Of all the fancy kitchen terms, “braise”, I think, just might be my favorite cooking word around. And one of my favorite words in the English language. It’s a slow and lazy word, luxurious, full. To braise is to have something utterly amazing in the end that yields results far exceeding this unfussy, simple way of cooking. Braising is the antithesis to dry and boring; it is comforting and welcome no matter the season. When I see the word on a menu, I know that time has eased my food into something that falls off the bone, comes apart with a simple pull of the fork, something that’s been coaxed into a delicate state.
There’s something about braising that calms me as well. When my mind is racing and unquiet, when I am over-thinking (which is something I do a lot), braising somehow makes me slow down and take a breath. There’s something soothing about having a pot in the oven slowly applying heat to whatever it is being cooked, patiently transforming it into a dish. Time and heat and patience. And the smell that fills the house with a sense of home, as if saying “Welcome, here food is cooked with care and love. Stay awhile.” I love that feeling. If I could bottle it, I would give it out to everyone I know. There’s no feeling like it.
Could it be that making a trans-Atlantic move at the age of eleven did it? That sense of childhood home is something I can’t even recall. And moving around so much with boarding school and college and then in New York – home is something you make and create, especially in our fluid world of transient apartments, shifting jobs, career changes, or just a desire to pick up and go somewhere new. What anchors us and makes us feel safe, or at least for me, are meals we make at home. Somehow and apartment, devoid of furniture and pictures and personal mementos, becomes a home the minute you turn the stove on, the minute you set a place setting for yourself, or for others. Home is something you carry with you and the memories you make yourself.
Last Sunday, I had friends over for a Sunday supper. I like these Sunday suppers. They are our way of easing into the work-week. They let us talk and laugh and share. I wouldn’t trade these supper for the world. But in addition to the warmth and joy of these suppers, last Sunday was a meal to be remembered. In fact, the consensus was that this might have been the best thing I’ve ever fed my guests. I made twice the amount for our company and there were no left overs. Even my friends’ kids – who are ever the picky eaters, couldn’t put this chicken down.
Dear readers, this chicken is a thing of beauty. It is something that I implore you to make this weekend. Well, maybe you have Easter menus planned out, but please do it soon. This is something I’ve been meaning to cook for quite some time. And lovely Maggie and ever-so-talented Jeanette have made it and raved about it; so this was destined to be a home run. But I had absolutely no idea just how amazing this dish was. Which is why I am being so persistent in telling you to just please make it. I think you will love it. And I think you will want to make it again and again, the same way that I do. You might lick your plate clean, even if there’s company present.
Chicken in Riesling
Adapted from Gourmet
The original recipe omits celery and garlic. Now, I get the celery part, but garlic??? Mon dieu! As if I would dare braise a chicken (or cook it any other way) without it. Garlic here is magical, people. Like Harry Potter magical. Leave it whole to braise and melt away – it’ll be the most amazing depth of flavor for the dish.
1 whole chicken (about 3 1/2 pound), backbone discarded and chicken cut French style into 8 pieces (I used drumsticks and thighs because I think that the dark meat is just so much better here)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped (2 cups)
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
4 medium carrots, halved diagonally
4 stalks celery, cut in 3-4 inch pieces
8-9 cloves garlic, whole
1 cup dry white wine (preferably Alsatian Riesling)
1 1/2 pound small (2-inch) fingerling potatoes
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
Fresh lemon juice to taste
Position the oven rack in the middle and preheat oven to 350F.
Wash and pat chicken dry with paper towels. You want to make sure you get it as dry as possible as it will make a nice difference when you are browning the chicken. If you have time, place the chicken, uncovered, in the fridge for a few hours, where cold, dry air will dry it even more. Sprinkle the chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and a rounded 3/4 teaspoon pepper.
Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a wide 3 1/2- to 5-quart heavy dutch oven, or an oven-proof pot over medium-high heat until foam subsides, then brown chicken in 2 batches, turning once, about 10 minutes total per batch. Transfer the browned chicken to a plate.
While the chicken is browning, wash leeks, pat them dry and chop them. A good way to wash the leeks thoroughly is to quarter them, lengthwise, and let them soak in very cold water, swooshing your hand around the bowl. The grit and dirt fall to the bottom. Do that several times and your leeks will be clean and ready for use.
Pour off fat from the pot and add the remaining butter, adding to it the leeks and shallot. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and cover, cooking over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until leeks are pale golden and wilted 5-7 minutes.
Add back the chicken, skin sides up, with any juices from plate. Then add carrots, celery, garlic and wine and boil until liquid is reduced by half, 3-4 minutes.
Cover pot and place it in the oven, braising chicken until cooked through, 20-25 minutes.
While chicken braises, wash the fingerlings, covering them with cold water with 1 1/2 tbsp salt in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer until potatoes are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain in a colander, then return to saucepan. Add parsley and a drizzle of good olive oil and shake to coat.
If your chicken is done, but the potatoes are not yet, just reduce the oven temperature to 200F and keep warm while the potatoes finish. Another reason I used dark meat in this dish is because it’s virtually impossible to overcook. That way, if your potatoes are taking their sweet time to cook, you’re not wringing your hands in anxiety, worrying that you will feed your guests chicken that tastes like pressed sawdust.
Stir in crème fraîche season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Serve alongside fingerling potatoes.