Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fond of Chicken

The recipe I get asked for the most is, strangely, chicken. I have a go-to dish that over the last year I had occasion to make for folks recovering from illnesses, injuries, and surgeries. And everyone’s better! So it must be good!

It was so well received that I finally tried it for company, even though chicken doesn’t feel “fancy” enough for company dinner. Confession: this is a quick-and-easy weeknight dish. But I’ve served it as part of a larger tapas style meal, and what do people take seconds of? Yep. Chicken.

So here it is. Except it’s not really a recipe. I can’t follow or make accurate recipes. I’m not into rules, don’t follow direction very well, and I think quantification is a sin.

It’s a technique. Braising is about the easiest cooking technique in the world, though I find there are a few key steps that people don’t know about or they skip them, and then they’re disappointed. And sometimes they add or do things that will doom the lovely sauce, and then they’re disappointed. So don’t be disappointed! Do what I do! After the jump.

Ingredients and prep.

Onion and garlic. As much or little as you like. Sometimes fennel (the bulbous green vegetable), or celery, or carrots. Mushrooms if that’s the direction you want to go in. Chop or slice your aromatics up; keep the garlic separate.

Olive oil:
You need a good one. It matters. Taste it by itself. Does it taste good? Good enough to sip out of a shot glass while nibbling on some crunchy breadsticks sprinkled with sea salt? Then you can put it in your food.

I use boneless skinless chicken thighs, patted dry and lightly seasoned with salt. I would not expect other parts to work as well, especially not breasts. I used to use thighs with bones and skins. I’ve learned that for this quick-cooking dish, skin and bones don’t enhance the dish. Use as many thighs as you want to eat that can fit in a single layer in your pan (snugly is fine). If you use a microwave to defrost them, your chicken will smell funny and you will probably not be able to get the sauce that makes this dish so good. Please don’t do it. (On weeknights I defrost in the convection oven, fan on, no heat. It goes fast.)

Deglazing liquid:
I usually use dry fino sherry (again, has to be good enough to sip as an aperitif; please no “cooking sherry”). Marsala would be good. Vermouth. White wine. Vodka, especially if you’re going to introduce tomatoes later. Whatever you’re drinking at the moment. Pick just one!

Most important ingredient:
You need a good chicken broth (taste it; good enough to sip…). I like Pacific brand or homemade. This will absolutely matter to your results; if you sub a ‘leading brand’ or something else full of salt and turmeric and high fructose corn syrup and who knows what else, it won’t taste like my chicken. Pacific is worth it. If you can’t get it, or make your own, or get something equally clean and fresh tasting, use water. Really.

Secret Ingredient:
This is the ‘secret ingredient,’ but I’m sharing. Something sweet/tart. Pomegranate molasses, or sherry vinegar, or a good balsamic (taste it….).

Cherry tomatoes. Kalamata olives. Caper berries and chickpeas. A handful of baby spinach. Some chopped up roasted vegetables left over from last night’s dinner. Peas and some finely diced proscuitto or tasso ham. Classic flavor combinations or experiment. Whatever is in your fridge or in season. A dibble of two or three (no more) tasty things that don’t need a lot of cooking, just a bit of heat to warm through (or else pre-cook them). Go easy on this step. At this point, we’re garnishing.

And my favorite final garnish is some julienned preserved lemon rind. Or you could grate some lemon zest over. Or sprinkle on some pomegranate arils. A little parsley, or what you will.

A big, heavy, wide pan with a lid:
Ok, not an ingredient, but critically important. Braising needs even heat, no hot spots. I use an enameled cast iron pan (Le Creuset). A high-quality, heavy sauté pan (like All-Clad) is good. Cast iron (like a well-seasoned Lodge pan) would work. Non-stick pans Will Not Work for this dish. Save them for...whatever non-stick pans are good for.

Now, putting it all together:

Heat up the pan and a thin film or spritz of olive oil, not to smoking. You want the pan thoroughly pre-heated; this is the key to not sticking. If your chicken does stick a bit, just work it loose with a spatula and leave any stuck bits in the pan; this is actually a Good Thing. Not too much olive oil; we’re not frying the chicken.

Lightly brown the chicken thighs on both sides. Don’t crowd the pan; you need space around each thigh, so do it in two batches if you have more than four. Remove to a plate as they finish. Here’s the secret; I’m not actually paying much attention to the chicken and don’t care too much what it looks like; they won’t get that evenly brown. I’m actually watching the bottom and sides of the pan. This is where I start developing a fond in the pan, a nice browned coating with lots of carmelized bits.

When the chicken is removed, add a bit more olive oil if you think the pan needs it, and add the aromatics EXCEPT for the garlic. Sauté to your liking; I like them nearly carmelized. As they release moisture they may start to deglaze the pan (dissolving the brown fond). This is a Good Thing. Then as the moisture cooks off there will be more browning and you will get more fond! More Good Thing. If you have a quality pan, things can get pretty dark before they start tasting burnt, so turn it up if you need to, and don’t worry; this is what you want. (I’ve seen worried guests turn down the flame on a pan just when things were getting good! I send them into the other room to mix drinks and relax, and turn the heat back up!)

At the very end, add the garlic, and sauté for just a few moments more. Garlic burns and turns bitter easily, so add it at the end of the sautéing.

Now grab the bottle of choice and deglaze the pan. Pour in just enough to bubble across the bottom of the pan and stir and scrape vigorously to dissolve all the fond from the bottom and sides of the pan. The alcohol should almost completely reduce. If you want to impress someone, you can flambé the alcohol right when you put it in (tilt the pan to catch some of the gas flame or light a match to it). It’s totally unnecessary, but it can be a Tim the Enchanter moment. Which is soooo romantic!

Now put the chicken and accumulated juices back in, and add your top-quality broth or water to come up to about a third or half of the way up the thighs. So, not a lot of liquid. Set your burner temperature so that everything will just simmer, cover, and walk away. Pour yourself a glass of wine, work on some side dishes. I like to serve this with angel hair pasta, risotto, polenta, or a really good bread and a big salad.

After 10 or 15 minutes or so, turn the chicken over. Add a bit more broth or water IF it needs it so the liquid is still about a third or half way up the thighs. Cover.

After another 10 or 15 minutes or so, uncover and turn the chicken again. You should have very tender chicken and a somewhat thickened sauce (not gloppy thick, just reduced thick). If the chicken isn’t pull-apart tender yet, cover and cook for another 10 minutes. If your heat was a little too high and too much of the sauce boiled away, it’s perfectly fine to add a bit more broth or water to get enough sauce. I adjust the liquid based on how I’m serving the dish. Tapas: less liquid, more concentrated sauce. Main dish with crusty bread: more sauce to sop up.

Add a splash of something sweet/tart to brighten things up. This is the secret ingredient that no one should really be able to detect but that makes them ask for the recipe. Those of you who have had my chicken, it’s been pomegranate molasses. A good quality sherry or balsamic vinegar works too. A little goes a long way. Drizzle or sprinkle over sparingly.

Now add the “goodies.” Just sprinkle over the top and allow to heat through while you toss the salad and open the wine.

Taste and correct for seasonings and add any black pepper or chopped up herbs and final garnishes you might like to use. It looks pretty served from the pan with a little parsley and preserved lemon rind sprinkled over.

I don’t stir or disturb much in these last steps. The presentation is lovely with goodies and garnishes sprinkled over the top, and chicken thighs need a lot of prettying up. Everything gets combined enough when you dish it up.

Here’s what I don’t use: No butter. No cream. No cheese. No dairy fat of any kind. No flour. No thickeners. These are all lovely things (especially the butterfat and cheese) but I’ve found that the sauce tastes the brightest, cleanest, and, yes, richest without much added fat. That way the chicken and the carmelized proteins and sugars (from the fond) can really come out and play with the aromatics and garnishes and seasonings you choose.

That all probably took longer to read than it will to cook. This is a simple, versatile dish. Please comment with your results! Enjoy!

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