Saturday, February 27, 2010

Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Couscous, and Dates

So I recently decided that I need to stop farting around, and finalize the list of 10 cookbooks. I had decided to drop Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen because while I liked the savory aspect of some of the desserts, the rest of the book was just not too interesting.

Sunday Suppers at Lucques is a book that is frequently highly praised, so I figured I'd check it out. The library doesn't have it , so I went out on a limb and bought it sight unseen. I am so glad I did, because SSaL is full of exactly the kind of food I feel like eating right now, and the recipes are involved enough to keep me interested without overwhelming me.

I use little post-it tabs to mark the recipes that I would like to make in a book. This is Sunday Suppers at Lucques:

It almost seems silly to have those little stickies there, as almost every page is marked.
This was Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen:

Obviously, not so interesting.
This means that it's time for a random recipe. What did the random number generator say?

Page 141, Summer Squash Gratin with Gruyere and Salsa Verde
This recipe sounds great, and I was planning on making it anyway. It sounds like it will be perfect with some grilled meat or fish. Please come soon, summer.

I also decided to add Mario Batali's Italian Grill to the list, rather than his Babbo cookbook. I like the Babbo cookbook, but I was finding that the list could really use a book with quick, practical recipes that aren't dumbed down. We love to grill, so the Italian Grill looks perfect.

For Italian Grill, the random number generator says that it likes page 75: Foccacina with Coppa and Apricots. I won't explain what it is because I'll be making it later, but it sounds awesome, and it's something I wouldn't have necessarily picked without the number generator.

I decided that the inaugural recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques would be Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Couscous, and Dates because it is unfortunately still winter, so I liked the idea of braising.
Plus, the meal was overall economical because I already had some saffron and it sounded light and bright enough to counter the end-of-winter doldrums. Also, Nick wasn't sure what time he'd get home and a braised meal can be held indefinitely.

The night before cooking the meal, the chicken legs were rubbed with paprika, cilantro, freshly ground cumin and coriander, a crushed chile de arbol, fresh thyme, and garlic. Okay, I used just chicken thighs. And I thought that I had coriander seeds, but it turns out that I didn't.

I did, however, have cumin seeds, so they were toasted and ground. The freshly toasted and ground cumin seeds were about a billion times more fresh, potent, and savory than the ground coriander, so I was actually quite sad that I didn't have the right ingredients.

Because my car was in the shop to prevent it from blowing up, I couldn't just run out and get what I needed. Like fresh thyme. Wow, I suck. I have no idea how I managed to not get fresh thyme, but I'm just all-around lame so far on this recipe.

Nonetheless, the spice rub smelled fantastic. Unfortunately, it also made the fridge smell, so by the time I cooked the chicken, I was almost tired of it.

I'll stop my whining and tell you about the preserved lemons that I also made. Actually, I won't tell you much about them because it's top secret until March 14th.

I will tell you that Meyer lemons were blanched in boiling water for 4 minutes. The recipe said 5 minutes, but they were really small lemons.

When they were cool enough to handle, they were to be cut in wedges and tossed with kosher salt. I cut them in pinwheels, though, because I thought it would be prettier. Hopefully the pinwheel shape won't result in too much maceration.

They were then crammed into a jar and covered with lemon juice. This jar will sit on the counter for 5 days, at which point some olive oil will be added, and they'll go in the fridge for up to a year.

Maybe less if I decide they're nasty. You see, I've never had preserved lemons before, so I don't quite know what to expect. I should probably test them before giving them to my family in order to make sure I'm not going to give anyone botulism-laced lemons. It will be an anaerobic environment in there, after all.

The next day, I started by searing the chicken thighs. The chicken thighs were removed to a plate, and some bay leaves, sliced fennel and onion were sauteed...

Speaking of fennel, Suzanne Goin mentions in her book that she uses fennel rather than celery when she makes a miropoix. This was a revelation to me, because the celery in miripoix has always bugged me. First of all, it just doesn't taste that great. Also, I buy a whole bunch of celery only to use a few stalks, and the rest of it frequently goes bad because it's not very good for the bunnies to eat. The fennel solution is just brilliant because I prefer the taste, and I've lately always had it around. Nick wasn't as impressed by this as I was, but I still think it's pretty cool.
...So when the fennel and onions were soft, tomatoes were added, then white wine and sherry, then chicken stock and cilantro, and the thighs were returned to the pot.

The chicken thighs went in the oven for an hour and a half, and the onions for the saffron onions were sliced. In the meantime, the saffron was toasted. Suzanne Goin cautions you not to burn the 'precious' saffron. I won't burn it, I think to myself. And I have the perfect amount to use half tonight and half for the meal I'm planning for Tuesday.

What's that smell? Oh. Burnt saffron.

So I started over, and when the saffron was properly toasted, it was combined with some olive oil and butter. The onions were added, along with a bay leaf, a crushed chile de arbol, some fresh (ahem) thyme, and some salt and pepper. Despite the addition of the other spices, the saffron in the onions still caused them to smell like plastic to me.

Yes, I think that the most expensive spice in the world smells and tastes like plastic. I keep trying it in the hope that my taste buds will have changed, but no luck so far.

The onions cooked until they were soft and sweet, and in the meantime, I made the date relish by slicing dates and tossing them with olive oil, lemon juice, cilantro, parsley, salt and pepper.

When the chicken was meltingly tender, the sauce was reduced and the couscous was prepared. Goin tells you to strain the vegetables out of the sauce, but we decided that we would be "rustic" and un-Frenchy and leave them in.

We also decided to use regular couscous as opposed to the Italian couscous that Goin suggests, because Whole Foods didn't have the recommended 'fregola.' Next time, however, I would love to hunt down some Italian couscous, as Goin says that it has a nutty flavor that would have been just perfect with this dish.

When the couscous was cooked and over-salted (sorry, Nick!), it was plated with the onions on top of the couscous, the chicken and its sauce on top of the onions, and the date relish on top of the chicken.

How was it? Lovely. All of the flavors combined in a way that made the whole more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps most surprising was how perfect the date relish was. I hadn't been sure that I would like it, but it rounded out all of the other flavors and added a spark of freshness. Nick felt that the saffron onions were a bit overpowering, and I thought they still tasted like plastic, so maybe we'll leave out the saffron next time. I might also cut back a bit on the paprika.

Overall, this meal made me very excited to try some more recipes from this book.

Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Italian Couscous, and Dates
(From Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 chicken legs with thighs attached
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sliced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 chile de arbol, crumbled
  • 2 teaspoons bittersweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced onion
  • 1 cup sliced fennel
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped San Marzano canned tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/3 cup sherry
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves
  • Italian couscous (recipe below)
  • Saffron onions (recipe below)
  • Date relish (recipe below)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast the cumin seeds in a small pan for a few minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and are lightly browned. Using a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder), pound them coarsely. Repeat with the coriander seeds.

Place the chicken in a large bowl with the smashed garlic, thyme, parsley, crumbled chile, cumin, coriander, and paprika. Using you hands, toss the chicken and spices together to coat the chicken well. Cover, and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking, to allow it to come to room temperature. After 15 minutes, season the chicken on all sides with 1 teaspoon salt and lots of pepper.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for a minute or so. Swirl in the olive oil, and when it's shimmering, place the chicken legs, skin side down, in the pan, and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. (If your pan is too small for all the legs to fit, brown them in batches so you don't overcrowd them.)

Every so often, swirl the oil and rendered fat around the pan. Turn the legs over, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook 2 minutes on the second side. Arrange the chicken (in one layer) in a braising dish. The chicken legs should just fit the pan.

Pour off some of the fat and return the sauté pan to medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, and bay leaves. Cook 6 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are lightly caramelized. Add the tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes, stirring and scraping with a wooden spoon. Add the sherry vinegar, white wine, and sherry. Turn the heat up to high and reduce by half. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

Add the cilantro and pour the broth and vegetables over the chicken, scraping off any of the vegetables that have fallen on the chicken back into the liquid. The liquid should not quite cover the chicken. Cover the pan very tightly with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid, if you have one. Braise in the oven 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

To check the chicken for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the steam. Pierce a piece of the chicken  with a paring knife. If the meat is done, it will yield easily and be tender but not quite falling off the bone.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees.
Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet, and return it to the oven to brown for about 10 minutes.

Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with a ladle to extract all the juices. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, to thicken it slightly.

Place the hot couscous on a large warm platter. Spoon the saffron onions over it, and arrange the chicken on top. Ladle some of the juices over the chicken, and top each leg with a spoonful of date relish. Serve the extra broth and date relish on the side.

Italian Couscous

  • 2 1/2 cups Italian couscous, or fregola sarda
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat.
Add the couscous and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until tender but still al dente.
Drain the couscous, return it to the pot, and toss with the butter, parsley, and a pinch of pepper. Taste for seasoning.

Saffron Onions

  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 cups sliced onions (about 1 1/4 pounds)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 chile de arbol, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast the saffron threads in a small pan over meduim heat until they just dry out and become brittle. Be careful not to burn the saffron. Pound the saffron in a mortar to a fine powder. Dab a tablespoon of the butter into the powder, using the butter to pick up the saffron.

Heat a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, remaining butter, and saffron. When the butter foams, add the onions, bay leaf, chile, thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and some pepper. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often as the onions wilt. Turn the heat down to low, and cook another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and sweet. Taste for seasoning.

Date Relish

  • 1/2 cup Deglet Noor dates
  • 2 tablespoons super-good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons sliced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon sliced cilantro
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pit the dates, and slice them thinly lengthwise.
Toss the dates with the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and cilantro. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and some pepper.

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