Thursday, March 3, 2011

Easy Clay Pot Chicken with Provençal Flavors

 
I don't really have a name for this dish. Nor do I have a precise recipe. It's one of those meals I first tossed together years ago when I had my usual whole leg of chicken but felt that I should do something other than roast it (the kind of push  against the path-of-least-resistance decision often made when cooking for one). It's since become a go-to meal in cold weather since it's so "stewy" and comforting and the flavors are so rich.

The ingredients tend to vary depending on my mood and the contents of my pantry but they skew toward "Provençal." Usually I'll throw in halved Kalamata olives, capers, sliced onions, diced shallots, quartered artichoke hearts, whole peeled garlic cloves, and a good amount of Marsala wine. Last night I left out the onion but added the remnants of a bag of pre-cooked and frozen Peruvian giant cuzco corn I'd bought awhile ago at Latin America Travel and Services (now at 3644 30th St., I believe). Sometimes I add canned garbanzo beans. In other words, I simply collect ingredients I already have that harmonize with each other and the chicken.

The technique is simple--a cross between baking and braising. And you don't have to use a clay pot but I enjoy it because I think it mellows the flavors compared with cooking in metal. But if you are using a metal pot, like Le Creuset, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. If you're using clay, keep the oven cold so that the pot isn't shocked by the heat and won't crack -- and be sure you use stoneware, not earthenware.

First cut the chicken into individual pieces. Then dip them briefly in milk before rolling in bread crumbs. Brown the breaded chicken in a pan heated with olive oil. If you're using a metal pot, you can brown the chicken in that and save yourself a pot to clean. While the chicken is browning, prep the rest of the ingredients.

Spread a little oil around the bottom of the clay pot. Place a small amount of onions, shallots, and garlic on the bottom and then top with the chicken. Add the oil, fat, and scrapings from the pan you browned the chicken in. Then start bringing in the rest of the vegetables in layers, periodically adding salt, ground pepper, and any herbs or spices that appeal to you (I usually include oregano and thyme but last night I pulled out Hatch chile powder for a little heat). Finally, you'll want several generous splashes of the Marsala (alternately, you could use your favorite white wine).

Cover the pot and put it in the oven. If you're using a clay pot, now is the time to turn on the heat to 375 degrees. The chicken should be done in about an hour, depending on how much you're cooking. While I usually make a leg and thigh for myself, which gives me enough for two dinners, I've made large quantities for six people and it takes just a little longer.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare your favorite rice or grain to serve it on. After all, those aromatic juices need to be absorbed by something. This week, I made basmati rice in one of my favorite clay pots -- an inexpensive sand pot I bought a few years ago at the Vietnamese market Lucky Seafood in Mira Mesa. You have to be a little gentle when doing this with a sand pot. You can't just crank up the heat immediately to bring the rice to a boil. You have to ease it up. So it takes a little longer but not much. Bring the rice to a boil, stir, cover, reduce the heat, and finish cooking according to the directions.

Scoop a helping of rice into a large bowl, then add the chicken, vegetables, and juices. The chicken should be so tender it practically falls off the bone and thoroughly shot through with the flavors it was braised in. The vegetables and Marsala flavors should meld, but give you nice bites of different textures and flavors -- saltiness, thanks to the capers and olives, sweetness from the onions, artichokes, and garlic, comforting heat from the chile powder, and chewiness from the corn. It's a cozy dish perfect for a chilly night.



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