A first-rate chicken, prepared with care, is fit for company

The sky would fall before many people would serve chicken to guests. It's not fancy enough, and why make something for company that they can easily eat at home?

Now more than ever, I disagree. I say chicken is the new rib roast.

Few dishes are as noble, satisfying or just plain beautiful as a lovingly prepared chicken in a pot, an incredibly versatile dish that can straddle the seasons. The process involves little more than browning a chicken in a casserole, adding aromatic vegetables, covering the lot with foil and baking the bird slowly, essentially in its own juices. What results is succulent meat and about a cupful of intensely flavored liquid gold.

If you think that's not stylish enough for entertaining, take a cue from the French. Poule au pot is a standard of every French cook's repertoire; just as a Frenchwoman can sport the same skirt and blouse all week but never wear the same outfit twice, she knows how to dress up a chicken in myriad ways.

The key: The core element should be simple, beautifully crafted and inconspicuous, whether an outfit or a chicken. Classic is always in good taste; adding accessories is the way to change things up.

What is essential here is that you start with a good bird, and I don't mean the bleached-out, tasteless mass-market type responsible for chicken's dull reputation.

The French swear by their Bresse blue-foot chickens, for good reason. Everything about the birds, including where they're raised, what they eat, how long they roam free and how long they remain in cages, is strictly regulated by the government. They can cost more than $10 a pound, but the French consider the benefit worth the price.

I had my own revelation last summer at the Locke Country Store in Millwood, Va., where I splurged on a bird from the justifiably famous Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va. After brining the chicken, I smeared it with spice rub and smoked it, but then regretted covering up its natural attributes, even though they still managed to shine. Lesson learned? Keep it simple.

I applied that lesson to a recent dinner menu. I settled on poule au pot, and added a first course of blanched green beans served in a vinaigrette. For dessert, I went American: a warm cobbler made with peaches from an orchard near Carlisle, Pa., frozen in August at the pinnacle of goodness, a welcome reminder that the winter doldrums are ending and summer's delights are within reach.

 


Chicken in a Pot

4 to 6 servings

4- to 5-pound chicken, preferably organic, gizzard packet reserved

Kosher salt or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into small dice (1 to 1 1/2 cups)

1 medium carrot, cut into small dice (about 1/2 cup)

2 ribs celery, cut into small dice (about 1 cup)

4 sprigs thyme

1 stem rosemary

1 bay leaf

4 medium cloves garlic, crushed

1/3 cup low-sodium or homemade chicken broth, or more as needed

Juice from half a medium lemon (about 1 tablespoon) plus more as needed

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

Chopped chives or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

 

 

1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Thoroughly rinse the chicken, especially the cavity, in cold water; pat dry with paper towels. Season the bird all over with lots of salt and pepper. Bend the wingtips back and tuck under the bird.

2. Heat the oil in a medium Dutch oven or casserole over medium-high heat until the oil starts to shimmer. Add the bird, breast side down; sear undisturbed for 5 minutes. If the chicken doesn't release easily from the pot, sear for 1 to 2 minutes more. Use tongs to turn the chicken over, making sure the wings stay tucked underneath.

3. Add the vegetables, arranging them around the chicken. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes; stir and add the herbs and garlic, along with the neck and liver, if desired (for flavor).

4. Press a large piece of aluminum foil directly onto the chicken (molding it to the bird), with the excess foil draped over the side of the pot. Cover with the lid and bake for 50 minutes, until the internal temperature of the thigh registers 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (Residual heat will cause the temperature to rise by as much as 10 degrees.)

5. Let the chicken rest for 20 minutes, with the lid off and the foil loosened. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board; first drain any juices into the pot. The chicken will be slightly browned, with skin that is more soft than crisp.

6. Use a carving knife to cut the chicken into 10 pieces: the wings (with tips trimmed off); legs; thighs, and the breast sides cut off the carcass and halved. Place in an ovenproof dish, tent loosely with foil and keep warm in the turned-off oven while you prepare the sauce.

7. Set a strainer over a large fat-separator cup. (Discard the bay leaf, herb sprigs and the neck, liver, etc., if used.) Use a wooden spoon to dislodge any brown bits from the bottom of the pot, then strain the contents into the cup, pressing the vegetables with the spoon to extract as much juice as possible; discard the solids.

8. Discard the separated fat. Pour the rich chicken juices into a separate liquid measuring cup; there should be about 2/3 cup. Add enough chicken broth to total 1 cup; pour into a small saucepan. Add the lemon juice and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

9. Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl to form a slurry. Whisk into the saucepan, stirring for 30 seconds or until a sauce forms that is just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper.

10. Divide the chicken among individual plates. Spoon a few tablespoons of sauce over each portion, then garnish with the chopped chives or parsley. Serve warm; pass the remaining sauce at the table.

Make Ahead: The chicken can be baked a day in advance; let it rest, then carve, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, arrange the pieces in a single layer in a baking dish. Add enough chicken broth to cover the pieces halfway. Let the chicken come to room temperature, then reheat for 20 minutes in a 250-degree oven.

Per serving (based on 6): 529 calories, 42 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 38 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 204 milligrams cholesterol, 281 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber, 1 gram sugar