Thursday, March 15, 2007

Braised Chicken: Tale of Two Titties


I swear, there should be a warning label on chicken breasts. First, they don't have any flavor. Secondly, they don't cook the same as the rest of the bird. But nobody wants to talk about it. The truth about chicken breasts constitutes one of the ugly secrets of the culinary world.


First, as to flavor: I defy anyone to show me where it is in the breast. Even on a free range bird (well, maybe a little flavor) the breast is not where it's at. The flavor is in what you put on the breast. So the breast really should be described as a flavorless vehicle for sauces. In the catering business, I stared into many a buffet platter looking at bland, flavorless chicken breast, wondering how many hours the chef spent trying to invent new things to put on it. Of course you can't serve anything but the breast at a large function. Someone might be offended by, say, a flavorful thigh. Too gamy, they might say. So, to play it safe, you serve chicken breast, neatly sliced and covered with a caper sauce, or a tomato salsa, or sauteed mushrooms.


Now think about it. In that last sentence, what made your mouth water? The chicken breast, or the caper sauce, the tomato salsa, the sauteed mushrooms?


Me, I am a thigh man. Legs don't appeal to me, primarily because of all that gristle and those tendons you have to chew around. Thighs are rich dark meat, full of juicy succulence. Sure, they have a few more calories than the breast. But if it's a choice between lots of flavor with a few extra calories, or no flavor and fewer calories, guess which way I'm headed?


Still, there are people who will eat nothing but breast meat. I pity them. I have one client for whom I made only thighs when I cooked chicken. Finally, he became so exasperated that he just blurted out one day that he DID NOT LIKE THIGHS! When I pointed out to him that breast meat has no flavor, he insisted, "Yes they do. If you cook them on the bone!"


Sorry. Bones do not add that much flavor to chicken breasts. Chicken breasts can only pray they have flavor in another life.


Now to the other matter of cooking times. I'm curious: If you turn to the duck cooking literature, the first thing out of the author's mouth is likely to be, Do not cook the breast meat and leg/thighs together. These different parts of the duck do not cook at the same rate. Breasts cook faster than dark meat. So, the thinking goes, if you try to cook a whole duck, the breasts will be dried out and inedible by the time the dark meat is cooked. Cook them separately, is the recommendation. Same thing with turkey. Anyone who's cooked more than one turkey knows the lengths you have to go to get the dark meat cooked without destroying the breasts. Some chefs do the same thing with turkeys they do with ducks: cook the breasts and the dark meat separately.


So why is this not the mantra with chickens? Why do we pay such scant attention to the different parts of this bird?


In fact, I have paid some attention. And like I said, I am now a thigh man. And I notice more and more recipes for thighs-only are popping up. One in particular I like is the recipe for thighs roasted with lemon, thyme and honey in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Another I'm especially fond of is my own interpretation of the "chicken Marbella" recipe that appeared years ago in The Silver Palate Cookbook. (Does anyone remember the Silver Palate series? It was all the rage back in the 80s.)


The original "chicken Marbella" called for four chickens to make 10 or more portions. But I use strictly thighs. Then I beef up the finished chicken by reducing the marinade until it is flavorful as all get out. You'll notice a North African influence in the sweet and sour mix of red wine vinegar and brown sugar (okay, maybe and Anglicized North African influence). The dried fruits and green olives may place this more in the fall/winter season. So quick! Make it before all the snow melts.
This recipe can be expanded to fit an even bigger crowd. In fact, I typically "roast/braise" the chicken on baking sheets for 30 or more people. After roasting in the oven, allow the thighs to cool, then pick the meat off the bones. Note: Start this dish two or three days in advance.
For 10 Servings
5 pounds chicken thighs
1 head garlic, peeled
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup dried oregano
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup pitted green olives (choose Spanish or Moroccan olives)
1/2 cup capers with some juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley or cilantro
Place chicken thighs in large mixing bowl. In a blender, mix garlic, vinegar and olive oil until smooth. Pour over chicken thighs. Season with oregano, salt and pepper. Mix in prunes, apricots, olives, capers and bay leaves. Cover with plastic and marinate overnight.
The following day, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread chicken thighs and marinade on baking sheet. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Pour white wine around chicken thighs. Place in oven and bake until chicken is golden and cooked through, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat from thighs and discard bones and bay leaves. Set olives, prunes and apricots aside. Meanwhile, separate fat from pan liquids. Either pour liquid into sauce pan and skim fat away using a spoon or turkey baster. If using a grease separator, strain liquid into separator saving solids for later. Discard fat. Place remaining liquid in small sauce pan. Bring to boil and cook until liquid is reduced by about 1/3. Return solids to pan.
To serve, ladle finished sauce along with olives, prunes and apricots over chicken. I like to accompany this dish with a brown basmati rice pilaf tossed with toasted almonds and parsley. Since there are no onions in the chicken, you can dice some red onion and put it in the pilaf.
Now tell me you can do anything with a chicken breast that tastes this good.

3 comments:

Idaho Gardener said...

Ed,

We are thigh people here as well. And my SP cookbooks are tattered and still used. Chicken Marbella is my husband's favorite chicken recipe for picnics. Since it is getting to be 70 degrees, I better make some.

Mary said...

Ed,
I've adapted this recipe over the years in just about exactly the same way as you except for the apricots. It's a great thing to make for a crowd: I did it for fifty people once, served with roasted new potatoes. Thanks for reminding me of it, I 'll be sure to put it back in the rotation sometime soon. I'll try it with the apricots. And maybe some preserved lemon and toasted almonds. This is starting to sound like a tajine, but that was probably the point all along.

I agree with you on the thigh question, but I do love a good milanese or scallopine treatment for chicken boobs. I think the way to get a chicken breast to taste good is to concentrate on texture: pound it flat and cook it quickly so that it doesn't get dry.

Ed Bruske said...

You're right on, Mary. The more you make that Marbella to resemble a Moroccan tajine, the better it gets. Preserved lemon sounds fab, maybe a little cinnamon. My favorite side dish for this right now is a brown basmati rice pilaf with toasted almonds. You could do something similar with quinoa or couscous. Even better with whole wheat couscous, I think.

I also agree about pounding out the breast. Chicken parmesan or chicken Milanese, no? But that brings us back to the original point, that the breasts are only as good as what you put on them, whereas I could eat roasted thighs all on the own all day.

Thanks for visiting, Mary!