Good Morning Sunshine: Time for a Stew
I often forget about all the things there are to love about winter. Once the holidays wind down and life resumes its normal beat, I generally dread the long, slow months ahead. But there’s the catch. Long, slow months. That’s the beauty of winter — we get to slow down and focus inward. Inside the house, inside our minds (or what’s left of them after the holiday parties and all that eating and cooking and sleeping). There’s no garden to tend, no lawn to mow. And when the sun is out and there’s a fresh blanket of powder on the fields surrounding my house, as it is this morning, there is much to celebrate.
But it’s not just the slowing down. It’s the eating, of course. Winter was made for cooking. Last night, after a day when the high reached 11 degrees and a gray sheet seemed to be tucked into the daytime sky, I spent several hours preparing a chicken stew bathed in red wine, seasoned with bacon, fresh thyme (from my barely surviving herb plant), mushrooms, and baby onions (that did survive in our cold dark basement after being pulled from the garden last September). The stew filled the house with one of those “try to resist me” aromas. It was so intoxicating that when the Fedex guy walked into the mudroom and asked for my signature on a package, he blurted out “Oh my God what are you cooking?” And then, only half kidding, “Can I stay for dinner?”
There are few things in this world that smell as good as a slow simmering stew. Flavors are gently coaxed into the stew. Root vegetables like carrots and onions are asked to release their natural sweetness, while the chicken (cut into 8 serving pieces) cooks at its own time and fills the pot with its meaty essence and huge flavor. It’s as if the chicken is literally drinking the red wine, taking on its color and flavor, and surrendering any toughness it ever thought about having. The bacon provides a meaty backdrop for the stew and the crimini mushrooms, tasting of bare earth before a snowfall, balance the whole stew out. Local potatoes, peeled and then quartered, are steamed in boiling water and then gently tossed with a touch of butter and fresh parsley.
Let your food slow down. No quick sautés and throwing a salad together for this time of year. These cold, short (though ever-lengthening) days call for stews and soups and braises. Winter is for food that’s just not meant to happen quickly.
Chicken Stew with Bacon, Baby Onions and Crimini Mushrooms
This chicken stew, very reminiscent of the classic French Coq au Vin, is best made a day ahead of time, but will work just fine if you cook it a few hours before you’re going to serve it. All the classics go best— parsleyed potatoes, potaoes gratin, mashed potatoes, polenta, egg noodles. We had leftover stew for two days and, trust me, it only gets better and better.
A good wintry salad—mixed greens, watercress, tangerine sections and a crumble of blue cheese - would also be great, along with some good crusty bread for sopping up all those red wine juices.
2 strips bacon
About 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
About 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 leek, dark green section discarded, and white and pale green section cut in half lengthwise and then into 1-inch pieces
4 scallions, ends trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
12 pearl onions, peeled and left whole*
2 large carrots, peeled, and cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 ½ teaspoons dried and crumbled
About 1 cup flour
1 four-pound roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
3 cups dry red wine**
1 bay leaf
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
11 ounces crimini mushrooms, or button mushrooms, washed gently and cut in half**
*Or 4 medium size sweet onions, peeled and quartered
**You want a really well rounded red wine, but not too fruity. Choose something you would like to drink with dinner or a lesser wine made from the same grape as what you’ll serve with the stew.
**Don’t place the mushrooms under cold running water to clean. Use a vegetable brush and lightly scrub the mushroom caps clean without using any excessive water.
In a large, heavy skillet (cast iron is ideal) cook the bacon strips over moderate heat and let them get crisp; drain the bacon on paper towels, but keep the bacon grease in the skillet. Add ½ tablespoon of the olive oil to the bacon grease and place over low heat. Add the leek, scallions, pearl onions, carrots, salt, pepper, and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the flour on a large plate and season liberally with salt and pepper. Dry off the chicken pieces with a paper towel and then dredge them in the seasoned flour, making sure all sides are well coated.
In a large, heavy skillet (cast iron is ideal), heat 1 tablespoon canola oil and ½ tablespoon of the olive oil over high heat. Brown the chicken pieces, a few pieces at a time being careful not to crowd the skillet, adding the additional oil if needed, about 3 minutes on each side. If the chicken or the oil starts to burn reduce the heat to moderate. Remove the browned pieces of chicken to paper towels or a brown paper grocery bag to drain off any excess fat.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
When the onions are tender sprinkle in 2 tablespoons flour from the flour you used to dredge the chicken. Let cook 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and add the wine, the bay leaf, letting it come to a rolling boil. Add the chicken pieces, spooning the wine over the chicken so it is almost completely bathed in it. Sprinkle on half the parsley. Cover the casserole and place on the middle shelf of the preheated oven. Bake for 1 hour, basting the chicken pieces once or twice during that time.
After an hour add the mushrooms, baste the chicken making sure the mushrooms are in the wine sauce, cover and bake another 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.
If you make the stew a day ahead of time be sure to let it cool down and refrigerate over night. The next day use a spoon to remove any fat that has risen to the surface.
Serve hot, sprinkled with the remaining parsley. Serves 4.