It’s the most wonderful time…. of the year!
No not Christmas time silly! I work in retail.
Less than a week ago I was wearing shorts to work, and then overnight temperatures dipped and suddenly Autumn weather was upon us. This is and always has been my favorite season, and while a lot of people are lamenting the end of summer, I’m over the moon that Fall is finally here.
Maybe it’s because I grew up upstate in a region dripping in corn fields, pumpkin patches, and apple orchards. Maybe it’s the mild temperatures and the fact that I can finally turn off the damned air conditioner and open the windows. Maybe it’s the warm colors and fall foliage, or maybe it’s the smell of the air. Maybe it’s the outdoor activities like hay rides, apple picking, and last chance hiking. Maybe it’s those quintessential Fall foods like apple cider doughnuts, pumpkin pie, and roasted turkey. Maybe it’s the fact that I can finally put something other than shorts on without breaking into a sweat. Or maybe it’s the fact that I can turn the oven back on and start making rich, hearty, slow cooked meals…
Even one of my coworkers, who’s admittedly more of a Summer person, just confessed that she’s really enjoying spending time in the kitchen without the boob sweat.
The minute the weather dips below 73 degrees I’m ready for soups and stews and braises. Over the weekend it was cold and rainy here in Brooklyn and I was craving soup something fierce. On my lunch break I sat pondering the possibilities and planning my grocery list. My first thought was a white bean and kale soup with sausage and tomatoes, but the colder and rainier it got, the more my cravings started to lean toward some type of braised chicken. Rather than choosing one over the other, I decided to combine the two in to one perfect Fall meal.
I bought a whole air-chilled chicken and cut it into pieces myself. I think for this recipe it works best to cut your chicken into 10 pieces, including wings, drumsticks, thighs, and quartered breasts.
You can definitely substitute all breasts or all thighs, or a mix of both, but I enjoy the mix of textures and flavors you get from using a whole chicken. I also like the fact that it’s generally cheaper to buy a whole chicken and butcher it yourself than it is to buy an equal amount of pre-butchered pieces and parts. You’ll need to cut store-bought breasts pieces in half anyway, so why not just go for the whole shebang?
I promise that it’s not as scary as you think. You just need a sharp knife, some self-confidence, and a little bit of patience with yourself. If you have no idea what you’re doing and want a reference, just ask Martha.
The best part is that the more you do it the better, and faster, you’ll get at it. The first time I ever tried was the night I proposed to Russell. I wanted to make fried chicken from scratch, and while the chicken turned out kind of greasy, the night turned out wonderful!
That first try taught me that it didn’t need to feel so intimidating, and since then I’ve learned to really enjoy the process. I think it can be just a little too easy to forget where your dinner comes from when you buy it wrapped in cellophane and styrofoam, and getting your hands dirty and doing some of the work yourself gives you a greater respect and understanding for exactly what it is that you’re eating.
When I was in high school we actually raised chickens in our garage, so maybe that experience also gave me a greater appreciation for knowing where my food comes from. We’d moved from the center of town to a larger house on some land out in the country, and sort of out of nowhere I decided I wanted some chickens. My grandfather had a handful of older laying hens and a couple roosters on his farm that he was getting a little sick of caring for, and I really just wanted them for the experience so their advanced age didn’t bother me. They didn’t produce a ton of eggs, but it was usually enough that we didn’t have to buy them and never really had a surplus either.
There was a large storage room in the garage so we sectioned off part of that with chicken wire, laid down some straw, took some of Grandpa’s equipment off his hands, and we were in business. The one thing I wasn’t really expecting is how mean and sort of territorial chickens can be, especially when there are roosters involved. I also learned never to go into their cage in sandals. It turns out that exposed toes are fare game in the eyes of a chicken…
I understand that the situation probably would have been a bit different without the roosters, but to this day I’m a little bit uncomfortable around birds.
Despite all that I still fantasize about having chickens again some day. Especially with all the baking I do I’d love to have a good source for delicious fresh eggs! Russell and I constantly dream about the day we can buy a cute old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley and build a chicken coop and maybe a pen for some pygmy goats. We even have names in mind already! The plan is to name them after the female characters from Dallas starting with Pam, Sue Ellen, Lucy, & Miss Ellie, and depending on how many we get, maybe branching out into the satellite characters like Donna, Valene, or Kristen. We probably won’t get any roosters, but it might be fun to have a cranky old J.R. chasing the poor hens around. I’d just be afraid somebody might shoot him!
We never ate any of our old hens back then, and if Russell and I do end up getting any in the future they’d probably just be for egg laying too. When it comes to buying chicken to eat though, I’m actually pretty picky.
I know it’s not my job as a food photographer or recipe developer to tell you to eat organic, or local, or free-range, or hormone free, or whatever the buzz word du jour is. If you’re reading this you’re (probably) an adult and (probably) can make those decisions without my help. I will however remind you that spending a few extra dollars on your food doesn’t just mean you’re voting with your wallet for a healthier environment, better local economy, and more sustainable food system; it also means your food will probably taste better and be more nutritious! In my experience the biggest indicator for higher quality, better tasting chicken is the label “air chilled”. I won’t get into the gory details of how chickens are processed, but I will say that since air chilled chickens aren’t processed in water baths they usually have a meatier, chicken-ier flavor and crispier, less flabby skin. They also have a higher meat to weight ratio and better texture since they’re not absorbing any water during processing.
Since it is a slower, more labor intensive process, air chilled chicken does cost more at the grocery store. Based on flavor and texture alone though, I really do believe it’s worth the extra couple bucks.
Knowing what I now know, it’d be pretty hard for me to go back to conventionally processed chicken. I know I promised not to get into the details, but the conventional way is pretty gross, and the air chilled method is much less so. If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a ton of information out there on the world wide web, but I learned from reading Johnathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. If you care about food politics and the sustainability and environmental impact of our food system I think it’s a really interesting and informative read.
Whatever type of chicken you find in your basket while you wander the grocery aisles, this recipe is sure to please.
Browning the meat on the stovetop and then braising it in the oven gives it a rich and roasty flavor and a mouthwateringly tender texture. The touch of acidity and subtle sweetness from the white wine and tomatoes balances perfectly with the richness of the chicken and sausage and slight bitterness of the kale. The fresh pungent garlic and woodsy thyme add layers of earthy flavor, and the beans add a nice tender texture and just enough starch to make this a hearty filling meal all on it’s own.
Is your mouth watering yet?
Braised Chicken with Kale and White Beans
Coarse Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage (about 3 sausages)
1 medium to large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
6 to 7 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups low sodium chicken stock
one 15 oz can diced tomatoes (drained)
two 15 oz cans white beans (I used Cannellini)
1 lb Lacinato kale (about 2 bunches) *see note
Preheat oven to 375.
Generously season your chicken pieces with salt and pepper. If using store-bought breasts you’ll want to cut them each in half with a very sharp knife.
Heat olive oil in a large dutch oven or braising pan over high heat. Working in batches, brown chicken pieces on all sides (about 4 to 5 minutes per side), and transfer to a plate to rest. Drain off all but about 1 tablespoon of any grease from the chicken, and brown the sausage and onions over medium high heat. Try to break up and crumble the sausage as it browns. Cook about 5 minutes, or until sausage is mostly cooked through and onions are starting to soften and get some color. Toss in garlic and cook one minute more. Add thyme and white wine, and simmer until wine has reduced by about half, about 5 or 10 minutes. Add chicken stock and drained tomatoes and bring just back to a simmer. Arrange chicken, skin side up, in a single layer and transfer to the oven to braise, uncovered, for 35-40 minutes.
While chicken is in the oven; remove the ribs, roughly chop, and thoroughly wash the kale. Dry well with a kitchen towel or salad spinner.
Once cooked through and tender, transfer chicken pieces to a plate and tent with foil. Turn the oven off and transfer the chicken back to the oven with the door slightly open to keep warm. Move the pan back to the stove and reduce the braising liquid over high heat for about 10 minutes. Add kale and beans, toss, and cook until all the kale is completely wilted, about 5 minutes more. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Add the chicken back to the pan and serve.
Serve the chicken in shallow bowl over a bed of beans and kale. Spoon some of the liquid over the top just before serving.
You can use other types of kale if you can’t find Lacinato, but I think it has the best flavor and texture for this dish, and holds up to best to braising and reheating.