We treat chicken as a landlubbing alternative to fish: a bland meat in need of something to give it flavor. It comes charred and smoky from a grill, breaded and fried, or tasting of crackle, rosemary and garlic from a roasting pan. It comes in dry tandoori spices, or swimming in curry sauce. It comes in spicy burritos, or in tarragon sauce, in red wine braises swimming with onions, even with 40 heads of garlic. It is like a travel itinerary: Californian chicken, Kentucky chicken, Indian chicken, Mexican chicken.
This is all very international, but the thing one almost never sees is chicken served on the merits of its own flavor. It is such a strange state of affairs that if you want to taste chicken, the best place to find it is a cup of consomme. This is usually a salty, violently reduced stock inflicted on sick people.
My own discovery of the startling deliciousness of simple chicken was accidental, an attempt many years ago to cook a famous British dish, coronation chicken. The recipe called for the meat of two birds to be simmered with wine and vegetables, then to be sauced with a mix including tomato puree, apricot puree, curry powder, wine vinegar, mayonnaise, whipped cream and a little more whipped cream. The idea when it was devised was to nod to culinary traditions from every corner of the British empire in one dish. I balked at the saucing stage. The meat was too good to submit it to this strange world-sauce. It was moist and intensely flavored. The stock was a delicacy in itself.
The trick was putting more effort, more thought, into the initial cooking, not in the saucing. The coronation chicken recipe called for a glass of wine. I made this a bottle, eventually settling on a floral type. Flowery wines marry better with the meat, and work wonders in the stock. Gewurztraminer is just right: As the alcohol and its sour notes go up in steam, you are left with a luxuriant, fruity note.
The next trick is making sure the chicken breasts do not sit above the liquor line, where they will turn to sawdust in the intense heat of the steam collecting under the lid. Sitting them on their ends is OK, or, ideally they will fit in bottoms up, and the dense leg meat will benefit from the heat.
It is a fashionable thing to cook chicken beyond all recognition. This dish requires a light hand on the heat. After bringing the pot to a boil, it’s important to reduce it to a simmer, and to resist cooking the birds for hours. Forty to 50 minutes should do it. If the meat is falling apart as it comes out of the pot, it will still be good, but next time reduce the cooking time and the texture will benefit. The seasoning might seem eccentric, with only a pinch of salt and exactly four peppercorns. But both have firm logic. Celery will give up salt, and once you reduce the stock, saltiness will intensify. It’s best to start mild, so you can salt as you like it. By all means reduce the pepper to three corns, but more than four will impart a dirty flavor.
Serving it will require conviction. An unadorned piece of skinless chicken on a plate is a minimal thing, to some eyes as unfinished as a sparely furnished room. The art is knowing where the flavor resides, which is in the dark meat. Two birds will produce four handsome legs and thighs. Use these and save the white meat for a sandwich the following day. After slipping off the skin, cut the legs at the thigh. This makes a generous portion. The minute the skin is removed, dress the meat with a trickle of olive oil, which will protect the surface from drying when exposed to air. Season only with flaked sea salt and pepper. Then serve and eat.
If there is hesitation before eating, this will disappear as people taste. At first it’s a struggle to identify the flavor. It’s not game-like, not anywhere so high as pheasant, or loaded with those suffocating banquet table notes of turkey. Keep eating. It will require lots of tastes as some long-forgotten palate of a French great-grandmother wells up in you. Then it’s suddenly clear. By God, it’s chicken. It’s true chicken flavor.
The interesting thing about this way of cooking is that stripping the spices, the shake and stir international element, has the unexpected effect of making it truly universal. While spiced food can be an acquired taste, this simmered chicken amounts to dinner without frontiers. My cousins from the north of England once toasted the simple treatment as representing all that is right about the British kitchen. When I served it to a winemaker from Alsace, the stock went into asparagus soup as a starter, the legs were served with roast potatoes, again finished with the stock, and late-summer tomatoes. “Ah, coq au vin,” he said.
A nice piece of flattery. Perhaps in the Alps, the traditional red wine stew is made with white wine and served like deconstructed coronation chicken. I hope that’s true. This is: No dish goes better with the gorgeous white wines of that perennially underrated region.
Few dishes are so right year round. A chicken leg is as appetizing served cold in the summer as hot in the winter.
It is the stock, however, with its delicious back-flavors, that makes this way of cooking chicken such a strong player for all seasons. Whether you use it in the same meal as the chicken, or use it later, it can host whatever’s in season from the kitchen garden.
In spring, it’s the perfect base for asparagus soup. In summer it serves just as perfectly in tomato soup. Ditto in autumn, for roasted bell peppers, or squash. In winter, borscht isn’t borscht without it. As winter rains approach, it merits adding that the stock is perfect for risotto.
I did not give up grilling, frying and roasting chicken after discovering true chicken flavor. Especially roasting. But if you can make this dish, you can cook. Learning how to handle and serve the meat teaches you how to taste, why you need a heat diffuser, why not to push a pot to crazy boiling points for any length of time. It teaches you that chicken stock, just like coffee, can be cooked to a point of no return, or captured at that perfect point of done-ness.
It is the true test of a cook’s skill: eking out flavor without masking it. Once you master this dish, a world of spices redolent of faraway places will still await. But it will not be your only recourse to flavor.