The April issues of the food magazines are filled with springy, hopeful recipes and pictures. Beautiful, slender spears of asparagus abound, as do fresh snap peas, baby spring greens and fingerling potatoes. But as T.S. Eliot warned us, "April is the cruellest month." It certainly has been here in Chicago. A snowstorm postponed the White Sox home opener by a day; cold rain fell on the Cubs’ first outing in Wrigley Field. And persistent, sharp winds have more than once made us regret abandoning our down parkas for mere wool coats.
So I was quite happy to find this hearty, comforting dish in the April chapter of Amanda Hesser’s The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings for the French Countryside. Although the green onions [two dozen of them, no less] give it a springlike brightness, the long-braised chicken has a definite wintry stick-to-your-ribs quality about it as well.
This is the second of three Francocentric cookbooks that Karin over at Second Act in Altadena has recommended to me. I can see why she likes it so much – and why avid [obsessive?] gardener Christina from A Thinking Stomach loves it. I’d be hard pressed to name a cookbook that more completely connects the garden to the dinner table. Author Hesser spent a year as a cook in a 17th-century French chateau in Burgundy, and a central figure in the book is the aging caretaker of the chateau’s kitchen garden, Monsieur Milbert. Hesser gradually overcomes his Gallic reserve, and he shares the secrets of the garden with her.
Beautifully told stories aside, this is an impressive cookbook, with more than 240 recipes arranged by seasonality. I haven’t spent nearly enough time exploring it, but the straightforward goodness of this recipe tells me I’ll be back for more.
A couple of quick notes. Hesser’s recipe calls for either a semi-labor intensive "spring stock" involving three pounds of veal bones and almost five hours – or water. The difference seemed pretty stark to me, so I doctored some store bought chicken broth with some of the ingredients of her spring stock and an idea or two of my own. As soon as my concoction started simmering, my nose told me I’d created something good. Unless you have Hesser’s book and the time to make her stock, take 20 minutes or so [most of it just keeping an eye on the simmering pot] to make my doctored broth. Your nose will thank you.
Also, Hesser makes her version with a whole chicken cut into quarters. I used thighs and drumsticks because we like their meaty juiciness.
Braised Chicken with Scallion Purée
Adapted from The Cook and the Gardener
For Terry’s doctored broth:
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine [editor's note: can substitute with cooking wine or additional broth in same amount]
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
4 black peppercorns
For the chicken and scallion purée:
1 tablespoon canola oil
8 pieces of chicken – 4 drumsticks, 4 thighs
salt, freshly ground black pepper
24 scallions, trimmed [leaving as much green as possible], sliced into 1/4-inch pieces, divided
1/3 cup dry white wine [editor's note: can substitute with cooking wine or additional broth in same amount]
2 medium to large potatoes [about 1 pound], peeled and cut into large chunks
3 cups Spring Stock or Terry’s doctored broth [or homemade stock or water]
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Make the broth. Combine broth and 1 cup of wine in a medium stock pot and bring to a boil. While it’s heating, “bruise” the rosemary sprig by rolling a rolling pin or the side of a glass over it to release its flavorful oils. Add to pot. Lightly bash the garlic clove with the side of a knife, remove the skin and add garlic clove to pot, along with the bay leaf and peppercorns. When broth comes to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let it cool slightly, then strain into a bowl and discard solids. You should have about 3 cups of wonderfully fragrant broth.
Cook the chicken. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a large lidded skillet over medium high flame [I used a 5-quart sauté pan]. Add oil to pan, then add chicken, skin side down and sauté until it is very brown, but not burned, about 10 minutes. Swirl the pan occasionally to make sure oil is in contact with all chicken to avoid scorching. Toward the end of the 10 minutes, reduce heat to medium. Turn chicken and scatter two-thirds of the sliced scallions over and around it [this is why you reduced the heat a moment ago, to not burn the scallions]. Brown second side of chicken for about 5 minutes.
Transfer chicken to a plate. Spread scallions around pan and cook for another minute or so. Add 1/3 cup of wine and stir, scraping up browned bits. Reduce wine by half. Return chicken to pan, along with any juices. Add potatoes and enough broth to come about two-thirds up the side of the chicken [if you don’t have enough broth, add water]. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, braising chicken for about 45 to 55 minutes, until potatoes are completely cooked.
Make the scallion purée. Heat oven to 175ºF. When chicken is done, transfer it to a plate and place in oven to keep warm. Strain the braising juices and reserve. Transfer potatoes and scallions to food processor and pulse a few times until potatoes are just crushed [as Hesser says, “pulsing any longer will turn the mixture into a starchy goo”]. Remove blade from processor and stir in cream with a spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover processor with dish towel to keep purée warm.
Transfer juices to sauce pan and reduce over high heat to a concentrated, highly flavored jus, about 1 cup of liquid. Lower heat to medium, add remaining sliced scallions and simmer until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.
To serve, spread purée on serving dish and top with chicken. Spoon some of the jus with scallions over chicken. Serve, passing the remaining jus and scallions separately. You can also plate individual servings.
So, how was it? This is simple, honest country cooking, farm fare with a French accent. It was delicious and satisfying, but not as complex as many French dishes are. Green onions were a key player, of course, but in a good way. The barely cooked scallions in the jus added brightness and a nice crunch; the jus pooled beautifully on the plate, surrounding the purée. And on an April night with temperatures in the low 40s, the whole meal chased away the chill.
Hungry for more simple, hearty French fare? Check out my Layered Pot Roast with Anchovies, Capers and Garlic from Karin’s first French cookbook recommendation, Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare: A French Country Cookbook, or my Chicken with Lentils from the cookbook Bistro Chicken.