Thursday, March 3, 2011

Good Food: C'est Magnifique! French Chicken in a Pot

Consider the humble chicken.  Perhaps not the brightest bulb in the animal kingdom, this little fowl is responsible for providing us the eggs that are so important in cooking and baking as well as being the point of reference when someone eats something odd (rattlesnake, for example) and they don’t know how to describe it – ‘tastes like chicken!’. 

Perusing the meat aisle at any supermarket, you’ll find mammoth packages of drumsticks, thighs, breasts and wings.  Breasts with the bone, breasts without the bone, breasts with skin, breasts without.  Thanks to the marvel that is the butcher, we usually have to do nothing more than pop a package open, throw on a little seasoning and pop it in the oven for the perfect meal.  Well, at least that’s what we always hope will happen.

Unfortunately, I find that cooking the typical boneless, skinless chicken breast, while quite healthy, leaves me all too often with a flavorless lump of meat.  It’s really better suited to be drowned in a salty broth for soup, drenched in creamy gravy and mixed in with some noodles, or mixed with a big dollop of mayo for a chicken sandwich.  Think about the best chicken dishes you’ve had, Fried Chicken, Chicken Ala King,  Chicken Cordon Bleu, Chicken Kiev, Chicken Fajitas, Kung Pao Chicken, General Tso’s Chicken.  They all taste great, but have something in common in that they take some considerably heavy cover to make the bird just a bit more tantalizing.  The chicken becomes just a bit player, just a vehicle to transport the tastier components of the dish.

But what if the chicken could be the star of the show, requiring little preparation and only a bare minimum of supporting cast members.  What if the chicken could be so flavorful, so tender, so juicy, that you could just about make a meal of the chicken alone, nothing else.

Remember all those chicken parts scattered around the butcher case?  Next time you’re there; look down at the bottom shelf.  Somewhere next to the massive family value packs, you will likely notice whole chickens sitting there, usually untouched.  As Americans, we typically can’t be bothered with butchering our own chickens.  Maybe it’s because we haven’t been trained to do it properly (there are some tricks to it), or we don’t like touching them too much, or perhaps it would just take too much time.  And honestly, what the heck do you do with those giblets?  Well, America, if you knew that you could get the best chicken to your table at a mere $1 per pound (what I often find whole chickens on sale for) and you could accomplish this feat on a weeknight, would you be interested?  Of course you would!

Then allow me to introduce you to the simple delight that is Poulet en Cocotte, or Chicken in a Pot.   The wonderful flavor and texture of this recipe are the result of a very simple, yet underutilized method of cooking.  A small number of flavorful ingredients are locked tightly away inside a cast iron pot and left to themselves for a relatively short time.  The end result is one of the best tasting chickens you’ll ever put to your lips.

This recipe is actually quite simple.  Getting the chicken in the oven takes less than 30 minutes.  Cooking time is about 90 minutes for a 4-5 lb bird, during which time you could prep some side dishes or read a few emails or update your blog, whatever.  You do need a few tools and ingredients you may not necessarily have on hand, but trust me, it’s well worth the effort to obtain them.

The most important piece of equipment is the pot.  In this case, a cast iron Dutch oven, at least 5-7 quart size.  I have 2, an older regular cast iron model and a newer enameled cast iron oven from Lodge.  It’s a very nice cobalt blue color.  What I like about the enameled version is that it’s, in my opinion, easier to clean, but you can use either one.  If you don’t have one, a model like mine can be purchased on sale in the $50-$70 price range.  With proper care, it will last you a lifetime, so it’s worth the investment.  The plusses of owning such a rig?  How about deep frying?  Dutch ovens hold heat very well, making them highly suitable if you want to attempt fried chicken, homemade donuts, corn dogs and funnel cakes.  Heck, you may even be tempted to try your own deep fried Twinkies like the ones at the County Fair.  Just don’t come to me looking for a recipe.  Other uses for the big pot?  Braising tough cuts of meat such as London Broil to fall apart tenderness as well as being ideal for soups, stews and chili.  The Dutch oven is a very versatile, albeit heavy, tool of the kitchen. 

To make this dish, simply follow the recipe below.  Don’t skip any steps.  Browning the chicken in olive oil is important.  Covering the pot with foil before adding the lid is important.  Testing the chicken with a thermometer to test doneness is important.  Allowing the chicken to rest under foil for 20 minutes before carving is probably one of the most important steps, no matter how hard it is to smell that wonderful aroma during those agonizing 20 minutes.

Honestly, this is best chicken I’ve ever made.  In fact, it’s some of the best chicken I’ve eaten, ever.  This recipe will be in regular rotation in the GT household.  Mrs. GT was very impressed at my newly acquired French culinary skills.  Julia would be pleased.  So don’t wait any longer.  Buy a pot, get a bird, eat some chicken!

One final note, I did leave out the lemon juice in the final step, just because I’m not a huge fan of lemon.  The jus created by the cooking chicken was fantastic without it.  Put it in or leave it out based on your own taste preference.

French Chicken in a Pot
from the February 2008 edition of Cook's Illustrated

Cooking times in the recipe are for a 4 1/2 to 5 pound bird.  A 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pound bird will take about an hour; a 5 to 6 pound bird will take close to 2 hours. We developed this recipe to work with a 5 to 8 quart pot with a tight-fitting lid. If using a 5-quart pot, do not cook a chicken larger than 5 pounds.

1 whole roasting chicken, giblets removed and discarded, wings tucked under back
2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped medium
1 small celery stick, chopped medium (about 1/4 cup)
6 medium garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed (I smashed them and roughly chopped them)
1 bay leaf (I didn't use it as there weren't any around)
1 medium spring of rosemary (this added such nice aroma)
1/2-1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1. Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 250 degrees. Pat chicken dry with paper towel and season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until just smoking. Add chicken breast-side down; scatter onion, celery, garlic, bay leaf and rosemary around chicken. Cook until breast is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Using a wooden spoon inserted into cavity of bird (I ended up needing a pair of tongs for this operation) flip chicken breast side up and cook until chicken and vegetables are well browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove Dutch oven from heat; place large sheet of foil over pot and cover tightly with lid (I skipped the foil step, to no ill effects). Transfer pot to oven and cook until an instant read thermometer registers 160 degrees when inserted in the thickest part of the breast and 175 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh, 80 to 110 minutes.

2. Transfer chicken to carving board, tent with foil and rest 20 minutes. Meanwhile, strain chicken juices from pot through a fine-mesh strainer into fat separator, pressing on solids to extract liquid; discard solids (you should have about 3/4 cup juices). Allow liquid to settle 5 minutes, then pour into saucepan and set over low heat. Carve chicken, adding any accumulated juices to saucepan. Stir lemon juice into jus to taste. Serve chicken, passing jus at table.



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