Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lemon Chicken Braise with Prunes & Olives

Lemon Chicken Braise with Prunes & Olives

Serves: 4
Lemon Chicken Braise with Prunes & Olives 
This is a terrific easy chicken braise which simmers on top of the stove for about 35 minutes, making it ideal for a quick weeknight dinner. You will love the winning combination of sweet prunes and green olives in a lemony braising liquid, which makes it distinctive enough for an impressive dinner party.

The best cuts of chicken for braising are the dark-meat cuts, thighs and drumsticks. Because successful braising is all about the exchange of flavor between the braising liquid with the meat juices, the juicier the meat, the better tasting the braise. Since thighs and drumsticks contain more fat and collagen than the white-meat breasts, they are tastier when braised. Another important aspect in this recipe is the use of bone-in chicken. As much as it may speed things up in the kitchen to cook chicken off the bone, what you gain in time, you lose in flavor. Bone-in chicken, like all meat cooked on the bone, will retain more of its flavorful juices. As for the skin, it protects the meat from drying out during braising, especially during the browning step. The layer of fat beneath the skin also adds richness and flavor.

One of the biggest challenges when braising chicken and other poultry is preventing the skin from becoming flabby and unappetizing in the moist heat of a closed pot. The best solution is to be especially patient and thorough when browning chicken before braising.  Another detail to watch is the amount of braising liquid. Avoid submerging the pieces completely in the liquid as it can leave the skin soggy. Ideally, there will be just enough liquid to come to where the skin meets the flesh.
  • ½ C brined green olives – such as Picholine, Lucques or Calif. Green
  • 4 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
  • 6 skin-on chicken drumsticks
  • Coarse salt & freshly ground pepper
  • ½C all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tb extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 C dry white wine or dry white vermouth
  • ¼ C white wine vinegar
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled & smashed
  • 1 preserved lemon, rinsed, pulp removed and finely chopped (For instructions on preserved lemons, see recipe for Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash, posted 9/24/12)
  • 6 strips lemon zest (about 2½ inches x ¾ inch) if preserved lemon unavailable
  • 2 whole cloves
  • ¾ C plump-pitted prunes
  • ½ C chicken broth, optional 
If the olives are not pitted, remove the pits by smashing the olives one at a time with side of a large knife, the slipping the pits out. If any flesh remains on the pit slice it off with the knife. If the only prunes you can find are dry and leathery, you will want to soak them overnight in room-temperature or slightly warm water to plum them up. Place them in a small bowl and pour water over to cover. Let the prunes sit until they are moist and plump, 8-12 hours if needed.
Prunes for the braise
Rinse the 4 skin-on bone-in chicken thighs and 6 skin-on chicken drumsticks in cool water, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Generously season all over with salt and pepper. Spread ½ C all purpose flour in a pie plate, and dredge half the chicken pieces one at a time, placing each one in the flour, turning to coat both sides, and then lifting it out and patting lightly to shake off any excess.
Floured chicken
 Heat 2 TB olive oil in a large deep skillet or shallow braising pan over medium high heat until is shimmers. Place the dredged chicken pieces skin side down in the pan and sear, without disturbing, until a nut-brown crust forms on the first side, about 4 minutes. Turn the chicken with tongs and brown on the other side, another 3-4 minutes. While the chicken is browning, pat the remaining dry again and dredge them in flour. Transfer the seared chicken to a plate to catch the juices, while browning the remaining pieces. Once the second batch is done, set them aside with the firsts and discard the flour.
Browned chicken
Pour off the fat from the pan and quickly wipe out any black specks with a damp paper towel, being careful to leave behind any browned bits. Add 1 C dry wine, ¼ C white wine vinegar, 1 smashed garlic clove, chopped lemon preserve or 6 strips lemon zest and 2 whole cloves to the skillet and sir with a wooden spoon to scape up those prized bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet. As soon as all combined, return the chicken pieces to the skillet, arranging them so they fit in a snug single layer. Pour any juices that have accumulated on the plate. Scatter over the ¾ C plumped pitted prunes and ½ C pitted green olives. Cover tightly, and reduce heat to low. Braise at a gentle simmer, basting occasionally and turning the pieces with thongs halfway through, until the chicken is tender and pulls easily from the bone, about 30-40 minutes. When you lift the lid to baste, check to see that the liquid is simmering quietly; if it is simmering too vigorously, reduce the heat or place a heat diffuser under the skillet.

Using a slotted spoon or tongs, transfer the chicken to a platter. If you wish to crisp up the chicken skin, place the pieces in a hot, 475 degree F oven for about 5 min. Meanwhile, skim any visible surface fat from the sauce with a metal spoon. Raise the heat under the skillet to high, and reduce the pan juices for 2-3 minutes to concentrate their flavor. Adjust sauce consistency with reduction or thinning with additional water or chicken broth as discussed below pending accompaniments. Taste for salt and pepper. Retrieve and discard the cloves and zest. Pour juices over the chicken and serve.

This entrée can be served with mashed potatoes, a potato gratin, or, as I have done, on buttered egg noodles. The sauce is thick and flavorful so it could easily standalone with some green vegetables alongside. It is easy to thin the sauce with the addition of chicken broth if you wanted more to drape over mashed potatoes. This would pair well with a medium body wine with youthful fruit and a touch of mineral flavor such as an Alsace Pinot Gris, or Pinot Blanc or Oregon Pinot Gris. If red wines are your preference try a light Chianti or an Oregon Pinot Noir.

If you wanted a more rustic look, you could substitute red wine and red wine vinegar for their white counterparts and use orange or tangerine zest in place of lemon and black olives in place of green. (Nicoise for example)  Try them both and see which you prefer!

Bon Appetit!


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