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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Braisin' In The Sun

Braising tends to get put on the back burner during the summertime. Granted, our local markets are exploding with beautiful fresh produce right now that beg for light summery fare.  I get it, I really do. I'm on the bandwagon. That said, it's a shame to shy away from succulent long braised meats just because it's summer. Forget the hot kitchen and steamy windows. Ditch the clunky cookware, keep it fresh, keep it simple, and move the fuss outside onto an outdoor grill.

Grilled/Braised Chicken in Fresh Tomato Sauce.
Simple. Nothing fancy. I used our old charcoal grill with a hinged lid, a few fantastic local ingredients from the farmers' market, herbs from my garden, and a couple of pantry staples to turn a somewhat traditional braise into a riff on a summer cookout.

Earlier this summer, I signed up for Elmwood Stock Farm's FarmFan program (It's still available). With the program, I receive points for every purchase and text notifications before each market telling what they'll have on hand. Pretty nifty. Because of the program, I knew in advance that they'd have fresh (never frozen) organic free-range chicken at the next market day (while they lasted). Niftier still, I reserved one and didn't have to awake at the crack of dawn to snag a bird before the market madness began. Booya. Sold. Fresh chicken.

Game on.
Using a sharp paring knife, I broke down the gorgeous 4 pound chicken into eight good sized serving pieces. After slicing the thighs and legs from the breasts, I separated the thighs from the legs and set them aside. Using kitchen shears, I snipped the backbone from the breasts, tossed it into the freezer with my other chicken parts, and sliced the large breasts in half. After seasoning the chicken pieces liberally with salt, I slid them into the refrigerator to dry brine.

Sure, I like the pretty tomatoes. The jewels of summer. There's nothing better than a sun-kissed warm tomato sliced into thick pieces and sprinkled with flaked sea salt or beautiful heirloom tomatoes sandwiched between slices of white bread or Caprese Salad or gazpacho. On and on and on.

However, when I intend to cook the tomatoes, I head straight for the ugly ones. The culls. The throwaways. The ugly ducklings. I needed quite a few fresh tomatoes for the braised chicken, so I bagged a few pounds of gigantic puckered ugly tomatoes from Henkle's Heirlooms and Herbs "Uglies" bin before stopping by The Paw Paw Plantation to bulk up the tomato factor with a few almost overripe pretty tomatoes.

To keep it fuss free, I eschewed the blanch and peel method and simply cored the tomatoes, chopped them into manageable wedges, and ran them through the course disc of a food mill. After scraping the disc clean, I ended up with about 5 cups of outrageous blood red tomato pulp.

I thought about using a large cast iron skillet for the braising vessel, but because the chicken pieces were quite large, I opted to use my well-seasoned grill tested 14" paella pan.

With everything on deck, I lit the coals,  pulled the chicken from the refrigerator, and quartered 4 small Scott County candy onions.

So, here's the deal. Most traditional braises (pick a meat) include aromatics, herbs, seasonings, wine, and stock. Pretty basic. I stuck to most of the basics, but switched out the wine for a good quality red wine vinegar. A little twist with French and Spanish influences.

When the coals settled into their glowing/grey ashen mode, I scooped the coals to the sides of the grill to create an outer ring of heat as opposed to an intense direct heat source. I place the paella pan over the grill and drizzled it with olive oil. When the oil started to smoke, I lightly dredged the chicken through flour, carefully placed them into the hot oil, browned the chicken on all sides, removed the pieces to a side plate, and added 1/2 cup minced candy onions. When the onions turned translucent, I scattered 3 crushed garlic cloves into the pan and deglazed the pan with 3/4 cups red wine vinegar. After allowing the vinegar to reduce to a loose glaze, I added all of the tomato pulp and 1 cup of chicken stock.

When the tomato sauce started to pop and spurt, I nestled the chicken pieces into the sauce, tucked the candy onions around the chicken, slipped a few bay leaves under the chicken, swirled stems of fresh lovage throughout the sauce, covered the paella pan with aluminum foil, lowered the lid of the grill, and let the chicken braise for 60 minutes, removing the foil and lid for an additional 20 minutes to allow the sauce to reduce.

The timing was perfect. At first, I thought I was killing the chicken with the heat. As time went on, the coals burned down a bit and regulated the heat inside the grill. After an hour and 1/2, I pulled the chicken from the grill to rest. To freshen the sleepy braise, I finished with tiny halved Madison County sun gold tomatoes, fresh lovage leaves, and snipped chives.

I was amazed at how a few simple ingredients could offer such crazy multi-layered depth to a simple braise. While the candy onions melted into the sauce, the humble old fashioned lovage packed  intense celery flavor both in the braise and as a garnish. Celery essence without chunks of celery. Win. Tarted up with subtle piquant undertones from the reduced red wine vinegar, the tomato pulp bathed the tender chicken with soft acidic smoky sweetness. Perfect balance.

And the chicken? Organic free-range fresh (never frozen) chicken. Think about it. The meat was so unbelievably moist and tender. We couldn't tell the difference between the breast meat and the thigh meat. They were literally  interchangeable in a weird how-did-this-happen kind of way. Sure, my off-the-cuff method added tons of unexpected flavor, but the chicken was key. Even after a long hot sunny braise, it didn't shred or fall apart. Every messy fistful (trust me) yielded juicy succulent shards of flesh that slipped from the bones like butter. Pull. Swipe. Suck. Repeat.

Braisin' in the sun.

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