Chef Gabrielle Hamilton shares a delicious recipe for braised chicken legs.
braised chickenThe Classic Dish Coq Au Vin, in which a whole tough older bird -usually a rooster - is cooked in wine, must be the ancestor to this lesser-known dish, in which just the meaty legs of a sturdy hen are cooked in vinegar. The practice of pouring whatever wine you are drinking into the pot of whatever you are cooking is sensible and symmetrical. The food will taste good with the wine once at the table.
But since we don't habitually drink vinegar (although on certain obnoxious and unbearable New York City summer days, I have been possessed to mix it with club soda and sugar and chug it), it is hardly likely that you will have an open bottle sitting on your counter waiting to be poured into the pot! Wine vinegar in the pot ruins the taste of wine in the glass - it's too incestuous. But tart apple cider vinegar will marry quite satisfactorily with its younger sibling - hard cider - so when you bring this pot to the table, be sure to have used apple cider vinegar and to choose an excellent hard cider to drink alongside. Otherwise, you will have transgressed - tastewise, that is - from taboo to criminal.
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This late into the winter braising season, I have bumped up more than once against "rich and fatty fatigue syndrome," so I tend to cook fewer beef short ribs and lamb shanks and more rabbits and hens. In this dish, the relative lightness of the chicken stock and the zing of the cornichons - after a long winter of dark brown glossy sauce - feels a bit like the first day you notice the light of day lengthening, even if just by 5 or 10 minutes.
Use substantial, meaty legs, with bright, clean flesh. If there is papery yellow skin on the backs of the ankles, peel it off with your fingernail. A 14- or 15-ounce chicken leg will remind you of some sports trophy you won in high school - they really are quite big! - so make sure your pan is large enough to hold them all comfortably.
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At first, when you taste for seasoning, the vinegar will hit you in the back of the throat, but as the dish braises and the legs release their juices into the cooking liquid, the bite will soften considerably, so don't hedge. When you add the hard cider, however, taste frequently. Hard cider is one of the most popular emerging beverages on the market, and while the really fine ciders from Normandy are dry and tannic, many domestic supermarket brands are soda-pop sweet. As there is already salt in the dish - and pepper - you should take care adding the cider. You may be essentially just adding apple-y sugar - and in my experience, sugar, salt, and pepper in the same dish is a tricky combination to balance properly.
Try to get a good cider that tastes of real, tart fermented apple. And enjoy this bright and cheerful tail end of the braising season, both in the pot and in your glass.
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4 large chicken legs, approximately 14 ounces each, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 cup of cornichons in their brine, sliced a few times lengthwise
1 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 cup cider vinegar
1 quart excellent-quality chicken stock
1 12-ounce bottle excellent-quality hard cider
¼ cup olive oil
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped at the last minute before serving
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to tasteDirections
1. Heat a heavy-bottomed, wide pan (one with a tight-fitting lid that is just large enough to hold all four legs comfortably) over medium heat for a full minute.
2. Add the olive oil. The oil should streak and ripple subtly when the pan is hot enough to cook in.
3. Add the seasoned chicken legs to the hot pan, skin-side down. There should be a moderate hiss when the meat hits the pan. Don't touch or move them for the first few minutes.
4. Brown the chicken legs on both sides, taking care not to tear the skin when turning.
5. Remove the browned meat to a platter. Pour off any fat from the pan and discard. Return the pan to the burner and reduce heat to low.
6. Add shallots to the pan and stir to prevent burning. Some of the nice brown bits from the pan will start to coat the shallots.
7. Add the cornichons and their brine and continue stirring, loosening all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Adjust the heat so the liquid is simmering gently.
8. Arrange the browned chicken legs in one layer in the pan, pour in the vinegar, the chicken stock, and the hard cider, and then gently stir in and around the legs to bring all of the goodies together: shallots, cornichons, and liquids.
9. Season the contents of the pan with more salt and pepper to taste - the broth should be bright with acid and rich from chicken stock, and with as much salt and pepper needed to not taste wan or washed-out.
10. Bring the contents of the pan to a gentle simmer, cover tightly, slightly reduce the heat, and allow to braise on the stove top for 30 minutes.
11. Remove the lid and check the doneness of the meat by wiggling the leg and noticing its flexibility at the thigh joint. The meat of the drumstick should also be separating from the bone. Re-cover and continue cooking another 10 minutes if needed to get meat that is just shy of falling off the bone.
12. Transfer chicken to plates. Scatter the cubes of butter into the sauce and stir. Spoon sauce over the chicken. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley before serving.
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