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Cooking for Comfort

Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort in Napa Valley: A Roast Chicken: Three Ways

“A roast chicken,” wrote the editors of the Poultry edition of the wonderful Time-Life Good Cooks series, “represents the best in home cooking.”

But, what if you’re not sure what to do with that pale, plucked bird you brought home from the grocery?

Chicken is amazingly versatile so with just a slight change in cooking methods and altering a few of the aromatics (the plants, herbs and spices that impart fragrance and flavor to food) you can enjoy a completely different meal.

But, first, let’s talk about buying chickens. Most of the commercial, mass-produced chickens found at the grocery store were water-immersion chilled. This is where the carcasses are tumbled or pulled through a communal water bath supplemented with antimicrobials to inhibit microbial growth to lower the temperature to less than 40°F.

I’ve read reports that say on average, carcasses chilled using this system actually gained 5% of their prechilled weight. In effect, chickens are brined together in water and antimicrobials that are absorbed by osmosis. That’s why I always look for air-chilled chickens. Okay, with that suggestion, let’s get cooking.

Chicken En Cocotte

(Chicken in a casserole dish)

Serves 4 with leftovers

Poulet En Cocotte (chicken in a casserole dish) is a classic Paris bistro dish. You can use any heavy, large dish with a lid but this method of cooking is so popular that the French cookware company Staub sells beautiful enameled cast iron pans with heavy lids that keep the steam from escaping called La Cocottes. (No, I don’t work for Staub but if they ask, I’d be happy to punch up their online copy for the English-speaking market).

This is a simple dish: chicken in a covered pot with chopped vegetables, cooked at a low temperature. But, instead of adding liquid to make a braise, no additional liquid is added so the meat cooks in its own juices. I’ve included a bit more liquid than a standard en cocotte so we can thicken the juice left behind to make a professional-grade sauce.

1 whole chicken, about 4-5 pounds

Kosher salt

Neutral cooking oil

2 tablespoons butter

2 onions, finely diced

2 celery ribs, finely diced

4 carrots, tip and top removed, cut into small rounds (Yes, I do leave the skin on. As long as you clean the carrots, the skin is nutritious and by the time it roasts for 2 hours, you can’t see the skin, anyway)

4-5 garlic cloves, skin removed, smashed

¼ cup chicken stock

¼ cup white wine (or you can use all stock or all wine)

A half bunch of fresh tarragon left on the stem

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 250°F. In the casserole, heat enough oil and butter to cover the bottom of the pan. Salt the chicken and then brown it, breast side down in the pan for 5 to 6 minutes. Flip the bird and brown the backside for another 5 minutes.

Once both sides are brown, remove the chicken to a plate and add all the chopped aromatics (you’ve got the traditional mirepoix mix of roughly 2 parts one to one part each of celery and carrots) to the casserole with a good dash of salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the vegetables have a nice, golden color, add stock/wine and stir again. Salt the chicken cavity, then stuff the tarragon bunch inside and place the chicken breast up on the vegetables.

If your casserole lid does not seal well, stretch foil across the top, then put the lid on and slide the vessel into the waiting hot oven. Cook for an hour and a half and check the breast with an instant-read thermometer. (You did buy one after the last problems with overcooked chicken, right?) Look for 165°F in the breast, about 175°F for the thigh.

Usually, this takes two hours but start checking every 15 minutes or so until you hit the temperature you want. At this point, you can simply cut up the chicken on the cutting board and serve with the cooked vegetables and juice. Or remove the chicken and strain the vegetables, thicken the sauce and make it a bit more professional.

If you want to make a sauce, remove the chicken to the cutting board. This is a moist bird, so it helps to have a cutting board with a juice groove to catch the runoff. Tent the chicken with foil as you make the sauce. Use a strainer to catch the vegetables and pour the juice off, capturing it so it can return to the casserole.

Mix the cornstarch with an equal amount of the hot liquid and stir until it’s a smooth blend. You may need to add more liquid, but it should form a light sauce so don’t overdo the liquid. Slowly pour the mixture back into the pan of juices while whisking vigorously. Let the mixture come to a boil and continue to stir often. It should thicken to a beautiful sauce.

While the sauce heats up, slice the chicken. Taste the sauce to see if you need to add salt or a splash of lemon juice or sherry vinegar if the sauce seems a little dull. I like to serve the dish in a pasta bowl, plating slices of chicken on top of the roasted vegetables and topping with the hot, thick sauce. Wow, I’m getting hungry just writing about it.

Fricasseed Chicken with Rosemary and Lemon Juice

Serves 4 to 6

Adapted from "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan

A fricassee is usually chicken that has been browned in butter and then stewed with vegetables, creating a thick, chunky stew. Ms. Hazan was a famous teacher and book author of classic Italian cooking. When she passed away in 2013, The New York Times wrote that she changed the way Americans cook Italian food by cooking and teaching the traditional food she grew up with in northern Italy, not the Italian-American food that had evolved when Italians migrated to the US.

She is also credited with popularizing balsamic vinegar, which comes from her home region, which she later regretted since it became overused and led to commercial-grade vinegars that imitate the traditional product.

Like many of her recipes, the ingredient list is short and depends on buying the best that you can find and paying attention as food cooks to know when to add ingredients and when the dish was done. As she told cookbook writer Dorothy Kalins, “I teach cooking. I do not teach recipes. I do not teach measuring.”

4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces (2 legs, 2 thighs, each breast cut into 2 equal pieces)

2 tablespoons olive oil (not your best, most expensive stuff. The heat will kill any nuanced taste)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 2-inch sprigs of fresh rosemary

3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed

Kosher Salt

Fresh-ground black pepper

1/3 cup dry white wine

Grated zest on 1 lemon zest

4 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon

Thoroughly pat dry the chicken with paper towels.

Choose a lidded sauté pan large enough to accommodate the chicken pieces in a single layer without overlapping. (Most of Ms. Hazan dishes were cooked on the stove, not in the oven, so she could hear and see what was going on.)

Place oil and butter in the pan over medium-high heat. When the butter foam subsides, put in the chicken skin-side down. Brown the chicken well on both sides. Add the rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, turning the chicken from time to time, then remove the breast pieces and set on a plate.

Add the wine, and bring it to a brisk simmer of about 20 seconds. Then lower the heat to cook the chicken at a very low simmer. Place the lid on the pan, leaving it slightly ajar.

Cook for 40 minutes, then return the white meat to the pan and any accumulated juices. Occasionally turn all the pieces to ensure even cooking. Cook for at least 10 minutes more, until the thigh meat feels very tender when prodded with a fork.

While the chicken is cooking, check the liquid in the pan. If too low, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water.

When the chicken is done, remove from heat and transfer the pieces to a warm serving platter, using a slotted spoon. Tip the pan and spoon off all but a little bit of the fat.

Add the lemon juice and zest to the pan and place over medium-low heat to deglaze the pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape lose any brown bits on the bottom and the sides of the pan. Pour the pan juices over the chicken and serve at once.

La Fricassée de Poulet aux Figues Fraîches

(Chicken Fricassee with Fresh Figs in Port Sauce)

Serves 6

Adapted from Roger Verge’s "Entertaining in the French Style"

I became familiar with Chef Verge when I took a week of cooking classes at Julia Child’s summer home near the French Riviera. Our instructor, Kathy Alex, had worked for him for a bit since he ran the nearby Moulin de Mougins, a famous restaurant near Cannes that attracted celebrity guests from the Cannes film festival.

He called his food Cuisine of the Sun, a variation of Provençal cuisine that focused on fresh, local ingredients, instead of the heavier, and traditional cuisine classique. No, we did not get to dine at his restaurant, since it was booked months in advance, but I settled for buying one of his cookbooks once we returned home.

Turns out entertaining in the French style requires serving several courses matched with appropriate wines, a specific table setting, and a flower arrangement, not to mention buying the food and cooking it. So, I’m afraid the coffee table cookbook remains more aspirational than well-used, but it does transport me back to Provence when I read its menus with extensive notes and lavish photos.

The restaurant was run by a series of people after Chef Verge retired but sadly he passed away in 2015 and the restaurant is no longer operating.

This is another fricassee, but as often happens with French recipes, the ingredient list is longer and more techniques are required. I picked this recipe because I have a ton of very ripe black figs and the last of my tomatoes are hanging on the vine.

12 very ripe black figs

1 ¼ cups port wine

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

1 large ripe tomato

1 celery rib

3 garlic cloves

2 chickens, around 3 1/3 pounds each (this is on the small side for American grocery stores, so you may end up with one bird, a little over 4 pounds, but that still works)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

16 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons minced shallots

1 1/2 teaspoons powdered chicken bouillon (or 2 bouillon cubes, which is more prevalent in France)

1 ¼ cup rice (preferably long-grain, perfumed, such as basmati)

24 hours in advance: Place the figs in a jar with the port and 1 bay leaf. Cover and set aside to marinate on the counter. If you forgot to plan that far ahead, place the same ingredients in a sauté pan and bring it almost to a boil and simmer for about a half-hour.

Done in advance: Heat the coriander seeds in a small skillet and toast to dry over high heat. Tie the seeds in a square of cheesecloth and crush to a fine powder with a rolling pin. Halve the tomato and squeeze to extract the seeds. Dice the tomato and celery, Crush the garlic. Set aside the cubed tomato, garlic and chopped shallots (but do not combine). Cut each chicken into 6 pieces: 2 breasts with wings, 2 thighs, and 2 drumsticks. Season each piece with salt and pepper. Chop the chicken wing tips, necks and carcasses and reserve for the sauce.

When ready to cook: Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over moderate heat in a large ovenproof casserole. Add chicken pieces and sauté over medium-high heat until lightly brown on all sides. Set them aside on a plate. Add carcasses, necks and wing ends to casserole and sauté over medium heat until browned. Add the shallots and sauté briefly.

Pour off any excess fat and return the casserole to the heat. Add the crushed coriander, 2 bay leaves, garlic, celery, and tomato. Pour half of the port from the marinating figs (about 2/3 cup) into the casserole. Arrange the chicken sections on top so that they are not completely covered by the port. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour the remaining port into a small saucepan and reduce over medium heat until the syrup thickens slightly. Set the syrup aside.

After the chicken has simmered for half an hour, add 2/3 cup water and the bouillon cubes to the casserole. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring with a spoon to loosen the bit of meat that stuck to the bottom of the casserole. Remove the chicken pieces from the casserole. Arrange on a plate or in a bowl, cover, and set aside in a warm area. Pour the cooking liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a small saucepan. You should have about 2/3 cup of sauce. Return the chicken to the casserole and keep warm while you cook the rice. Cook the rice in salted water, following the cooking time given on the package.

Reheat the sauce over very low heat; do not let it reduce. Place the figs in the saucepan with the reduced port. Heat gently, stirring occasionally, being careful not to split or crush the figs but spoon the sauce over them.

When rice is ready to serve, place the chicken sections on a warm plate. Cut 9 tablespoons butter into small pieces and add one piece at a time to the sauce as you stir vigorously until it is almost ready to boil. Immediately take the sauce off the heat and spoon it over the chicken. Arrange the glazed figs around the chicken. Stir the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter into the rice until melted and serve with the chicken.

Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email macmor@sbcglobal.net.

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