On Monday night we celebrated the five-year anniversary of my car accident. A bunch of people came over—some I knew, others I did not. My mother, her boyfriend, Charley, and their poodle, Lily, arrived early to help me set up. I cooked a lot, mainly in the morning, before the sticky sheet of heat that has been hovering above Boston this last week began to descend into my kitchen. When we all sat down that night around the big table by the window, the one that overlooks brick buildings and silhouetted steeples glowing in the dusk, we cheered to the small things, to the lucky things, the ones that put us all there, then. There was red wine and white wine, a potato and zucchini torte, an arugula salad and a lot of fine cheese. My favorite dish was the centerpiece: chicken braised with figs, honey and vinegar. I used a recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which I took out from the library the week before. The meat was tender and the figs a perfect grainy sweet. The vinegar added just a bit of a bite to the sauce, which was sopped up with hunks of bread fresh from a bakery down the street. We finished with thick slices of plum cake, slathered in whipped cream.
Chicken Braised with Honey, Figs and Vinegar
Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook
4 chicken legs (thigh plus drumstick)
2 – 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 8 wedges
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons dry white vermouth
about ½ cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh thyme
a few black peppercorns, barely crushed
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
8 – 10 (or more) fresh figs, cut in half
Rinse and then dry the chicken legs. Trim the excess fat. Season with salt and refrigerate, covered, until ready for use (recommended: 12 – 24 hours in advance).
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat oil in a heavy oven proof skilled, preferably large enough that all of the chicken can be held in one single layer. Over medium heat (the oil should sizzle, not pop explosively), brown the chicken, skin side down, until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes. Turn the legs over, and cook slightly, about 4 minutes, until just slightly colored. Pour off the fat.
If your skillet is not oven proof, transfer chicken to braising dish, skin side up. Arrange onion wedges in the spaces between the legs. Add the wine, vermouth and enough stock to come to a ½ inch in the dish. Bring to a simmer on the stove. Add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black pepper.
Place in the oven, uncovered, and cook until meat is tender but not falling off the bone. About 40 minutes. The chicken skin will be bronzed and crisp. The liquid will have reduced by half. Remove from the oven.
Here, the cookbook recommends tilting the pan so that the fat gathers and then spooning off as much as possible. I was confused as to whether or not the chicken should remain in the pot for this, so I decided to remove the legs to a clean plate. I spooned the fat off the sauce as it cooled, and then brought it back to a boil over medium heat, swirling as it reduced to a more syrupy consistency.
Mix the vinegar and honey, and warm slightly. (I did this in the microwave.) Add the figs to the sauce on the stove, and then the vinegar and honey mixture, stirring. Nestle the chicken back into the pan, careful not to squish the figs, and simmer until the sauce is glossy, only a minute or two. The taste should be rich and vibrantly sweet and sour. Add more salt, honey or vinegar to taste.
Serve each chicken leg with two wedges of onion and 4 or 5 fig halves, with a few spoonfuls of sauce.