In the middle of last summer I created, quite by chance, a wonderful dish of braised chicken in red wine. It was by chance because I was cooking under extreme conditions: an unfamiliar poky kitchen in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, a very hungry and impatient family, and just the tired ends of ingredients I'd packed for our week away. For braising equipment I had a beaten-up old frying pan with a piece of aluminum foil for a lid, and an uneven electric stove.
Ingredients: some chicken thighs, garlic, olive oil, dried thyme, salt and pepper, zucchini, and some old broccoli. Oh, and the wine: a bottle of cheap Bordeaux. Since this was our only bottle I sure as hell wasn't going to throw much of it in the pot, so I just used about half a glass.
Technique: Brown the chicken in the oil, about five minutes a side. Remove and drain most of the fat from the pan. Sauté the garlic briefly, with the thyme, then add the chopped vegetables. Give everything a couple of turns, then place the chicken on top, splashing the half-glass of wine over it all. Turn the heat down low, and balance the so-called "lid" on top of the ingredients. Wait as long as your family will let you, about forty minutes in my case, throwing in a few tablespoons of water every now and then to stop the whole thing going up in flames. Serve.
It was delicious. The chicken had turned a deep purple color from the wine, and it fell off the bone in moist, steaming chunks. The zucchini had all about disappeared into the sauce, but the broccoli gave all the crunch that was needed. (There was quite a lot of broccoli, I think.) The sauce itself was perfect: rich, sticky, heady but not at all alcoholic—since we didn't have any bread we literally licked our plates clean. Really a meal to remember.
So the other night I tried to recreate this accidental masterpiece. Oh dear. Roughly the same ingredients, but with carrots and potatoes in place of the broccoli. Plenty more wine (leading to more richness, I thought) since we weren't staring at our last bottle. And the equipment was flawless: a nice gas range and a Le Creuset
dutch oven. Disaster.
Well, not a disaster. But definitely not a meal to remember. The chicken tasted so-so, but was a little bit stringy. The vegetables were fine, but didn't taste significantly better than if I'd just boiled them up on their own with a bit of butter and thyme. The sauce was far from rich and sticky, more of a weak, soupy, watery affair. We had plenty of bread, but we weren't too interested in having clean plates this time.
I spent some time yesterday trying to figure out what had gone wrong, and here's what I gleaned from my trusty sources.
, the culinary bible, taught me (albeit implicitly) that my main problem was the over-wining. Braising, says Larousse
, is gentle moist cooking with a minimal
amount of liquid. In some cases, it points out, the juice from a few chopped tomatoes is all that's needed. I guess I shouldn't have poured in half the bottle of wine. Larousse
also stresses that one should put the vegetables on the bottom of the pan, submerged in the braising liquid, then rest the meat on top. So the meat is effectively being steamed. I had liquid covering most of the meat, with the vegetables lumped over it, gasping for air.
Nigel Slater's Appetite
(one of my most trusted sources—"Nigel is a genius," says Jamie Oliver on the back cover, and I think he may be right) was with Larousse
in not wanting us to use too much liquid in a braise: about halfway up the meat, he says, and we're to turn the meat every now and then to stop the part above the liquid from drying out.
Everyone I read stressed that the main thing to be careful of when braising is to avoid cooking at too high a heat. Braising is about gentle
cooking, using time instead of heat to extract the full flavor from the ingredients. Alfred Portale, in his Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook
(what a great book) really gets worked up on this point, demanding that the braise should never be allowed to boil—what we're looking for is a slow, slow simmer.
After reading all this I looked back in shame at what I had done: half a bottle of wine rapidly boiling all the taste out of the poor chicken. My thinking? Use lots of wine and reduce it in the extreme, for a maximum of flavor. The result? Boiled chicken.