Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lazy Monday

All right, maybe "Lazy Monday Night" would have been more appropriate, but it just didn't have the same ring to it.

Artichaut Breton

Ever since our friend Jesper posted a comment on the subject a couple of weeks back, we’ve been obsessed with preparing a dish utilizing the "laziest simmer" imaginable. We haven’t gotten around to making such a dish yet, but today we felt like cooking something nice for dinner, so we leafed through a couple of the cookbooks we’ve had kicking around in recent weeks, before finally settling on a recipe that made use of a fairly lazy simmer (a fairly lazy simmer for a work night, at least). The book we turned to was Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef, which is yet another one of the books we’ve had on loan from our friend Étienne for an ungodly amount of time now, and which, apparently, is among his favorite cookbooks. And the recipe we turned to was Colicchio’s Slow-Braised Chicken with Artichokes. We’ve really enjoyed reading Think Like a Chef. It’s organized in a manner I’d never encountered before, with sections entitled Techniques, Studies, Trilogies, Component Cooking, and A Few Favorites, and while the book as a whole is very attractive indeed, chock-full of tempting recipes of all sorts, we’ve been particularly intrigued by the Studies and Trilogies sections, which involve thinking creatively with particular foundational ingredients or particular combinations of ingredients, encouraging you to develop a repertoire with these set ingredients. We made a few minor changes to Colicchio’s Slow-Braised Chicken—out of necessity more than anything else—just enough to warrant a slight name change, but we really liked the looks of the recipe so we tried to stay as true to it as possible. Here goes:

Lazily Braised Chicken with Artichokes

2 tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 chicken legs
4 chicken thighs
1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into eighths
3 carrots, peeled and cut into fourths
3 celery stalks, peeled and cut into fourths
4 garlic cloves, peeled
4 sprigs of fresh thyme plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup Italian parsley, minced
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
4 braised artichokes (recipe follows)
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof skillet (we used our large cast-iron pan) over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Salt and pepper the chicken on both sides, then brown the chicken, about 7 minutes per side. We were able to do this in one batch because our pan is plenty big enough, but you may have to do this in batches. When your chicken pieces have been browned, transfer them to a plate.

Pour off some of the fat, leaving just enough to coat the skillet (you’ll need about 2 tbsp worth to do this). Add the onion, carrots, celery, and a little salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables soften and begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and half of the herbs and cook for 3 to 5 minutes more. Arrange the chicken in the skillet, skin-side up, on top of the vegetables.

Add enough stock to come up to but not over the chicken and bring it to a simmer on top of the stove. Transfer the skillet to the oven and simmer lazily, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, adding more stock if the pan begins to look dry.

[Note: here, if you’re not still busy with the Braised Artichokes, you’ve got a while to relax. In fact, you’ve got just enough time to bust out some wine, some crackers and cheese, and do some reading. We know. We tried it.]

Add the artichokes, the remaining herbs, and the butter. Cook for another 15 minutes, basting the chicken frequently. When the chicken is done it will be very tender and well browned, and the braising liquid will have thickened. Serve the chicken with the braising liquid and vegetables, along with rice or greens or some other side dish, and garnish with additional fresh herbs.

Serves 4

Artichokes Braised in Olive Oil and White Wine

3 lemons
8 large artichokes
1 medium yellow onion, peeled
2 small leeks, rinsed, tops trimmed, green outer leaves discarded, and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 small carrots, peeled
2 slices of bacon (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled
freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of fresh tarragon
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 3/4 cups dry white wine

Combine the juice of 2 1/2 of the lemons and 2 quarts of water in a large bowl. Trim each artichoke, removing the stem, leaves, and choke and rubbing from time to time with the remaining half lemon (to keep them from turning brown). Set the trimmed artichoke bottoms aside in the lemon water.

Cut the onion lengthwise then slice it thinly. Quarter the leeks lengthwise then cut them into thin strips 2 inches long. Thinly slice the celery and carrots.

Render the bacon for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, then add 1/4 cup of the oil. [If you’re not using bacon, just use the full amount of oil and heat it over medium heat.] Add the onion, leeks, celery, and carrots to the pot. Season them with salt, then reduce the heat to medium-low and slowly cook the vegetables, stirring from time to time, until they are tender but not brown, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Drain the artichokes and add them to the pot. Add a little more salt and pepper, enough olive oil to coat the artichokes (roughly 2 tbsp), the bay leaves, and half the tarragon and thyme. Mix gently and arrange the artichokes in a single layer. Pour in the wine and enough water to cover the artichokes, about 2 cups, and bring to a simmer. Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat, and gently simmer until the artichokes can be easily pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes.

Chop the remaining tarragon and thyme coarsely. Add the herbs to the artichokes and remove the pot from the heat. Allow artichokes to cook slowly in the braising liquid, then garnish with the aromatic vegetables (the carrots, leeks, etc.) and some additional herbs.

[Note: there’s no reason to discard the artichoke leaves entirely when you prepare your chokes. Do what we did. Put a bunch of the nicest leaves aside and steam them while you finish preparing the Braised Artichokes. When they’ve steamed to the point that they’re just tender, serve them with some mayonnaise as a dipping sauce. There’s no better snack while you’re lazily braising that chicken.]

These artichokes can be used in a variety of ways. They can be served as an appetizer or accompanying dish, either at room temperature, chilled, or warmed. They can also form a foundation for a dish such as the Slow-Braised Chicken recipe above, or anyone of a number of other dishes Colicchio lists: from Artichoke Vinaigrette, to Quick-Braised Striped Bass with Artichokes and Zucchini, to Artichoke and Tomato Gratin. Finally, Colicchio recommends using the braising liquid with imagination to make other dishes.

Vegetarians, omit the bacon and you have yourselves a delicate and wonderfully balanced side which is also ideal as a base for stews and pasta dishes (again, think Mediterranean), such as the Orecchiette with Artichokes, Cabbage, and Cranberry Beans included by Colicchio.

One last thing: you can use the same basic method outlined above to braise a whole host of other “white vegetables,” such as cauliflower, endive, fennel, or white asparagus instead of the artichokes. Colicchio urges his readers to stick to these white vegetables, though, “as green vegetables will turn brown.”

How did it all turn out? We loved the braised artichokes. Michelle was able to score some particularly nice artichokes from the restaurant, so we had ideal specimens to work with. Once you got past preparing the artichokes, which took a bit of time for novices like ourselves, the recipe was very manageable, even for a Monday night. And the Mediterranean feel of the final dish was just what the doctor ordered. I can’t wait until the artichokes flood the markets again later this year. This time we’ll be even more ready than ever. The chicken was flat-out fabulous. Everything turned out exactly according to plan, the vegetables were quite literally like candy (especially those carrots), and the chicken that resulted was succulent, juicy, perfectly seasoned, and literally falling off the bone, with a crispy, flavorful skin we haven’t seen since we visited the legendary Zuni Café in San Francisco this past summer. Very highly recommended.


illustration: Artichaut Breton by Eduardo Ruiz, 1969


Anonymous said...

I don't know AJ, the last 3 times I bought fresh artichokes & steamed them to serve "nature" or with mayo, they had a slight bitter aftertaste that made it quite unappealing.
Maybe it's because they are picked immature??
Did you experience that?
Anonymous in Ottawa

michelle said...

We did not have any bitterness to the leaves we steamed, but it could be because we only used the tender inner leaves, and separated them from the stalk. I have had this bitterness before when steaming them whole, and usually add salt and lemon juice to the cooking water to counteract this. Good luck! It's worth trying again.