Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deconstructed Chasseur (Il y a hors-de-poulet)

So I had some chicken thighs (bone-in) and some mushrooms, and I was thinking about chicken chasseur, chicken cacciatore, all those unfashionable but warming, herby, rich chicken casseroles we love, from the more mountainy bits of France and Italy. Usually I think that you can't do anything more sensible with a chicken than clean it, dry it, truss it, sprinkle it with salt and roast it, but I was thinking seriously about doing something casserole-y with my chicken pieces.

The only problem is that one of the main reasons I eat chicken is the skin. I love chicken skin. (This is the point where I would normally like to provide useful nutritional information about how relatively healthy chicken fat is compared to other fats, but the trouble is that most websites out there that offer 'information' on such topics are written by hysterical wellness gurus who want to sell you things.) The trouble with chicken casseroles is that skinning the chicken leaves you with tender but rather bland pieces of meat that lack a lot of the fun of eating chicken in the first place, but if you don't skin them, the skin turns flabby and unappealing in the sauce. I quite like eating fat, but not big moist claggy lumps of the stuff.

Then I had a thought, which doesn't happen very often. Given that I had more chicken thighs than I strictly needed, why did I have to cook them all in the sauce? Couldn't I keep some aside and let them be treated the way chicken thighs should be treated, with dry heat and a frying pan, while a couple sat in the sauce and lent their flavour to it?

So I marinated my chicken thighs overnight in a mixture of white wine, olive oil, garlic and rosemary. I was on a bit of a rosemary kick; I knew that this dish was going to be seriously browned and earthy and rich, so it needed a sharp aromatic note to cut through all that.

The following evening, I sautéed chopped onion, carrot and celery in olive oil in a big pot, took it out, and browned a couple of chicken thighs in the oil, then returned the vegetables, added a good amount of vegetable stock (made with stock powder), a splash of white wine, some chopped fresh thyme and a bay leaf, and simmered the result for a couple of hours. In the meantime, I made the rest.

The garnishes were to be bacon lardons and mushrooms. I could have cooked these in the sauce, of course, but that would have made everything taste of everything else. I browned the lardons and set them aside, then browned small, whole white button mushrooms in olive oil and a little of the fat the lardons gave off.

An hour before cooking time, I put the remaining chicken thighs in a moderate hot oven to bake. Half an hour later they were cooked through and had given up a lot of their fat, but I still didn't have the seriously crispy and aromatic skin that I wanted. That called for a last spell in a frying pan.

I put the cooked chicken thighs skin-side down in a frying pan over a moderate heat, and threw in a sprig of rosemary. The whole sprig of rosemary is crucial here, if you want the result to have an almost trippily herbal aroma; if you don't like rosemary, well, don't do it. I learned this chicken-in-the-pan trick from Nick Nairn's book New Scottish Cookery. Baking chicken in the oven will give it puffed skin, but if you want the skin to get insanely crispy and almost crackling-like, there's nothing like putting it in direct contact with hot metal. It needs to sit there for about fifteen minutes and it will spit a lot. But apart from flavour and texture, the other good thing about this is a lot of the subcutaneous chicken fat will render into the pan as the skin cooks; you may even need to pour some of it off. (You can either throw the rendered fat away or use it to cook with. It's a popular condiment in European Jewish cuisine, but have a thought for your arteries and don't eat it all the time.)

(You could cook the chicken thighs like this without first baking them, but they'll spit all over your hob and the surrounding area and you'll be wiping up for a long time afterwards. Cooking boned chicken thighs doesn't take as long, but then they aren't half as tasty, not to mention being more expensive.)

35 minutes before showtime, a handful of puy lentils thrown into the sauce added body and texture, and the mushrooms and bacon went in with five minutes to go. I reserved the chicken thighs that had been cooked in the sauce (put them in a bowl, let them cool down before sticking them in the fridge and the flesh will be great in a sandwich the next day.) Serve the sauce in a bowl and place your crispy chicken thighs on top, after letting them drain for a couple of minutes on some kitchen paper; accompany with a green salad. This chicken is so hunterish it's practically walking the hills with a shotgun over its shoulder.

Chicken thighs are very cheap, and to my mind tastier and more succulent than chicken breast, which is the bit of the chicken you offer to people who don't like food. Thighs are also tougher and more fatty, but that's where long slow cooking comes in. This modified chasseur recipe combines the best bits of roast chicken with the depth of flavour you get from cooking a sauce with chicken bone in it. Cooking the bacon and the mushrooms separately keeps the different flavour elements isolated from each other until the last minute, so that they all sing together on the plate. Or, as in this case, in the bowl.

Given that this is a modification of an already pretty corny old recipe I've called it Deconstructed Chasseur, out of a fondness for unfashionable flavours of continental philosophy. The subtitle is a nod to the great Roland Barthes: as much flavour as possible, Roland, baby.

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