Recipe: Braised Chicken with Late Summer Tomatoes, Crème Fraîche, and Black Olives
There are many not so good things about having an aging mom who doesn’t get around much anymore. Among the not so good is that I can’t really go anywhere with her except, it seems, the hairdresser or the emergency room. But there are strangely a few good things, like always knowing that when I come over she’ll be sitting in her chair and will usually smile at me (or occasionally, instead, ignore me and smile at Giada De Laurentiis, which I find highly annoying). Another good thing, I’ve discovered, is cooking dinner at her place. If I want dinner when I visit, it’s either delivery or do it myself. She can’t really stand long enough to pull off any extensive stove action, so it’s up to me. But there are some issues: The kitchen is partly taken over by pill bottles, medical wipes, throat swabs, sharp smelling gargles, and boxes of Ensure. And for some reason she doesn’t seem to have many decent pots or pans left. I have no idea what happened to them. It seems they’ve been partly replaced by QVC Lock & Lock plastic tubs in various sizes. I’m not sure what she needs those for. And now she’s got something that looks like an inordinately deep wok with a handle. I can’t imagine what that was designed to do (it’s no good for stir-frying), but I have used it to boil ziti. She never had anything like it when I was growing up. Must have been another QVC late-night purchase.
I make a lot of pasta at her place. It’s usually quick, with minimal cleanup, which I strive for, since she seems to get upset if too many dishes are taken from the shelves and moved onto the countertops. Lately I’m a little sick of pasta, so I’ve started making braised chicken dishes. I’ll use chicken thighs and legs and bring over stuff I want to use up from my own refrigerator—an end chunk of pancetta, a handful of cremini mushrooms, a few sprigs of thyme, a couple of bruised early fall tomatoes, the half-dead remains of a bottle of Côtes du Rhône. I usually wind up with variations on chicken alla cacciatora, coq au vin, or a fricassee, all extremely improvisational in spirit.
The braising fills my mother’s apartment with the old aromas of home, when she cooked and cooked well. The simmering wine, tomatoes, and herbs mask the medicinal smells of the place and seem to make everyone feel a bit less anxious about the future, sometimes. And the activity gives me something to do besides looking at her while she doesn’t say much. Cooking always makes me more grounded. That’s a huge reward in some circumstances.
Braised Chicken with Late Summer Tomatoes, Crème Fraîche, and Black Olives
Extra-virgin olive oil
10 chicken thighs, the bones and skin on
A big pinch of sugar
Piment d’espelette pepper to taste
1 ¼-inch round of pancetta, well chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1 bay leaf, fresh if available
3 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
About ¼ teaspoon ground mace
A splash of cognac or brandy
½ cup chicken broth
3 round summer tomatoes, skinned, chopped, seeded, and drained for about 20 minutes
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
A handful of good black olives, not too salty (Niçoise or Gaetas work well here)
Choose a large, heavy-bottom skillet (not so easy at my mother’s place), and get it hot over medium flame. Season the chicken with salt, black pepper, the sugar (which will help it brown), and the piment. Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and slide in the chicken thighs, skin side down. Brown them well, and then give them a flip. Brown the other sides, and remove the chicken from the skillet. Pour off all but about a tablespoon or so of oil. Add the pancetta, and cook until crisp. Add the shallot, the bay leaf, half of the rosemary, and the mace, and sauté until the shallot has softened and the herbs have released some flavor. Put the chicken thighs back in the pan, along with any juices they have given off. Add the cognac, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Now lower the heat, cover the skillet, and simmer until the chicken is just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, turning the pieces once or twice. Add the crème fraîche and the rest of the rosemary, and give it a good stir.
Place the chicken on a serving platter. Turn the heat to high, and reduce the sauce for a few minutes. Add the olives. Taste for seasoning, and pour over the chicken.
This, a salad, and some good bread usually do it over at Mom’s, but rice is a nice touch, if you’ve got a pot to make it in.