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Braised chicken offers simple brilliance

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Chicken thighs with apricots, lemon and saffron. Braising is extremely flexible, and it follows a formula. There is an art to it, but since a good braise is so utterly, deliciously succulent, learning how is painless.

Some of the most skilled cooks I know — people who confidently roast, grill and fry — balk at the notion of braising. They think it’s more mysterious or fussy than other cooking methods. The opposite is true: Braising is extremely flexible, and it follows a formula.

There is an art to it. But since a good braise is so utterly, deliciously succulent, learning how is painless.

You need only understand the process. It involves gently simmering vegetables, fish, fowl or meat (or a combination) with a small amount of liquid, usually in a covered pot. Braising chicken is a good place to start, and it’s a lot easier than you’d think.

Indisputably, the best part of the bird for this project is the thigh: It is the most succulent cut. Though a whole chicken chopped in pieces can be braised, skip the heartache of overcooked breast meat and stick to thighs; your fellow diners will thank you.

A chicken thigh is nearly impossible to overcook. There is forgiveness — 10 minutes longer in the oven simply means a little more tenderness. Thighs can also be cooked ahead and successfully reheated, often gaining juiciness and depth in the process. I am not, however, referring to skinless, boneless thighs. You want skin-on, bone-in meat. Fat and bone both impart flavor.

You’ll want to season the meat and brown it in a pan, then add onions or other vegetables. Moisten it all with water, tomatoes, broth or wine and bake in a covered dish for an hour, until the meat gives no resistance when probed with a fork. Uncover the dish and bake another 10 to 15 minutes to give the dish more color and to concentrate the cooking liquid.

With this template in mind, let your imagination go. Dream up a braised chicken with thyme sprigs, braised chicken with tomatoes and peppers, or braised chicken with wild mushrooms.

Lately, I have had my heart set on tangy braised chicken with apricots, lightly perfumed with saffron and very lemony. I imagined some commingling of Persian and North African spices.

Using the method I’ve outlined produced a remarkably flavorful braise. Adding a few coriander seeds, fennel seeds and cardamom pods changed the feel. Much more than the sum of its parts, this dish has a complexity that belies its easy preparation.

CHICKEN WITH APRICOTS, LEMON AND SAFFRON

  • 6 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 2 pounds total), fat trimmed
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 large onion, diced (1-1/2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup tomato puree
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon green cardamom pods
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 6 ounces dried apricots (1 cup)
  • 2 small lemons, thinly sliced (unpeeled)
  • Cilantro leaves, for garnish
  • Mint leaves, for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, for garnish (optional)

Season chicken generously on both sides with salt and pepper. (If time permits, do this an hour before cooking or up to 24 hours in advance. Keep refrigerated, but remove from refrigerator 1 hour before cooking.)

In a large skillet over medium heat, place chicken pieces skin-side down in one layer. Let cook slowly to brown well on one side, 15 to 20 minutes. When skin is crisp and lifts easily from the pan, flip and cook 2 minutes more.

Meanwhile, make saffron water: In a small cup, combine saffron with lemon juice and 1/4 cup water. Set aside to steep.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer chicken, skin-side up, to a baking dish.

Reserve about 2 tablespoons fat in skillet; pour off rest. Add onions, salt lightly and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes.

Add saffron water and threads, tomato puree, cayenne, coriander, fennel, cardamom and wine; bring to a simmer.

Pour onion mixture over chicken. Tuck apricots and lemon slices among chicken pieces. Cover tightly and bake 1 hour.

Remove cover and bake until lightly browned, 10-15 minutes. (Recipe can be prepared to this point up to 2 days ahead. When ready to serve, reheat in a 350-degree oven, in a covered pot, 30 to 45 minutes.)

To serve, garnish with cilantro and mint leaves. Sprinkle with pine nuts and serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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