Getting Figgy with Chicken

Figscolander

The first time I incorporated figs in savory dishes was when I saw this very recipe in Judy Rodger’s The Zuni Cafe book. Apparently, identifying good figs is an annual ritual at Zuni. Here is an excerpt in Judy’s own words about knowing when a fig is just right:

           “Look at them. Feel them. Plump can be good, but not unless they are really heavy for their size and they need to be tender.”

            A tentative squeeze.

            “Taste it. How is it? And that cracked one. It’s kind of light, but check anyway. How about that one, it looks flawless, and it’s heavy, but it is kind of hard. Taste it.”

            After a wary nibble, “Taste it, it’s not that great.”

            “Now look at that one. Shrunken and wrinkled is actually good, as long as it is heavy. ‘Pristine’ is usually not a good sign. If you look at pretty, you may miss the best ones. Just keep on tasting until you can tell. And then try to remember how ‘that look’ and ‘that feel’ taste.”

            Now if that does not make you want to go out and buy a couple of figs, I don’t know what will.

            I love the ease of braised dishes. Unlike baking or pastry, exact measurements are not necessary. It’s all a matter of taste. Braising temperatures and time are important though if you want to attain tender meat. I do find that for chicken, 375 F for 30-40 minutes is a pretty good setting. For beef and lamb, I usually set it at 300 F for at least 2 hours.

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Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey and Vinegar

From The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

For 4 servings

4 chicken legs (8 to 9 ounces each)

salt

about 2 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil

1 medium yellow onion

about ½ cup dry white wine

about 2 tbs. dry white vermouth

about ½ cup chicken stock

1 bay leaf

a sprig of fresh thyme

a few black peppercorns, barely cracked in a mortar

about 2 tbs cider vinegar

about 1 tbs. of honey

8 to 10 ripe figs

Seasoning the chicken. (12 to 24 hours in advance). Trim excess fat and season chicken evenly all over (about ¾ teaspoon salt per pound of chicken). Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Cooking the chicken.

Preheat the oven to 375 F

Pat the chicken legs dry; this will make them less likely to stick. Heat a scan 2 tbs. of olive oil in a 12 –inch skillet over medium-low heat, then add he chicken legs, skin side down. The oil should sizzle, not pop explosively, when you add the chicken. Adjusting the heat as necessary, cook until the skin is golden, about 8 minutes. Turn the legs over and color only slightly on the other side, about 4 minutes. Pour off the fat.

If your skillet is ovenproof, arrange the onion wedges in the spaces between the chicken legs; otherwise, transfer the chicken to a shallow flameproof braising dish that will easily hold the chicken and onions in a single layer. Add the wine, the vermouth, and enough stock to come to a depth of about ½ inch. Bring to a simmer and add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black peppercorns.

Place, uncovered, in the oven, and cook until the meat is tender but not quite falling off the bone, about 40 minutes. The exposed skin will have turned golden and crispy; the liquid ought to have reduced by about half. Remove from the oven and set on a slight tilt so the fat will collect at one side of the pan.

Combine the vinegar and honey and warm lightly. Taste. The vinegar should dominate, but without making you squint. Trim the stems and cut the figs in half.

Skim as much fat as possible from the braising liquid, then set the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and swirl as you reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. Distribute the figs evenly around the pan, add about 2 tablespoons of the vinegar-honey syrup, and swirl the pan to diffuse the bubbling, amber syrup without smashing the tender fruit. The sauce will be glossy. Taste- it should be vibrantly sour-sweet. Add more, or all of the syrup to taste. The vinegar adds a bright but unstable note of acidity, which will fade with boiling, so simmer for only a minute or less.

Cooking Notes:

I find this dish very versatile. You can just take this idea and add your own spin on it. I have tried this with dried figs and it worked out perfectly. I really think the finishing touch of the honey-vinegar mixture is the kicker that pushes this dish beyond being ordinary. Judy advises against using lavender honey because it is too persuasive (I guess she meant overpowering).

Oh, and don’t forget to have some nice peasant bread to sop up the sauce!

How I started to cook…

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George Bernard Shaw hit the nail right on the head when he said that “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” I discovered long ago that food is my number one passion in life. The eating of it has been my mission since childhood, but the cooking of it was a recent development in my adult life.

            It started that one fateful day on Dec 4, 2004 when my husband and I attended a special dinner to honor Patrick O’ Connell, chef-proprietor of the famed The Inn at Little Washington. We were presented with an amazing eight-course meal that included : apple-rutabaga soup, truffle-dusted Maine diver scallops, Osetra caviar over sorrel jelly, poached salmon, pistachio-crusted lamb chops, and lobster, among other things . Each dish was exquisite, surreal and carefully plated.

            It was also a twist of fate that I was seated next to a wonderful lady, J, who would soon be instrumental in elevating my taste in the sublime pleasures of quality food. All throughout the six-hour dinner extravaganza we were talking about food, meat suppliers and restaurants where we have had great meals. I mentioned the wagyu beef (kobe),which I found hard to obtain in Richmond, Va.She told me that, because she had a personal chef license, she could easily procure meat that was available only to fine restaurants. J was a frequent guest at "the inn" and she had spotted their supplier one day when she was over there. She obtained the relevant information needed to order from them and she had them delivering prime restaurant-grade fare straight to her doorstep in no time.

Thus, was born a relationship that continues to this day. At least every six weeks I will order the best cuts of meat and hard-to-find ingredients from J, which makes it easier for me to make the dishes that requires them.

She also recommended, in my opinion, one of the best cookbooks ever written and the book responsible for starting my culinary journey: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers.

Before I head down the path Ms. Rodgers has led me, let me reiterate that it has always been in my subconscious that I knew how to cook. How could I not when I am the daughter of two great cooks? I had always admired my parents’ cooking. My dad made the most succulent Chinese roast duck that had the crispiest skin. My mom was more of a baker but she could turn out a mean kare-kare, a Filipino dish which was essentially stewed ox-tails in a peanut sauce. Whenever I went home to the Philippines, I would make a special request for her to make this dish and it was always as tasty as I remembered it.

But I have to consider cuisine other than what was in my Chinese/Filipino heritage because my husband has a fondness for French and Mediterranean Cuisine – and so do I, as I soon discovered. The use of fresh herbs and elaborate sauces in French dishes is definitely a change of approach from soy sauce, fish sauce and sesame oil, which is so ubiquitous in Chinese/Filipino food.  You can just imagine how my pantry staples have grown. I have olive oil and sesame oil, balsamic vinegar and rice wine vinegar, demi-glace and soy sauce, different seasonings for different cuisines. I have not ventured out to Fusion cuisine which is more a combination of East and West flavors because I consider myself a purist, but I am also an evolving gastronome ;-) (at least in my mind), so I may be open to that in the future.

The Zuni Café cookbook was very helpful in easing me into Mediterranean cookery.

            Judy Rodger’s book is not just a compendium of recipes. It is more than that. Her explanations on the “whys” and “hows” of cooking are interspersed with interesting stories from her time spent at the kitchens of famous restaurants and farmhouses of France, Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean. Through her experiences, she offers an insight into how she developed her skills, and it makes me believe that maybe …just maybe … those skills can become my own one day.

The most important concept I have gleaned from this book is the positive effect of salting early. This method, done properly, results in the most succulent and tasty meat one can ever prepare. I have always used this concept in most of my cooking and it has never failed me. It involves basically ¾ teaspoon of salt for every pound of meat salted for 24 hours. Salting early does not dry out the meat. Though it draws out moisture initially, after a lengthy amount of time, in this case 24 hours, the moisture is infused back into the flesh through reverse osmosis, plumping it so that it is almost impossible to dry out. I’ve used this method for roast chicken, rib roasts, duck breasts even roast turkey–with phenomenal results.

The second most important concept is to form a habit of tasting what you cook.  A cook who does not taste his creations but merely adds spices to it because a recipe tells him to will never develop his palate enough to create his own recipes. A cook needs to know how a spice or an herb will affect a dish and it is only through constant tasting that this is attained.

             My experience with this book actually came full circle when my husband and I visited San Francisco and had dinner at the Zuni Café. We ordered the popular Roast Chicken on Warm Bread Salad which was also our favorite to prepare at home. I am pleased to say that the chicken we prepared at home tasted better than what we had at the restaurant (of course this our own opinion). Our chicken had a crispier skin and tastier meat. Truly, there is nothing like homemade food!

Though I have since moved on from the basic and not-so-basic techniques I have learned from Judy Rodgers’ book (though her methods on polenta and risotto are still my favorite), when I am asked what made me the cook I am today, I still refer to the time when I depended solely upon one book for all my cooking ideas – The Zuni Café Cookbook.

             So now even as I present to you the recipe that started it all, I strongly recommend adding this priceless book to your collection. You will not regret it.

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Zuni Roast Chicken over Warm Bread Salad

            from the Zuni Café by Judy Rodgers

This versatile roast chicken depends on three things for its success: the size of the bird which should be 2 ¾ to 3 ½ lbs., a high roasting temperature which will only work if your bird is small (they flourish at high heat) because it has enough skin per ounce of meat to guarantee succulence and last, not to sound like a broken record, is to salt at least 24 hours in advance. Anywhere from 1 to 3 days is optimal. Depending on the size of your bird, if it is more than 3 ¼ lbs. then 2 days is better.

If the chicken is more about the technique, the bread salad is more about the recipe. How Miss Rodgers came up with the sensory play of the texture and flavors for this salad is beyond me: the crunchy exterior of the bread, its soft chewy center, the taste of toasted pine nuts and the nuances of garlic and scallions finished off by the chicken juices and the tart vinaigrette dressing over a mix of salad greens… superb is an understatement!

Ingredients for the roast chicken:

·         4 sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary, marjoram or sage about ½ inch long

·         Salt

·         ¼ tsp freshly cracked black pepper

·         1 tbs of water

Ingredients for the salad:

·         8 ounces slightly stale, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)

·         6 to 8 tbs mild-tasting olive oil

·         1 ½ tbs champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar

·         Salt and freshly-cracked black pepper

·         1 tbs dried currants

·         1 tsp red wine vinegar, or as needed

·         1 tbs warm water

·         2 tbs pine nuts

·         2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered

·         ¼ cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part

·         2 tbs lightly salted Chicken stock or lightly salted water

·         A few handfuls of arugula, frisee, or red mustard greens, carefully washed and dried

Seasoning the chicken (1 to 3 days before serving):

1.      Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough- a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.

2.      Approaching the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh and with your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

3.      Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper (3/4 tsp salt per pound of chicken). Season the thick sections a little more than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but don’t otherwise worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

Starting the bread salad (up to several hours in advance) :

Preheat the broiler.

1.      Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks. Carve off all of the bottom and most of the top and side crust. Brush the sides all over with olive oil. Broil very briefly to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread chunks over and crisp the other side. Trim off any badly charred tips , then tear the chunks into a couple of irregular  2- to 3- inch wads, bite size bits and fat chunks. You should have about 4 cups.

2.      Combine about ¼ cup of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1 /4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.

3.      Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set aside.

Roasting the chicken and assembling the salad:

1.      Preheat the oven to 475 °F (Depending on your oven your temperature may vary)

2.      Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or a dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Preheat the pan over the stove top at medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.

3.      Place in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to recrisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to an hour.

4.      While the chicken is roasting, place the pine nuts in a small baking dish and set in the hot oven for a minute or two, just to warm through. Add them to the bowl of bread.

5.      Place a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold in. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread – a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well. Since the basic character of the bread salad depends on the bread you use, these adjustments can be essential.

6.      Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil; set the salad bowl aside. Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time.

Finishing and serving the chicken and bread salad:

1.      Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Leave the bread salad to continue warming for another 5 minutes or so.

2.      Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.

3.      Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings.

4.      Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stovetop), and leave to rest while you finish the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.

5.      Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.

6.      Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste – the juices will be extremely flavorful.

7.      Tip the bread salad into the salad bowl. (It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle wads, and a few downright crispy ones.) Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well. Taste again.

8.      Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warm platter, and nestle the chicken in the salad.

Cooking Notes:

Where to start? Judy Rodgers instructions’ are so clear…there is really nothing else to add. They may appear wordy but no text is wasted. Her eloquence is very engaging and you are drawn to read the entire book cover to cover. The first time I made this chicken, it turned out so well, I felt like a chef!

One thing I did differently was to chop up all the herbs and mixed them together to put under the skin of the chicken. And she is so right in saying that salting inside the cavity is not that important.

The chicken I used for this is about 3 lbs. I used approximately 2 ¼ tsp of salt and baked the chicken from start to finish at 450 °F on a 10-inch All-Clad skillet. By the 25-minute mark the chicken was well-browned and the skin had begun to blister.  I took it out and flipped the chicken on its breast and cooked for 15 minutes this way. For the final turn of the chicken which was breast-side up again, I baked it for an additional 15 minutes to recrisp the skin. When I took the chicken out of oven I immediately stuck a thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, it read 190°F. At first I thought “Holy Crap! Did I over cook it?” No, I did not ;-).

I let the chicken rest for about 10 minutes before I cut into it. Juices were still flowing and the breast meat was so tender it almost fell apart. The flavor was evident all the way to the bone. A good sign of a well-cooked chicken is when you can easily chew off the cartilage from the bone and still have juicy meat.

Another good meal awaited the occupants of the Test Kitchen.

I did not have black currants available to use for the salad but it tasted phenomenal without it anyway and I think I finally got all the other flavors of the bread salad down pat. I tasted the heck out of this (it was amazing that there was actually some left for the actual dinner)…so do not skip this step. Taste. Taste. Taste.

When we finally partook of the meal (after a torturous moment of photos – the aroma and the golden brown skin was just killing us), the sound of pleasure that emanated deep from our throats as we took each eager bite of the roast chicken and the bread salad could be almost defined as pornographic. No kidding!

I have finally approached the making of this dish with Zen-like serenity. I was telling the “hungry” hubby how I laid out the chicken and admired its pink flesh and light yellow fat peeking out through perfect skin. I lovingly rubbed the salt on and beseeched it to offer up its best flavor to me… and you know what …it sure did!

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