Sunday, August 15, 2010

Four Little Words Nearly Everyone Hopes to Hear - Crispy Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Lemon & Thyme

After 3 days (roughly 30 hours) of intensive training in a Westin hotel just outside of Washington DC with my 20 fellow trainees, we were cut loose at 4:30 on Friday evening. We sat in the hotel conference room, blinking in surprise and exhaustion. We were free? To do what? The last 72 hours had been under strict schedule and direction. It seemed as though we couldn't remember exactly what we did when we weren't absorbing and brainstorming together.

We packed up our new laptops and training manuals and headed up to the hotel lounge like zombies. Waiting for the cars that would whisk us off to the airport. We collapsed into the overstuffed chairs and ordered a round of drinks, unable to stop talking about work. My brain felt several tons over capacity, and when I headed over to the bar for a refill, the bartender took one look at me and said the words you always hope to hear a bartender say: "This one's on me."

God bless him.

It's true, my eyes were bloodshot, with some serious dark circles parking under them. I must have been a seriously pitiful sight. But if it's pity that leads to a free glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I have no problem with that.

There are other stories from the past week and a half, of course, but I choose to start at the end for now. From Washington/Dulles airport I boarded a Virgin American red-eye, and more than four hours of Top Chef later, I landed at SFO. My head hit my pillow at 2am, and the next day I gathered myself together to head to my friend Brigid's wedding in Mill Valley. It was a fairly surreal 24 hours, and a very lovely wedding filled with old friends and co-workers from my first couple years in the Bay Area.

When Sunday rolled around, I reveled in my first truly free day in what seemed like months. Feeling ambitious, I whipped out Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook and opened it up to this recipe. I'd been eying it for months, but just hadn't gotten around to making it. Not that it's difficult, but sometimes tacking a recipe from a master chef can seem a bit intimidating for a weekday night. Surprisingly, this is a one pot mean that would translate nicely to any given Wednesday.

It felt so good to be back in the kitchen. And it feels great to be embarking on a new job, even if I am too nervous to sleep much. But here's hoping to less hours of the week commuting, and more in the kitchen.

Crispy Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Lemon & Fennel
from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home
serves 2-3

2 large fennel bulbs
6 chicken thighs, skin on
kosher salt
canola oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion
1/2 tbsp finely chopped garlic
4 tbsp dry white wine
1/2 cup large green olives
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 dried bay leaf
4 strips of lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley leaves for garnish

Cut off the fennel stalks. Trim off the bottom of the bulbs and peel back the layers from the core. You can use the cores for another recipe. Cut the fennel layers into 2 x 1/2 inch batons. You'll need roughly 2 cups of fennel. Reserve any leftover fennel for another recipe.

Preheat the oven to 375 and set a cooling rack out over a baking sheet for later use.

Season the chicken thighs on both sides with salt. Heat a couple tablespoons of canola oil in a large oven-proof saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the thighs, skin side down and cook until brown on that side, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook for about a minute more to sear the other side. Transfer the thighs to a cooling rack and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onions. Cook for about 1 1/2 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring often until the onions are translucent. About 5 minutes. Add the fennel, turn the heat up to medium and cook, stirring often until the fennel is crisp-tender, about 10 minutes.

Add in the wine and simmer for about 2 minutes to cook off the alcohol. Sir in the olives, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, lemon zest, thyme and chicken stock. Increase the heat, bring the liquid to a simmer, and cook until the fennel is tender, about 1 minute.

Taste the stock and season with salt to taste. Return the chicken to the pan, skin-side-up, in a single layer. When the liquid returns to a simmer, transfer the pan to the oven and cook 15-20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Turn on the broiler and put the pan under it for a minute or two to crisp and brown the chicken skin. Remove, transfer to a serving platter, garnish with parsley and serve.

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