Friday, April 22, 2011

chicken with olives + pine nuts

This is my favorite dish on earth. ON EARTH. I dream about it. In fact, I find myself counting the weeks since I made it last, wondering whether enough time has elapsed for me to suggest making it again, or whether D will think I'm totally crazy and obsessed.

I watched Lidia Bastianich make Pollo con Olive e Pignoli on her show back in 2009, and as soon as she raised the lid on this pot full of browned chicken and salty-buttery-winey-nutty goodness, I knew I had to try it myself. It was the first thing I ever made in the gorgeous, tomato-red Le Creuset Dutch oven that was D's Christmas present to me that year, so every time I pull it out of the cabinet, my mouth starts watering because it associates that pot with this dish.

Though the best batches of this recipe by far have been the ones using bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, I often amend Lidia's original recipe by using boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead. I like chicken breasts just fine, but only when they're cooked the right way. In order to keep the meat from drying out and becoming tough, which can happen very easily with chicken breasts, it's worth taking the extra step to brine the chicken for at least a couple of hours so that it stays juicy and tender. (Brining is super simple: in a large bowl with a lid, whisk together 4 cups water and 3 tablespoons each of sugar and salt until it's dissolved. Add chicken breasts, cover, and refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours. When you're ready to cook, remove chicken from brine, rinse it with cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels.) Using chicken breasts also cuts a bit of the fat in the dish - though in all honesty, this is absolutely not a diet recipe. It's something I only bring out when I'm feeling kind of what-the-hell about being healthy.

Me want.
This is a great recipe for a dinner party. It's super rustic, makes your house smell fantastic, and - bonus! - is a one-pot, one-bowl meal. Put a bottle of wine, a big bowl of salad, and a basket of crusty baguette chunks with it, and you're done.

Recipe notes: For the olives, I feel pretty strongly about Cerignolas because I think they have a really distinctive flavor that makes this dish, but I have read the reader comments on Lidia's recipe, and apparently other cooks have used regular green olives and loved how their batches came out. I increased the amount of pine nuts in the recipe because, let's be honest, I am never mad at more pine nuts. I have also called for more wine so that it makes more pan sauce, which is like crack. My friends, there are no words strong enough to express how I feel about it. (I might also venture so far as to say that I view the chicken, which is ostensibly the "star" of this dish, as almost ancillary to the sauce.) And P.S.: the soft garlic chunks are maybe the best part of eating this. Getting one on your plate is a bit like finding the toy baby in the king cakeexcept better, because you can eat the garlic...

chicken with olives + pine nuts
(adapted from Lidia Bastianich's Pollo con Olive e Pignoli)

3½ to 4 lbs. chicken pieces ("happy chicken" if possible)
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. plus 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 to 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1 c. pitted Cerignola olives
7 to 8 small, oil-cured black olives (just a few will do - they're really salty and a little bitter)
3/4 c. white wine
1/2 c. toasted pine nuts
at least one crusty baguette

Pit olives by smashing each one under the side of a large, wide chef's knife and removing pits. Leave them in large chunks; it's so rustic and pretty that way! You might also go ahead and toast your pine nuts at this point. Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. Add nuts and stir occasionally. Keep a close watch on them; they burn very easily. When they're lightly browned, take them off the heat and put them in a small bowl. Let them cool and set them aside, along with the olives.

If you have brined the chicken, rinse it and pat it dry. Pepper it but don't salt itthe brine and the olives will add plenty of salt. If not, pat it dry, and a light dusting of salt and pepper on both sides is fine. Remove to a plate.

Melt 2 tbsp. of the butter and all of the olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Let it turn into a bit of a beurre noisette if you wanta little light browning will actually make it taste even yummier.

Add the chicken pieces to the pot and flip them back and forth once so that both sides get a coating of oil and butter. Arrange the pieces so that there’s as much space between them as possible. Scatter the smashed garlic chunks and bay leaves in the oil/butter, in the spaces between the chicken breasts. Cover and let the pieces gently brown for around 10 minutesyou might cut that time a little shorter, depending on how quickly the pieces are browning. The less cooking you have to do, the more tender the chicken will be.

Uncover and flip the chicken pieces, moving them around a bit in the pan so that they all get the same amount of heat and oil. Cover again and cook for 5 to 10 minutes on gentle heat.

After around 15 to 20 minutes total, scatter olives around the pan and pour in the wine. Raise heat just enough so that it starts bubbling again, and then immediately reduce it as low as it will go. Cover and gently simmer for about 10 minutes, turning chicken pieces periodically so that they stay covered with the pan juices. Sometimes I also pile a couple of olives on top of the chicken so that they stay moist.

Finally, stir in pine nuts and cover tightly again. Turn off the heat and let the whole thing sit for about 5 or 10 minutes. At the end, melt an additional tablespoon of butter into the sauce.

Serve with rice or torn chunks of baguette. Depending on which you choose, take my advice and think about not serving this on a plate. I recommend either putting the chicken and rice in shallow bowls so that you can pour lots of pan juice over it, or if not, then at least pouring the sauce into little ramekins so that you can dip hunks of bread in it.

Tender! Juicy! Salty! Buttery! Mmmmmm.