Hard-cider braised chicken

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March 12, 2008

Serves 4

Roast chicken can be simple and surprisingly elegant. At its best, the skin is crispy and there's enough tender and juicy meat to feed a family. But if it's not done just right, things can go really wrong. Every chicken is different (they vary with how they're raised and what they're fed), and if you roast birds often enough, you'll run into a tough bird, a dry bird, a soggy-skinned bird, and so on. The alternative is a braise. Chicken braised in liquid is deeply delicious, but more forgiving than a roast bird. To guarantee the most flavor, begin with whole chicken legs (the drumsticks are attached to the thighs). Brown them in butter and bacon fat and then cook them in the oven with hard cider, fresh herbs, and winter vegetables. A great bottle of hard cider is made by Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H. It gives the bird a deep and complex sweetness. Farnum Hill grows apples - mostly true cider varieties not commonly found - and makes ciders that are dry, complex, and not too sweet. When the meat is plump, falling off the bone, and rich with its own broth, it's done. One pot plus one hour equals dinner for everybody.

4 whole bone-in chicken legs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup flour
1/2 pound bacon, cut into thick batons
1 tablespoon butter
3 medium potatoes, quartered
3 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bottle (about 3 cups) hard apple cider
1 cup water or chicken stock
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, left whole
Extra sprigs of thyme (for garnish)
1. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Blot the chicken with paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper. Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and transfer to a plate.

2. Place the bacon in a large flameproof casserole. Cook over medium-low for 10 minutes or until most of the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a plate lined with paper towels.

3. Raise the heat to medium and add the butter to the pan. When the butter melts add the chicken, skin sides down. Cook for 10 minutes or until the skin is crisp and golden. With tongs, turn the pieces and cook for 3 minutes more. Remove from the pan.

4. Pour off all but 1/4 cup fat from the pan. Add the potatoes, carrots, and onion. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to high. Add the cider and scrape any sediment in the pan. Boil vigorously for 5 minutes.

5. Add the water or stock, the bacon, chopped thyme, garlic, and chicken pieces, skin side up. Return to a boil. Cover the pot and transfer to the lower third of the oven. Braise for 45 to 60 minutes or until the chicken comes away easily from the bone.

6. Using tongs, remove the chicken from the liquid and set a leg on each of 4 plates. Taste the cooking liquid for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if you like. With a slotted spoon, arrange vegetables on each plate. Cover loosely with foil.

7. Simmer liquid for 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. Spoon sauce over chicken and garnish with thyme. Jonathan Levitt

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