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Today: Tide yourself over until spring with this comforting recipe for Chicken Legs in Tomato Gravy -- plus 5 tips for a better braise.
The longstanding blanket of snow has finally begun to recede and melt back into the dark earth, but not without leaving behind a disheveled landscape -- it's like lifting an area rug you've been meaning to clean under for the past year. It is ugly outside, and depressing too. It is the worst time of year. The melt-off signals the beginning of the end of winter, but the skeptic in me knows that the weather is more than likely crying wolf. Either way it sets a spark to the natural cycle of things.
A bee flying in the orchard -- still bare of leaves -- lands on my arm, walks around a moment, then looks up at me with sad puppy dog eyes and flies off. A couple of raccoons out during daylight forage the field for last season's spilt corn. At the wood's edge an opossum trips on a branch and falls fifty feet before landing with a thud in the remnants of a wet snow bank. I realize it is time to join the others as well -- to come out of hibernation, to replenish.
But I have a problem. I have hit the winter vegetable wall.
I am sick of kale. Even my beloved collards put me off. The hell with you, turnip and rutabaga, for you’ve left a bitter taste in my mouth. I push bowls of Brussels sprouts away as if I am a child again. I have eaten my greens in all forms, and I can’t stand them anymore. With the exception of but a few, the only way vegetables are still palatable is with heavy cream and bits of bacon.
Through it all, somehow potatoes still taste amazing. Anything resembling a jar of sunshine helps, like last summer's canned tomatoes. Going outside helps, too, because the musty smell of thawing earth and the gentle heat of the midday sun give me hope for what is to come. Luckily, any food on a platter that resembles comfort is still a hit at the table -- such as these chicken legs, tenderly covered with a parchment lid and slow cooked in a Dutch oven until they become sticky. It's a dish that's good anytime of the year, but especially welcome during the wait until spring.
Here are my tips for braising:
1. Always caramelize the protein. (Many times the vegetables are caramelized too, but not always.) The deeper the caramelization, the deeper the flavor of the finished dish. Be mindful of the fond (the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan) -- don’t let them burn. The ideal braise includes a beautiful fond, which occurs when the bottom of the pot is covered with brown bits of cooked-on-goodness that release into the sauce when you add liquid. For good measure, always use a wooden spoon and scrape along the bottom of the pot to make sure that nothing is left behind.
2. If a recipe calls for vegetables, always add more. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of mirepoix, don’t be afraid to add 2. A braise, as far as I know, has never been hurt by too many vegetables.
3. A parchment lid is one of my favorite cooking methods -- and it will make your braise taste better. As I understand it, the parchment allows the food that sits atop the liquid to brown and caramelize while preventing the liquid from evaporating.
4. Just because meat is cooked in a liquid doesn’t mean it won’t dry out. Have you ever eaten a piece of pot roast that is so hard to swallow that it gives you the hiccups? It is most likely because the roast was too lean or overcooked. Be mindful of cooking times and fat content.
5. If a braise only calls for a mirepoix to be used in the broth, at the end of the cooking time I will oftentimes remove the meat, degrease the braising liquid, and purée the vegetables to make the sauce creamy without having to add even a touch cream.
8 to 10 skin-on chicken legs
1 cup celery, diced
1 1/2 cups yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 cups carrots, thinly sliced on a bias
12 to 18 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups tomato purée
1 cup vegetable broth or water
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons rosemary, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons flat leaf parsely, minced
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld