Boiled meat: yes or no?

Boiled meat has always had a bad rep. It makes me think of the worst of old fashioned British cooking, going hand in hand with tasteless overcooked vegetables.

One of my Mum's favourite meals, though, has made me think again. There isn't a snappy title for it - it's unimaginatively called 'chicken with rice, minced beef, almonds, pine nuts and pistachios' - but the shopping list of a name doesn't do it justice. It's a delight. The cooked chicken is served on a gorgeous beefy fragrant rice that's been slowly simmered in stock, allspice and cinnamon, and the sprinkling of various toasted nuts adds a delicious crunch.

But what used to confuse me about the recipe (which features in my charity cookbook) was Mum's instruction to boil the chicken. In autopilot I had always reverted to roasting it, because I couldn't imagine how boiling the chicken could work. Wouldn't it just end up floppy and bland rather than golden and crispy? 

My sister Allie, who lives in Dahab, Egypt and is married to a Bedouin, tells me that boiling is the favourite way of cooking meat in the Middle East. In Bedouin culture huge meals are made for extended family feasts and the aim is to make a little go a long way. They consider boiling meat to be the best way to get a tender result while also being economical - the nutritious broth that is left behind is a great base for a tasty soup or gravy. 

For Allie and Sofian's wedding party in April, we headed to the Dahab mountains for a Bedouin meal. Sofian and his friends served up huge platters of goat and rice. The goat had been boiled for a few hours, and its stock was used to cook the rice and to soak the flatbread that covered the bottom of the plate. The layers of bread, rice and goat were eaten with our hands - although being English and hopeless with my hands, I was irrationally happy to find a spoon-shaped bone to cheat with.

The last time I made Mum's chicken dish I overcame my urge to roast, and gambled with the boiling option (carrot, celery, herbs and seasoning are added to the water to create more flavour). I breathed a sigh of relief when we tried the resulting tender, tasty chicken. The rice, cooked in the stock with minced beef, herbs, vegetables and seasoning, was beautiful too. 

The advice seems to be to boil with care. Not all meat is up to the task, or if it is it needs a lot of help along the way. For example Sofian says that in Egypt, goats from the mountains need no seasoning because they live on a diet of herbs which can be tasted in the meat when it's cooked. For most of us though, meat should be boiled with a number of vegetables, herbs and spices to infuse it, and the resulting soup/stock, with interesting flavours.