Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Shades of the Mediterranean – My New Favorite Chicken What’s cooking? Braised Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives

There’s hardly anyone I’d rather cook for than my children. I get a satisfaction that comes from reaffirming my continuing role in their lives, which always makes me happy.

So when my younger son and his girlfriend announced that they’d be coming to Austin as part of their round-the-world interviews for medical residency programs, my first thought was of dinner. They’d been eating in hotels and restaurants and fast food spots more often than not over the past couple of months, and I knew a home cooked dinner would be welcome.

What to cook? The pressure was making me crazy. I’d only have the kids one night, and I wanted it to be special. Then I came across a recipe that seemed just right. Tons of garlic, cooked along with chicken legs – which I always prefer flavor-wise to breasts – and preserved lemons, which I’d never cooked with yet seemed simultaneously exotic and familiar. The real kicker was that the dish used Cerignola olives “or other green brine-cured olives.” Well, it just so happens that I had a jar of green Sicilian brine-cured olives I brought back from our trip to the Amalfi Coast last year. They’d been calling to me from the back of the refrigerator, but I’d been waiting for the right opportunity – and hoping they wouldn’t disintegrate in the meantime. This was it. Just reading the recipe, I could already taste the flavors of Southern Italy – olives and lemons and garlic – on my tongue.

So... about the ingredients:

Preserved lemons, also known as lemon pickle. If you have the time, you can make your own. But “the time” is 3-4 weeks. I didn’t have that, so I went looking for them at a grocery store. My main store (H.E.B.) didn’t carry them, but the upscale member of the same chain (Central Market) did. Whole Foods does not, but Williams-Sonoma does. So you may have to check around to get them at retail. Preserved lemons are a staple of Moroccan cuisine. Covered in salty lemon juice for all that time, they somehow lose much of their pucker power, and the skin softens considerably to a unique, silky texture. If a recipe calls for preserved lemons, nothing else will do.

Cerignola olives. Cerignolas are very large, mild flavored, and more often served green, though you can find them cured black. They make great table olives. The key is the mild flavor, so unless you find a jar that’s labeled as containing Cerignola olives, I’d start at the olive bar in your local grocery, where you can taste before you buy. I’ve seen Cerignola olives at Whole Foods. In this case, if you have a jar of olives that you brought here from Italy (even if they’re a bit smaller), why would you not use them?

The garlic. I’m going to mention this now, because the Kitchen Goddess didn’t give it a thought before she waded in on this recipe, and she was really sorry: Peel that garlic first. Peeling two heads of garlic takes a bit of time, and while there are many ways to speed the process, the recipe moves right along once you get started, and you don’t want to find yourself – as the Kitchen Goddess did – screaming, “OMG, I forgot to peel the garlic!” My way of speeding the process was to enlist my son’s girlfriend, who was most gracious and efficient in her help. But once again, it’s all about the mise en place – have it ready before you start.

The Kitchen Goddess served this recipe with steamed and buttered haricot verts, and Smashed Potatoes, on the side. But what she didn’t realize before she sat down was that, after you devour the chicken – which you will because it’s that good – you’ll feel an irresistible urge to pick up the bowl and lick it all around. To allow for a more sophisticated response to the sauce, I recommend one of the following:

■ Potatoes, prepared in a ½-inch dice and roasted with a tiny bit of olive oil and kosher salt;
■ Egg noodles – medium sized, spiral; or
■ Slices of French bread or Italian bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic and olive oil.

The potatoes and the noodles would be served underneath the chicken or to the side but in the same bowl; the toasts would be served in a basket.

Kitchen Goddess note: There’s nothing hard about the preparation, but it takes time. The original recipe suggests total time of 2½ hours. I think you could do it in that amount of time if you didn’t get any phone calls or your spouse didn’t need to ask you if you’d seen the TV remote. I prefer to allow 3 hours and be delightfully surprised when it takes less.

Braised Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives

Serves 4-5.

For the herb sachet:
– 2 sprigs fresh thyme
– 1 bay leaf
– 10 peppercorns
– small handful of parsley leaves and stems, chopped

6 chicken legs (drumstick and thigh), with skin on, patted dry – or the equivalent. The ones I found were enormous, so I opted for 5 drumsticks and 8 thighs, sold separately.

salt/freshly ground pepper
1½ tablespoons olive oil, more if needed
2 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups white wine (I used a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc)
2 cups good quality chicken stock
16 large, green, brine-cured olives (such as Cerignola or Picholine)
2 small preserved lemons, sliced into ⅛-inch rounds
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped (for garnish)

Assemble the herb sachet tied in either a cheesecloth bundle or a muslin sachet bag. Set aside.

Season the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat a large Dutch oven or braising pan over medium-high heat until hot, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. (I used a 5.5-quart Le Creuset French oven, and found 1½ tablespoons of oil to be plenty; if you have a bigger pan, you may need to add a bit.)

Cook as much of the chicken as you can comfortably fit in the pan – no cramming! – skin-side down and without moving it, until brown (about 3 minutes). Turn the pieces over and brown the other side the same amount. Remove the browned chicken pieces to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the chicken, working only in batches that will comfortably fit in the pan. (For my 5 drumsticks and 8 thighs, I needed three batches.) Add oil if necessary.

When all the chicken has been browned, add the garlic cloves and sauté, stirring, 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer the garlic to a bowl.

Reduce the heat to low and add the flour and 2 tablespoons of the butter to the pan. Whisk constantly until golden brown, about 1 minute. Deglaze the pan – pour in the wine and bring it to a boil, all the while scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the brown bits (the fond) that accumulated from the chicken sauté. After the wine has boiled for about 5 minutes (when it should be reduced by one-third), add the stock, the garlic cloves, the olives, and the herb sachet to the pan. Tuck the chicken, skin-side up, into the sauce and turn up the heat to medium-high until the sauce boils, then reduce the heat to simmer the sauce, covered, for 35 minutes. While the sauce is simmering, pre-heat the oven to 425º.

At the end of the 35 minutes, remove the chicken pieces from the sauce and arrange them on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Arrange the lemon slices on the chicken, and place the pan into the oven for 20 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the garlic and olives to a bowl and reserve. Discard the sachet. Boil the sauce until it thickens, about 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.

When the chicken and lemons are done, move them back into the sauce, along with the garlic and olives. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

* * *

A note about the wine: In memory of our time in Positano, we drank a Fiano di Avellino with the dish. Still dry, but a bit heavier than the Sauvignon blanc in the sauce, it has notes of honey and blossoms, with an attractive minerality. It was perfect.


  1. Reading this makes me crave those deliciously salty Italian olives. This was one of the best meals I've had at Chateau de Hilton yet. Thanks again, Lee!

    1. You are most welcome. And of course it would have been served an hour later without your help. Come join me for dinner any time!

  2. I am sorry that I read this post at 9 p.m. My mouth is watering. I am now motivated to make preserved lemons...(I had been looking for an excuse to do so) By the way, thanks so much for your details in the prep.
    Eileen in Atlanta

    1. If you make preserved lemons, Eileen, you must tell me how it goes. I made some once and then about three years later when we were clearing out for the move to Texas, I found them. Not a pretty sight.