Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” If I’m being honest, that’s sometimes how I feel about cooking. I like having cooked – sitting down to something I’ve made, sharing it with family and with friends. And most of the time, I enjoy the process of getting to that point. But not always.
The times when I don’t love it are usually when cooking is way down at the bottom of a daunting to-do list and, by necessity, we are in the food-as-fuel mode, and eating is just one more thing to check off the list. Other times, I may be in the mood to cook, but what I’m in the mood to eat doesn’t match up with either ingredients readily available or time needed to prepare it. And sometimes, since I’m being honest, I just don’t feel like cooking.
But when I do feel like cooking, everything about it reminds me why I love it. Such was the case this past Sunday. A major televised sportsball tournament held much of the country in its thrall, but not in my kitchen. I was streaming a jazz station out of Newark, New Jersey. There was enough task lighting going to see what I was doing without interfering with a couple of tealights I had burning. And most important, I had time for a leisurely prep.
I will never be a restaurant prep cook. Ever. You see them going at it, their hands a blur, chopchopchopchopchop. Yeah, that’s not me. But I love doing prep work, getting everything organized, figuring out what has to be ready before I light one fire under a pan and what I can prep while something else is cooking. Mise en place is probably as close to zen as I get. It’s a chess player looking five moves ahead.
Prep work is also as intimate as you get with food. Once it hits the pan, you stir, you season, you taste, you adjust. But when you’re prepping, you’re handling the raw ingredients. Peeling, slicing, chopping, mincing, dredging.
This was brought home to me Sunday as I trimmed some leeks, cut the white and pale green pieces lengthwise and then sliced them into half moons. Leeks are mild-flavored relatives of onions; every time I cook with them, I realize that I don’t do it often enough. They’re also beautiful, putting me in mind of vintage French culinary posters. What got me Sunday, though, was the fragrance. I didn’t notice it as first – they are quite mild, after all. But as the bowl of freshly cut half moons sat there while I continued my prep work, their sweet, not-quite-oniony aroma blossomed, filling the kitchen. There was something else to it too, a grassy garden note that more assertive onions just don’t have.
This – and moments like this – remind me why I love to cook. And why I love having cooked. Sitting down to this meal of chicken thighs braised with leeks, chestnuts and whole grain mustard really was pretty perfect.
Braised Chicken Thighs with Leeks and Chestnuts
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 1/2 pound each
salt and freshly ground pepper
flour for dredging the chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale green parts halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/3-inch half moons
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken stock or store-bought, reduced-sodium broth
1/2 cup dry white wine [editor's note: can substitute cooking wine]
1 cup cooked chestnuts, quartered (see Kitchen Notes)
3 tablespoons whole grain mustard (can substitute Dijon)
1 generous tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper on both sides. Dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Heat oil in a large, deep lidded sauté pan or skillet over medium-high flame. Add thighs to skillet skin side down and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Turn, reduce heat to medium and brown on the other side about 4 minutes. Transfer thighs to plate.
2. Add leeks to pan, season with salt and pepper, and cook until softened, stirring frequently to avoid browning or burning, 3 to 5 minutes. Clear a hole in the middle of the pan and add garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 45 seconds or so. Add broth and wine to pan, scraping up any browned bits. Add chestnuts to pan, stirring to combine everything, and return thighs to pan, along with any accumulated juices. Raise heat to bring liquid to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover pan. Simmer until chicken is just cooked through, about 10 minutes.
3. Transfer chicken to a plate and stir mustard into leeks mixture. Taste and adjust seasonings. Return chicken to pan and let everything simmer together to combine flavors, about 2 minutes. To serve, plate chicken thighs and spoon leeks and chestnuts over them.
Finding chestnuts. It’s not as easy as you think. Turns out most stores treat them as seasonal, stocking them from around Thanksgiving to Christmas. In Chicago, I found them at Treasure Island, a gem of a local European supermarket chain. You most likely will find them in vacuum-packed pouches. A 5- or 6-ounce pouch will produce the needed 1 cup of hopped chestnuts. Do try to find them – their soft/chewy/meaty nuttiness adds great flavor and makes the dish a robust, stick-to-your-ribs meal. If you can’t find them, substitute pecans. They’re crunchier, but still add a nice nuttiness to the dish.
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Italian Chicken Stew