There are two steps in the braising process: the tasty browning and the tender cooking. Here the chicken is browned in a skillet first, then cooked to tenderness either in the oven or on the stovetop. Dusting the seasoned meat with all-purpose flour thickens the braising liquid and results in a rich, gravy-like sauce. Using stock will give you the most flavorful dish, but water really does work well, especially if you help it out with plenty of flavor from spices and fresh herbs. Wine gives the stew roundness, complexity, and welcome acidity. Beer-cooked chicken has roots in Europe as well as in China and the Americas and renders an earthy, grainy, bitter/fruity flavor, depending on the type of beer used.
The onion can stand alone if you don't have the carrots and celery, but get some for next time--they are so good in so many things and when in the sweet midst of their individual seasons, each can step forward from the trio and take their solo.
- 5 chicken legs (drumstick and thigh together)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- All-purpose flour, for dredging
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
- 3/4 cup white or red wine, beer, chicken stock, or water
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, chunked, chopped, or sliced
- Roughly chopped leaves from 3 thyme, rosemary, or sage sprigs
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 cups chicken stock or water
- Finely chopped leaves from 6 parsley sprigs
Season the chicken legs well with 1 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper and let them sit for a while, 15 minutes to an hour (or, best, overnight in the refrigerator to absorb the seasoning). Unless you're cooking in the tropics or there's a hungry, ill-trained dog capable of counter jumping, they need not be refrigerated. Leash that dog and dredge the chicken legs: Put the flour into a bowl or, better, a deep cake pan (the high sides make for less flour-dusting of the kitchen floor), add the chicken legs, and tumble them around so they get completely coated. Shake off all excess flour or it will burn in the skillet and that greasy burned-toast smell will stick. Don't flour more than you can fry at a go, so depending on the size of your skillet, you may have to work in batches. Heat a skillet over high and when it's nice and hot but not smoking, add 2 tablespoons of the oil and then, pretty quickly, the legs. This is an important part: if you leave the oil alone in the hot skillet for long, it will burn and give the braise an off taste. So carefully but swiftly place the floured legs in the hot oil and adjust the heat so that they're sizzling nicely, not ferociously. Leave them in place; don't move them any more than needed to make them fit snugly in the skillet. Add more oil if it looks dry. When you can see them getting brown around the edges, after about 5 minutes, turn them over. You're not trying to cook them through at this stage, so when they are browned all over, about 3 minutes more, set the legs aside. Turn off the heat under the skillet and turn the oven on to 450˚F.
Unless it looks too dark and burned, it's time to add some liquid to simmer up all the sweet and flavorful bits that are sticking to the skillet. First pour off all the grease and then return the skillet to medium heat and deglaze by adding the wine and scraping with a wooden spoon as it bubbles. When it's all dissolved and dislodged, pour the deglazing liquid into a bowl and set aside. (If the skillet is in fact too burned, just wash it out and skip the deglazing step, adding the wine later when the legs go back in.) Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, the onion, carrot, and celery, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaf and cook for a minute, and then return the chicken to the pan, skin side up, along with the reserved deglazing liquid and stock or water. Bring to a simmer and put the skillet in the oven. After 5 minutes, lower the heat to 325˚F. (Or you can skip the oven and simmer, covered loosely, on a low burner.) Cook until very tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a slender-bladed knife into the meat. It should pull out easily with very little grab. If the knife sticks, cook for 10 minutes more. Check again, and when done, remove from the oven, lift the legs from the skillet, and set them aside. Pour the contents of the skillet into a small, deep-sided bowl to allow the fat to rise for 5 minutes. With a small ladle, skim off the floating grease layer. Recombine the braising liquid and vegetables with the chicken skin side up, bring back to a simmer, and pop back into the oven for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley, and eat right away, or save to reheat later.
Chicken cooked in red wine--coq au vin--I think of as the classic of classics. To make it, add some sliced-up bacon when the legs first go back in the skillet and braise with red wine replacing all the liquid or with a combination of plenty of red wine and stock or water. Coq au vin is comforting in the winter with the carrots cut chunky and served with mashed potatoes or other mashed roots and scattered with parsley and Rustic Oily Croutons.
In summer, chicken legs braised with paprika is seasonally colorful and delicious. Uncover the skillet for the last 10 minutes of cooking and make a paste with 1 teaspoon sweet paprika and a couple spoonfuls of the braising liquid. Brush up the legs so that they're all red and fragrant and continue cooking. Serve with chickpeas and peperonata, and pass simple parsley and garlic Salsa Verde at the table.