cook to cook. It is served at fine restaurants and fine homes, was a favorite of FDR and General Patton and because of that, made its way into the Army’s meals-ready-to-eat program. It has the best qualities of a Southern recipe: ancient tradition, a storied history, the special touches of generations of cooks – all with a contemporary feel in any decade.
Almost every recipe for Country Captain I have read or eaten uses bone-in, skin on chicken pieces, or just a quartered chicken. But I find that awkward to eat, and you really don’t get enough of the deep, spiced sauce for my liking. So I altered my recipe to be more like a chicken stew, with hearty chunks of boneless thighs and breast.
I’ve upped the spice factor, too, and added a little sweet sophistication with a dash of Madeira. Country Captain is generally served with rice, once a staple grown in the Low Country, but I say why go plain when you can boost the flavor with some coconut.
Country captain with coconut rice
For the Country Captain:
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
6 strips of bacon
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
3 stalks celery, finely diced
1 green bell pepper finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup Madeira [optional, may omit or substitute red cooking wine or chicken stock]
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 stalks thyme
1/2 cup slivered almonds
For the Coconut Rice:
1-1/2 cups long grain white rice
1 (13 to 14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups water
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Mix the curry powder, salt, garam masala, ginger, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Trim the chicken of extra fat and cut into chunks, about 2 inches. Place the chicken on a plate and sprinkle half the spice mixture over the top. Leave to sit for about 15–30 minutes, while you get on chopping the other ingredients.
2. Cut the bacon into small pieces and cook over medium heat in a large Dutch oven until just crispy. Remove to paper towels to drain using a slotted spoon. Carefully pour the bacon grease into a heat proof bowl or measuring jug. Return 2 tablespoons of fat to the pan, then add the chicken pieces in one layer. You’ll need to do this in batches, don’t crowd the pot.
3. Cook the chicken pieces until lightly brown and sealed, flip over and do the same to the other side. Remove to a plate and finish all the chicken. If you need to, add a bit more bacon grease as you go. When all the chicken is seared, add 2 more tablespoons grease to the pot. If you run out of grease, use vegetable oil. Stir in the onion, celery and green pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook a further minute, then sprinkle over the remaining spice blend, stir and cook until you get a beautiful waft of fragrance from the pot. If using, pour in the Madeira and stir, scraping up the lovely brown bits from the bottom of the pot, until the liquid is evaporated.
4. Pour in the tomatoes and chicken broth and bring to a nice bubble. Add the raisins, half of the cooked bacon and the thyme stalks. Return the chicken to the sauce, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked through. Give it a stir occasionally to make sure nothing on the bottom burns. Remove the lid and cook for another 30 minutes until the sauce thickens a little, stirring frequently.
5. The Country Captain can be made up to a day ahead at this point, cooled, covered and refrigerated. Reheat gently, adding a bit more chicken broth if needed.
6. Remove the thyme stems from the stew and serve in a big bowl over coconut rice. Sprinkle with the remaining bacon pieces and the slivered almonds.
For the Rice:
1. Stir the rice, coconut milk, water, sugar and salt together in a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally until the liquid is almost evaporated and little steam vents form on the surface of the rice. Remove the pan from the heat, cover it with a tea towel then the pot lid. Leave for about 15 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.