It’s not often that I share with you a recipe with such an interesting background as Country Captain, a dish steeped in the lore of the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia. It’s found in every Southeastern Junior League cookbook but its origins go back considerably further than the League. Its earliest known version is found in a cookbook published in Philadelphia in 1857. But it owes a sizeable debt to two American cooking pioneers and an American Southern Cooking legend herself, Edna Lewis.
The first was a woman named Cecily Brownstone who was a food writer of great renown for the Associated Press and waged a one-woman preservation society for the dish until her death at 96 in 2005. The second was the legendary James Beard who taught a generation of Americans the original recipe at his Cooking School in New York. And then there was Edna Lewis. It’s her recipe that I am sharing with you.
Edna Lewis was a great Southern cook who made her way north from Virginia at age 16 and through sheer hard work rose to become one of the most exalted chefs of Southern cooking of all time. In 1948, when women chefs were few and far between, let alone women of color, she and a partner named John Nicholson, launched and presided over Café Nicholson, an East 57th St. restaurant in New York. The place was an immediate and long-lived success. With its emphasis on delicious Southern food, it soon became home to all manner of displaced Southerners from Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams. There Edna served Country Captain, a humble and immensely rewarding chicken stew that’s a perfect supper dish served over long grain rice and topped with salted peanuts.
“Country Captain” was a perfect cynosure of the cities where it is most famous: Charleston, SC and Savannah GA, both ports where spices arrived aboard ships that also brought a more unsavory cargo to our shores – human slaves. The dish itself is simple: Chicken fried in oil or butter or bacon fat, stewed in the oven with tomatoes and the holy trinity of green pepper, onions and celery, some garlic, curry power and pepper. It is then topped with peanuts and served on rice.
This is not particularly seasonal. I enjoy it as much in warm weather as in cold. It is great dish for a family because there’s lots of it and it is excellent when heated as leftovers. Here is the recipe:
Recipe for Country Captain Chicken:
1 3–4-lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 tsp. dried thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1⁄4 cup canola oil
6 slices bacon, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 green bell peppers, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
(3⁄4 cup tomato juice reserved)
(3⁄4 cup tomato juice reserved)
4 tbsp. curry powder
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1⁄3 cup currants, plus more for garnish
2 bay leaves
2 cups steamed white rice, for serving
Peanuts, for garnish
1. Season chicken with thyme, salt, and pepper. Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet or a 5-qt. dutch oven over high heat. Add chicken, skin side down, and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Using tongs, transfer chicken to a plate and set aside.
2. Discard oil and return dutch oven to medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel–lined plate; set aside. Add the garlic, celery, peppers, and onions to the dutch oven and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and their juice and cook, stirring frequently, until the juice thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, butter, currants, and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it thickens into a chunky sauce, 30 minutes.
3. Heat oven to 325˚. Add the reserved chicken to the dutch oven, nestling it into the thick curry sauce; spoon some of the sauce over chicken. Cover and cook until chicken is very tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Spoon sauce over chicken, serve with rice, and garnish with bacon, currants, and peanuts.