I re-stumbled upon the writer Joyce Maynard recently when she popped up in the middle of the movie Salinger. Because I recalled reading a few things of hers while growing up which I liked, I was inspired to look her up to refresh my memory of her voice. I found a hilariously pert essay about her attempts at cooking Julia Child’s “Chicken Melon” – an affair that required her blowing of the skin off a chicken through its behind that left me in stitches.
It reminded me why I like making complicated recipes, because I never know what kind of adventure will ensue in the process. I’ll never forget making gnudi from scratch with my good friend Charlotte one afternoon as her daughter was potty training and continued to present us with “packages” she was proud of in her plastic baby toilet. Her tiny little poos looking just like the ricotta pasta we were painstakingly trying to extrude from mushy lumps of dough and a pastry bag. I know it’s taboo to talk about bodily functions alongside making dinner but that occasion made it clear to me that even if the meal doesn’t pull itself off for serving, the comedy alone can make it all worthwhile.
Of course now that I actually live with someone I have to be a little more considerate of my risks in the kitchen. While making dinner for me, I am also making dinner for two, so I can’t just go off on a whim without some kind of notion that the end result is going to be satisfactory to all.
I’ve talked a bit about the fact that I am now banned from certain recipe resources online due to an overactive zeal towards making any old recipe that looked good to me, as was my habit of the past. This rule keeps me from making things that are off proportionately or come from places I shouldn’t fully trust. There are a lot of people out there making things they might like but that I do not. Although I enjoy reading many eclectic food blogs such as David Lebovitz, Foodie Underground, Christy Majors, Food and Think from the Smithsonian, Tastespotting (for the visual food porn alone), Nouveau Raw, Linnet Moss, and Kansas City Gravy Company, I am more prone to frequent them for the personalities of the writers and stories of the food rather than to find something to put in the oven. I have also become such a discerning foodie over the past year that when I do cook I want to make sure that it will at least taste good so the tried and true of Cook’s Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Gourmet’s archives, Dorrie Greenspan’s and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks are to what I turn.
Food and Wine online continues to be a trusted source, which is where I recently ran across a Coq Au Riesling made with the sweeter wine and crème fraiche. Chicken oftentimes plays center stage in our household and I’d wanted to develop a signature poultry dish that I could call my own and make time and again as a classic. The Cute Gardener has a miraculous fried chicken, a homey shredded Asian-style on rice and a tangy Mediterranean tomato and olives version so I was looking for a French or Italian rendition. In true Unorthodox Foodie fashion, this one brought out all of my usual culinary attributes like taking more than an hour and more than a handful of pots, pans, plates, utensils and equipment to prepare and cook. Much to the Cute Gardener’s simultaneous curiosity, fear, dread and delight; that’s typically the sign that I am in the kitchen.
4 pounds chicken legs, split
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 1/2 cups dry Riesling
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mixed mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup crème fraîche
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Finely chopped tarragon, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 300°. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large, enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. Add half of the chicken and cook over moderately high heat, turning, until browned, 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Cook the remaining chicken, then pour off the fat and wipe out the casserole.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil in the casserole. Add the onion, carrot, celery and shallots and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 1 minute, scraping up the browned bits from the pot. Add the chicken stock and thyme and bring to a boil.
Nestle the chicken in the casserole; cover and braise in the oven for 1 hour, until tender.
Meanwhile, in a very large skillet, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook over high heat, without stirring, until well browned, 5 minutes. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer to a plate.
Transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the braising liquid through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl, pressing on the solids; skim off the fat. Return the braising liquid to the casserole and boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in the crème fraîche and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and chicken to the sauce and simmer for 3 minutes. Garnish with tarragon and serve.
I made Dorie Greenspan’s French gougeres and a pile of sautéed mustard greens to go alongside the meat. The greens added a perfect juxtaposing tart bitterness to the addictive Riesling sauce and the earthy mushrooms.
At the end the CG asked if I thought the Riesling really made it better than one of his quick pressure cooker one pots of chicken steeped in pure broth. Although his versions are certainly every bit as soft, savory and delicious as mine was, I still answered that it was worth doing. Because every once in a while when trying various recipes, you actually stumble upon one that makes you proud, makes you not think twice about the hours it took to cook, and makes you want to make it for many different people in your lifetime because you’ve found another signature dish in the realm of comfort food. This was one of mine.