Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Braised Chicken for Fall

Have you ever worried you've lost your cooking mojo? See that raised hand? That would be mine. After a summer in which I spent very little time in the kitchen--a combination of off-putting hot weather and, well, no time or energy because of family health issues--I've felt off my game.

But this week, with cooler weather for at least a couple of days, I finally felt excited again about being in my kitchen. Finally motivated to pick up a knife, turn on the oven, and make myself a real dinner. But I started with the familiar--braised chicken thighs. This dish is one of my favorite comfort food go-to's at home as the weather cools. The chicken is transformed into melt-in-your-mouth bites by braising in vegetables that release their juices, along with the fragrant herbs and smokiness from the dry Marsala I usually add. The added bonus is the sweet aroma the kitchen takes on when it's cooking. It just makes me feel good to be home.

I make this dish many ways, depending on what I'm craving and what ingredients I have. Braised chicken is so easy and so versatile you almost don't need a recipe. What you do need is the chicken, of course, some vegetables, herbs, spices, and white wine. I veer from tomatoes, red peppers, garlic, onions, and leeks to marinated artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, capers, and fennel. Love carrots and celery? Add them. Winter squash? Eggplant? Go for it. Sometimes I'll bread the chicken, otherwise I'll just sprinkle the pieces with salt and black pepper. I like to include dried herbs like oregano, marjoram, and thyme. If I want heat, I'll add diced chiles or crushed red pepper flakes. Most often I turn to Marsala or sherry, but if I have an open bottle of Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, in that will go. I usually make this just for myself. Two pieces turns into two meals for me. But I've made it for six people with a dozen pieces and just added more ingredients to a larger pot. No problem. You may just need to brown the chicken in batches and cook the dish longer.

Braised chicken for one or two takes about an hour in a 375° oven. You can use a clay pot (don't preheat in that case so the pot won't crack from the shock of the heat) or a heavy metal pot, like a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Whatever you use needs to be oven ready in terms of the handles and lid top for metal pots and pots that can absorb higher heat for clay.

Prep your veggies. Then add some olive oil to the pot on the stove and add your seasoned chicken, skin side down, with enough space between them so they don't steam. Let the skin brown--don't pull the chicken from the bottom of the pot. Wait to turn the pieces until they lift easily.

Then, once the chicken is skin side up, start layering half the vegetables. Once you have one layer in, add half the seasonings. Add the rest of the vegetables, the rest of the seasonings, and your wine. If you don't drink wine, you can add a little apple juice or chicken broth.

Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and place it in the oven to cook for an hour. Serve it over grains--I made farro for it this week--so you have something to absorb the sweet and salty juices. Make enough for a second meal. It tastes even better the next night!

Braised Chicken with Mediterranean Flavors
Serves 1 or 2
(printable recipe)

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 chicken thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 onion thinly sliced
3 to 4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 dozen or more pitted Kalamata olives
1 dozen quartered marinated artichoke hearts
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
crushed red pepper flakes
3 ounces Marsala

Place a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 375°.

Heat olive oil in a heavy, oven-ready pot that has a lid.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the chicken pieces skin side down in the pot. Let brown. Turn only once the chicken easily lifts from the bottom of the pot.

Layer half the onion, garlic, olives, and artichoke hearts over the chicken. Sprinkle with half the herbs and sprinkle in some crushed red pepper flakes. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Layer in the rest of the onion, garlic, olives, and artichoke hearts. Add the rest of the herbs, more crushed red pepper flakes if you like, and salt and pepper. Drizzle the Marsala over the mixture.

Put the cover on the pot and place in the oven. Cook for about an hour.

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