Is the dinner party dead? Crispy braised chicken for six

Is the dinner party dead? Guy Trebay wrote in the New YorkTimes yesterday that it just may be on the endangered species list.

I have to admit that in years gone by, there was a steadier flow of people at my table than now. So, what gives? Are we too busy? Too tired? Or, as Mr. Trebay suggests: “Increasingly, such gatherings seem outmoded, squeezed out by overcrowded schedules, the phony urgency of affinity sites, restaurants cultism and overall tectonic shifts in how New Yorkers congregate.” Outside of the Big Apple, I’m not sure restaurant cultism is a factor. It may be that collectively we’re in a rut, and cooking for a crowd, once we are out of the habit, seems too daunting. It’s hard to be a part-time cook. If you don’t cook on a regular basis, then inviting six to eight people to your house once in a blue moon is a pretty steep mountain to climb.

I want to get back on the horse, but if I do, I will re-adjust my expectations. A dinner party can (and in these times, maybe should) be an informal affair. Who says spaghetti and meatballs, or even meat loaf is off limits? Better to make something homey and comforting than to contort into a tizzy that leaves you exhausted and cranky by the time your guests arrive.

I usually don’t like to ask guests to bring anything—my feeling is if you are going to give them dinner, give them a night off, too. Buy dessert, or just put a few olives and nuts out before you sit down, and keep your sanity. It’s about the company. Nobody cares whether or not you pull out a homemade chocolate torte. Of course, it’s nice if the food is good, but the whole point is to bring people together. With the holidays looming and so much busy-ness in the air, it might be a good idea to set aside some time to relax with friends. Plan ahead and make a one-dish meal that you can plop on the table with a salad. Spread out the cooking and shopping if you can. Set the table the day before. Read Sara’s post at TheYellow House about making one grand gesture (a roast, for example) and having others bring side dishes if that’s how you want to roll.

Here’s one humble chicken dish idea: If you love dark, tender poultry and crisp skin, start by making braised chicken thighs and turn the technique on its head. Usually, the braising technique consists of browning food, then cooking it slowly in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid. Here, to get the skin crisp, the browned chicken goes into a baking dish with red onions, carrots, white wine, chicken stock, and a touch of honey and vinegar to make a rich sauce. While the vegetables cook in the liquid around the poultry, the exposed chicken skin crisps and browns. The cooking juices make a flavorful sauce. This dish can be prepared several hours ahead and reheated in the oven just before serving. Make some rice or polenta and a salad to serve with it. Dinner is done!

Crispy braised chicken with vegetables

Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

12 to 14 chicken thighs, with skin and bone (about 4  pounds total)

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 red onions, each cut into 8 wedges

8 carrots, cut into 3-inch lengths and halved lengthwise if large

1 cup white wine

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

2 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish

1 Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Have on hand two 9-by13-inch baking dishes.

2. Trim the excess fat from the chicken thighs. Pat them dry with paper towels and season them on both sides with salt and pepper.

3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, skin sides down. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the skin is golden. Turn and cook on the other side for 3 minutes. Transfer the thighs, skin sides up, to each of the 2 baking dishes. Tuck the carrots and onions around them.

4. Pour off the fat from the skillet. Return the pan to the heat and add the wine. Cook and stir for 1 minute to scrape up the brown bits from the bottom. Stir in the vinegar and honey. Pour half of the liquid into each baking dish. Add enough chicken stock to each dish to come halfway up the sides of the chicken (it shouldn’t cover it.) Nestle the thyme sprigs into the dish.

5. Braise, uncovered, in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the meat and vegetables are tender.

6. Transfer the chicken and vegetables to a large platter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

8. Pour the sauce into a large measuring cup and skim off the fat. Transfer the sauce to a pitcher and serve alongside the chicken.

If you have leftovers, sauté some mushrooms, add spinach, stir in rice and leftover chicken. Dinner is done, again.

 

Flat Bread (Fougasse): High Hopes

About a week ago, on a splendiferous, unseasonably warm day for November, I decided it was high time to get outside and take a break, so I headed for a nearby wildlife sanctuary. Ahhhhh, fresh air. I was taking deep, appreciative breaths of it, admiring the waning light and the delicious fall smells, listening to the leaves rustle as I swished through them on the path. Oops. Now I was eating them. I wasn’t really thinking of them as delicious in

that

way, but there I was, flat on my face, dirt and leaves in my mouth. How did that happen? I had been moving at a pretty good clip and my toe must have caught on a root under the leaves, but really, there was no time to negotiate the fall. How I got there was moot.

I picked myself up and checked out my teeth and bones. Nope, nothing broken. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed my humiliation. Nope again. At least I had my dignity, although really?

After raising a teenager you still think you have dignity?

said self to self. There was blood, too. I whipped out my phone, until that moment forgotten in a pocket, and surveyed the damage with a photo. Yes, I would live to tell the tale.

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       Just then, an old song popped into my head and I laughed out loud. Alone and in the woods, you’re allowed to be a looney, right?  Anyway, it was Frank Sinatra’s

High Hopes

. I loved that song when I was a kid, a real catchy tune. I started singing silently “Anyone knows an ant (beat) can’t (beat) move a rubber tree plant.”  Have I got you singing it yet? Whatever you do, don’t listen to it, cuz you won’t be able to get it out of your head. I realized that I have been feeling a lot like that little ol’ ant lately. I keep bumping up against the rubber tree plant, find myself chin on the ground. So I keep doing what the song says: ‘there’s a lot to be learned, so look around.’

       A few days later I was preparing to teach a cooking class on the most popular FLAT bread of all time, pizza. Come to think of it, a theme was emerging. During the pizza class, through my negligence, some of the pizzas were a little too thin. FLAT again!  And they were not as perfect as I, the teacher, felt they should have been, since I was the guiding hand so to speak. But guess what? The pizzas were incredibly delicious, and all of us learned something new from the experience, especially from the mistakes. (You can see photos from the class on the Cooking Class Link.)

 One of the best, unplanned coincidences that occurred in the class (is it just me, or are there lots and lots of coincidences

all the time

?) was that the students came in pairs:  mother and son, mothers and daughters, a guy and gal. They reinforced my belief about how cooking together is a very bonding experience. So as Thanksgiving rolls around, I thought I should post a recipe/project you could do with someone over the holiday. If you are not cooking up the whole shebang by yourself, grab a kid, a friend, a spouse or a significant other and make this bread to take along to the person who

is

cooking the turkey. Not only is it flat, but it is also in the shape of a leaf. I’m just a bundle of coincidences.

Fougasse

       Fougasse is a flatbread with ancient roots going back at least as far as the twelfth century in France. It is a cousin of the Italian flatbread focaccia, a name that is also derived from the latin root

focus

(ashes from the hearth.) Its many variations include herbs, olives, anchovies, strong spices, nuts, fruits, and sugar, as well as the use of puff pastry instead of bread dough. This is a simple version with a charming leaf shape, excellent and dramatic alongside some wine or cheese. You could make your own dough or buy ready-made pizza dough.

Makes 1 large loaf

About 1 tablespoon cornmeal

A little flour

About one pound pizza dough (A one-half piece of the pizza dough recipe)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt, or coarse salt

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped rosemary (1 to 2 sprigs)

1. Dust a baking sheet with cornmeal. Sprinkle the countertop with a little flour.

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 2. Gently flatten the dough into a teardrop shape about 10 inches long and 6 inches wide, tapering it at the bottom. Go ahead, be a geek and use a ruler. Place it on the cornmeal-lined baking sheet with the narrow end facing you. Make three 2 1/2-inch vertical slits in a line down the center with a single edge razor. Make 2 more two-inch slits at an upward angle on each side of the central “vein,” so that the dough looks like a large leaf. Work your fingers into the openings created by the slits and stretch them to about three times their original size. You must allow enough room for the bread to rise without closing the spaces.

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3. Let the fougasse rise until it has doubled in volume, from 35 to 45 minutes, longer if the dough is cold. About 20 minutes before the fougasse is ready to be baked, position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 450°F.

4. Brush the olive oil over the top of the dough. Sprinkle it with salt and rosemary. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the fougasse is golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature on the same day that it is baked.

Dough

Makes about 2 pounds plus 3 ounces dough, enough for 4 individual pizzas or 2 fougasses

4 cups (500g) unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon instant yeast (aka “rapid rise”)

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 1/2 cups (350g) water, at a temperature of about 70°F

1 teaspoon olive oil for the dough bowl

1. Measure the flour, yeast and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process for a few seconds to mix the dry ingredients. With the machine on, rapidly pour the water through the feed tube (this should take no more than 6 seconds). Continue to process for a few more seconds, just until the dough starts to come together in a mass. If the dough feels very sticky, add a bit more flour; if it feels dry, add a little water.

2. Turn the dough out of the work bowl onto the countertop. Knead it for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Resist the temptation to add too much flour; the dough may feel sticky but it will become less so as you knead it. It should be soft and slightly tacky, not stiff or dry.

3. Form the dough into a smooth ball. Pour about one teaspoon of olive oil into a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl and twirl it around to coat it with oil on all sides. Place the bowl inside a plastic bag  (a clean trash bag or plastic grocery bag will do) and loosely tuck the open ends underneath the bowl. Puff up the top of the bag to form a tent. Leave the dough to rise at room temperature until it has doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. If you are in a hurry, 45 minutes of rising time will still be okay. Shape into the flat breads of your choice.

To mix the dough by hand:

Mix the flour, yeast and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the water. Stir with a wooden spoon, gradually incorporating the flour into the center, until stirring becomes difficult. Dump the whole shaggy mess onto the countertop and begin kneading. Power through the stickiness (with the help of a dough scraper if you have one,) adding as little flour as possible until the dough becomes satiny, smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.

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