Monday, January 14, 2013

Comfort Food Supreme

It's trying to be January here in the South and not succeeding very well.  Saturday, it was 71 freaking degrees, and has been raining on and off for days, and is going to continue to rain and rain and rain for the next week.  Animals are starting to line up in pairs...

(Although, I did throw out some grass seed this morning to try and cover up a bare spot that seems to be a poodle mud magnet, so I'm pretty sure the rain will immediately cease and desist.  That's what happened every single time last spring when I attempted to cover the bald spots in my yard.)

 During that ill-fated culinary school adventure, I started reading a lot of food blogs, blogs by other crazed culinary students, and food writing in general.  One of the blogs that I stumbled across was Proud Italian Cook.  The blogger lives near Chicago and cooks mainly, you guessed it, Italian.

Her food photography, as well as her recipes, are magazine worthy, and I wish I could wrangle a dinner invite in real life, instead of just through the internet.

Last year, she posted a recipe for Chicken with Fennel and Olives that has been my go-to comfort food for the last year.  Initially, I was a little wary about the fennel, because fennel = licorice/anise flavor = hatred.  But, the picture looked so amazing, I decided to brave the fennel.  Plus, I figured if I didn't like it, I could leave it out if I wanted to make the dish again.  And, there were olives, which could make up for a lot of not liking fennel if necessary.

This dish was amazing.  She suggested serving it with a creamy, cheesy polenta, and I think the first time that I made it, I may have licked all the pans.  The fennel actually has a very delicate flavor and was not overwhelming licorice like.   I used chicken breasts the first time, and if I do it again, I'll whack them in half, crosswise.  They were just too big, and I overcooked them a little bit.

The next couple of times I made it, I used bone-in, skin-on thighs, and that elevated it to an even higher level.  I've always sort of skirted around eating thighs and legs, because I've not been that big of a fan of dark meat.  It tastes kind of strong and gamey to me...unless it's in this dish.  

I've tweaked the recipe a little bit, and I've fed this to several different folks, and it's gotten rave reviews every time.  Here's the recipe, and my edits in are blue.

Chicken with Fennel and Olives

adapted from Proud Italian Cook (

6 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on (If using breasts, you might want to whack them in half for more even cooking)

1 fennel bulb, sliced

1 onion, sliced

8 cloves of chopped garlic

1 14-oz can of cherry tomatoes (or diced) (I used Publix brand fancy sliced stewed tomatoes, because I couldn't find canned cherry tomatoes in my area, and I used 2 cans.)

Jumbo green pitted olives (I’ve also used a mix of fancy olives from an olive bar.)

Parsley, thyme, oregano and basil (use fresh; a few sprigs of each)

White wine

Olive oil

Salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 375F.  Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper.  In a large oven-proof skillet, heat a small amount of olive oil over medium heat.  Brown chicken until it has a nice deep golden color.  Remove and drain the fat from the pan. 

Drizzle in more olive oil, and saut√© the onion and fennel.  Then, deglaze with a generous slug of white wine and throw in the garlic, stirring it around for a minute or so.  (You can put the garlic in with the onions and fennel, but I am always afraid that I will burn it.) Add in the tomatoes, herb sprigs, and salt and pepper to taste, then place the chicken back in the pan, skin side up. Spread your olives all around and put the pan in the oven for around 45 minutes, uncovered.

About 10 minutes before the chicken is done, start the polenta. 

Creamy Polenta

1 1/2 cups of half & half, cream, or milk (I usually use half & half.),

1 1/2 cups of chicken broth

3/4 cup of instant polenta

1 Tablespoon butter

Grated Parmesan (about half a cup, give or take) (I use shredded, because it’s what I normally have)

Chopped fresh basil

In a deep sauce pan, heat your milk and broth until boiling.  Whisk in the polenta until it starts to bubble; it will splatter a little bit, so be careful. Remove the pot from the heat and add in butter, cheese, snipped basil, salt and pepper to taste. if it thickens up, just add more liquid (stock or cream) to loosen it up.  I like mine a little stiffer, more like mashed potatoes, but it's a personal preference.

To serve this dish, I put a generous spoonful of the polenta on a plate, and then put a piece of chicken and the sauce on top of the polenta. I try not to cover the crispy chicken skin completely. Steamed broccoli with a little lemon and salt and pepper is a good accompaniment. 

Just a side note about the tomatoes:  I used 2 14-oz cans of the stewed tomatoes instead of 1.  For some reason, I didn’t think diced work as well, because they seemed to lose flavor and texture. Weird, I know.  Also, using 2 cans gives a little more sauce,which is not a bad thing at all in this recipe.

You cannot help but feel warm and content after consuming this dish, ready to hunker down in your Slanket or Snuggy or Pajama Jeans and hibernate for awhile...or at least until time for dessert.

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