I’ve been in a funk, dear readers. Well, not a funk exactly...more of a rut. A frosty weather-induced, post house-full-of-company rut that had me holed up every night last week in my yoga pants, fuzzy socks and Brian’s old sweatshirt. Meals consisted of leftovers pulled hastily from our refrigerator and freezer, thrown together haphazardly with as little effort expended as possible, eaten on the sofa in our den.
I was tucked into bed by 8pm most evenings - electric blanket on high, humidifier humming away, Burt’s Bees coating my lips, book in hand. When the air temperature hasn't come close to 40* since well before Christmas it becomes very difficult to motivate oneself to climb out of a toasty bed to be productive. Even more so when you're a little burnt out from all of the cooking and cleaning and entertaining that took place the month prior.
Now, don’t for a second feel sorry for me. I was in my own little world, a vacation from cooking and socializing and looking decent after 6pm. I needed to lose myself to my thoughts for a few days, indulge in some guilty-pleasure reading, take lots of bubble baths while sipping red wine, ponder some 2010 projects. It was a lovely way to spend five evenings and quite a bit of last weekend, the only elements to improve the situation might have been a wood-burning fireplace and a view of the snow-dusted mountains to the west.
I emerged Saturday afternoon with a renewed desire to reacquaint myself with my kitchen beyond refrigeration and microwaves, a small stack of recipes in my hand and a posting schedule for Bella Eats on my iphone. The main criteria for dishes on that schedule is basic...they must be warm, they must be whole, they must be satisfying. Even better if they require that my oven be operating for at least 30 minutes, heating the kitchen and my fuzzy-socked feet. Braising seemed to be the perfect solution.
I've been reading reviews of Molly Stevens'All About Braising for quite some time now, noting that many foodies count the cookbook as one of their favorites. Its been on my wishlist, and was finally purchased in December to add to our collection, along with additional copies for family and friends. We've tried just two recipes so far, but have received enthusiastic comments from those we gifted the book to who didn't come out of the holidays in quite the same unmotivated rut as I.
Between us all we've tested 10-12 of the dishes featured, from spicy green cabbage to pork sausage with grapes and wine to this chicken braised in hard cider with parsnips. There hasn't been a dud yet - the cookbook certainly seems to be living up to its IACP and James Beard Foundation award-winning name. Our copy has had a permanent home on the end of our dining room table, just off the kitchen, for daily browsing and recipe selection. You're sure to see a few pop up here in the next few months.
Hard apple cider infuses the chicken in this recipe with a light tang and incredible moisture as it cooks in a covered pot. The cider turns to a silky glaze that coats the sweet parsnips which, mingled with bits of salty bacon, provide the perfect accompaniment to the chicken.
We served ours with garlicky collard greens on the side for a comforting meal hinting at our southern roots.
Oh! Our hard cider is local, from Albemarle Ciderworks, and highly recommended if you live in the area. It's wonderful in this recipe, but especially good on its own.
Chicken Breasts Braised with Hard Cider & Parsnips
from All About Braising by Molly Stevens, pg. 151 (Molly gives excellent instruction on braising in her book, which I could never properly repeat here. I highly recommend purchasing it if you enjoy this recipe and think braising will be a regular part of your repertoire.)serves 4
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch wide strips
1 pound parsnips, peeled, any woody core removed, and cut into sticks about 3 inches by 1/2 inch
What I love most about braising (so far) is the one-pot meal aspect of the technique. Instructions seem long and lengthy, but in reality are uncomplicated and make for a very easy clean-up.
Preheat oven to 325*.
Combine the oil and bacon in a large deep lidded skillet or shallow braising pan. (the pan needs to be large enough to hold the parsnips and 4 chicken breasts eventually, as you'll be using the same pan throughout the recipe) Heat over medium heat, stirring a few times, until the bacon renders most of its fat and is just crisp, about 6 minutes. Remove bacon pieces to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Rinse the chicken breasts under cool running water and try thoroughly with a paper towel. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper all over all sides.
Pour off and discard all but about 2 tbsp of the olive oil and rendered bacon fat from the original pan. Heat the remaining fat over medium-high heat. Place the chicken breasts, skin-side down, in the pan and brown, without disturbing, for a few minutes. Check the underside of the chicken breasts to see if they are crisp and bronzed, which should take about 5 minutes. Turn with tongs once brown, and repeat on other side for another 4-5 minutes. If the breasts are very plump, stand them on the side rounded edge, leaning them against the sides of the pan or holding them upright with the tongs, and brown this edge for about 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken breasts to a large plate or tray to catch the juices, and set aside.
Add the shallot to the braising pan. Heat over the same medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Quickly pour in 2 cups of the cider to deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon to dislodge and dissolve the browned bits. Let the cider boil to reduce down to about 1/2 cup, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the rosemary and the remaining 1/2 cup cider and boil down again until there's about 3/4 cup total, another 6 to 8 minutes. (watch carefully, you want to be sure to have liquid left for the braising)
Add the parsnips to the pan and season with generous grindings of black pepper and a pinch of salt. Sprinkle the bacon over the parsnips and arrange the chicken pieces on top, skin side down. Cover with parchment paper, pressing down so that the paper nearly rests on the chicken pieces and hangs over the sides of the pan by about an inch, and set the lid in place. Slide the pan onto a rack in the lower third of the oven to braise at a gentle simmer. After 25 minutes turn the chicken pieces and check the liquid. If it is simmering too strongly, lower the oven temperature by 10 to 15 degrees. Continue braising until the meat at the thickest part of the breast is cooked through when you make a small incision with a knife, another 20 to 25 minutes.