My slogan for 2015? “A chicken in every pot.” You’ve heard that before? Well, mine comes with recipes to get you started. Take that Herbert Hoover.
It’s about as basic as cooking can get – chicken cooked slowly in a sauce. Really, this is one of those dishes that is more technique than actual recipe. Once you’ve run through it a couple of times, you’ll find that it adapts quite easily to almost any ingredients you have in your refrigerator or pantry.
It takes about an hour to make, most of it spent daydreaming while the pot bubbles on the stove – just enough work to make you feel like you’re actually cooking. It scales up quite nicely, so you can make a double or triple batch for a weekend dinner party and still have enough left over for an after-work dinner. And yes, like most stews and soups, it’ll actually be better the second (and third) time around.
Go Italian with a spin on chicken cacciatore from the Emilia-Romagna, flavored with pancetta, red wine and tomatoes. Or you can go Cal-Med and make it with fennel, mushrooms and green olives. Or maybe just finish it with some prepared mole from Grand Central Market.
And, of course, you can make up your own dish. Here are a few guidelines to follow.
First, use dark meat chicken. There are tricks to cooking breasts this way – arrange the dark meat on the bottom of the pan and stack the breasts on top, out of the sauce so they get less heat – but even with these work-arounds the white meat seems inevitably to dry out. Better to start with thighs and legs, which will stay moist and tender when braised.
Brown the chicken well. This means making sure the skin is completely dry beforehand and getting the pan hot enough to sear – dip a corner of the chicken into the oil; if it sizzles immediately, the temperature is right. Don’t crowd the pan. Just face that you’re going to have to cook two batches and don’t be tempted by shortcuts.
After you’ve browned the chicken pour off most of the fat before starting to build the sauce. You don’t want the dish to be greasy. But do leave behind all those browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Lots of flavor there.
Build the sauce in stages and take your time. Onions first until they soften. Then carrots and celery if you’re using them. Cook the garlic just briefly, it should still be fragrant. Scrape the bottom of the pan while you’re cooking; the moisture the vegetables give off will be enough to loosen those flavorful browned bits.
If you’re using wine to finish the sauce, add it first and let it cook before adding other liquids. This will evaporate the harsh alcohol flavor. Add the other ingredients and continue cooking until you get the consistency you want (remember that the chicken will release some liquid during cooking, so start with the sauce slightly thicker than you want the final product to be).
Finish cooking the chicken in the sauce. You’ll know it’s done when the meat plumps and firms, the skin begins to pull away from the joints, and there are no pink juices when the meat is pricked with a knife.
I’m not sure exactly what to call this kind of dish. Some folks refer to it as a saute, but technically that’s a different thing – very little sauce and it’s only added just at the last minute. This is kind of a fricassee, but these days, that infers a white sauce, which is too limiting. Cookbook author and cooking teacher Anne Willan, who knows more about traditional French cooking than anyone around, suggests that classically this would probably be a ragoût.
Maybe I’ll just stick with “chicken in a pot”.