We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. I know I do. After all, I try to write a new post about every seven to ten days and frequently I have a hard time coming up with something new to write about. Cooking is that way too. Life gets in the way. Between work, the daily schlep to school, homework, soccer practice, and everything else in between, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the temptation to pick up the phone and order a pizza. And when one does summon up the energy to cook dinner, it is very easy to throw a piece of chicken on the grill or open a box of Kraft mac-n-cheese—not that there’s anything wrong with Kraft mac-n-cheese!
But there’s a way of cooking that has been around a long time that results in a good meal and allows for a bit of relaxing. I’m talking about braising. Braising is a cooking method that uses a little liquid and barely simmers at a low temp on the top of the stove or in the oven. In other words, long and low. The great thing about braising is that it gives you time to help the kids with homework, grab a cocktail, or if you are sans kids, play a quick game of Assassins Creed.
Braising is a very old method of cooking that has changed over time. Originally, braising was carried out directly on the hearth, cooking food slowly in hot embers. Fortunately for your local fire department, braising no longer requires an open hearth. While braising was typically used for tough pieces of beef, it also works well with tender chicken or fish, especially turbot or halibut. Braising can occur on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the stovetop, but either way you should use a good heavy bottom pot. A Dutch oven (Staub or Le Crueset) is a must.
Going back to life getting in the way of a good meal…
I keep a Costco-sized bag of frozen chicken breasts in the freezer for quick night dinners. Now, I know that nothing is more banal in our modern, homogenized world than skinless, chicken breasts. But they are convenient. And here’s where the braising comes in handy. With this technique, you can transform that boring chicken breast into a pretty decent meal. Of course, skin-on chicken thighs or chicken legs are the bomb when it comes to braising! But in a pinch, at 7:00PM on a Monday night with fractions and spelling practice closing in, the chicken breast will have to do.
After I’ve thawed the chicken breasts in a bath of hot water for about 15 minutes, I pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper and lightly coat them with flour. Then it’s time for a good sear in the Dutch oven using about two tablespoons of olive oil. (Maybe if no one is watching, I will use a bit of butter! Like Julia Child, I love butter!) After browning the chicken breasts on both sides, I remove them from the Dutch oven and set them aside. I then add some onion, garlic and mushrooms, and sauté until browned. I’ll then de-glaze the Dutch oven with some white wine, vermouth, or white port. (If you’ve never cooked with vermouth, you’re missing out!) At this point, I add chicken stock, fresh thyme, parsley, and maybe a bit more white wine or vermouth. The amount of liquid should cover half or 3/4th of the chicken. I braise on the stove top at very low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half.
When finished, I remove the chicken and add some flour to thicken the sauce. Another approach is to strain the liquid and remove the excess fat and reduce if necessary. Beurre manié (roux) can also be added, but this seems to defeat the whole purpose.
What do I call this concoction? French chicken, of course! But you could just as easily think of it as your easy working day meal, simpler to prepare than you think and more rewarding than another pizza delivery.