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What's Braised on the Bone

February 04, 1993|FAYE LEVY

For many of us, grilling and roasting are the first methods that come to mind when we want to cook chicken. But during winter, one of the most satisfying ways to cook chicken is by braising, a favorite method in kitchens from France to the Far East.

There are two basic ways to braise chicken. In the method most familiar to us, you brown the chicken pieces before adding the liquid. The second technique, typified by the Moroccan tajine , is even simpler: You just heat the chicken briefly with spices and oil before adding the liquid.

You can achieve an amazing variety of flavors by using different braising liquids, including white or red wine, chicken broth, chopped tomatoes or coconut milk, and by adding spices, herbs, onions or garlic.

Whole chickens and any chicken pieces on the bone can be braised. Use a cut-up chicken, or choose all breasts, drumsticks or thighs if that's what your family prefers.

You can add such quick-cooking vegetables as mushrooms, baby onions and zucchini to the casserole when the chicken is nearly cooked. Firmer vegetables--carrots and potatoes, for instance--can cook alongside chicken that is braising in stock or water. If the braising liquid is mainly wine or tomatoes, however, these vegetables will not cook evenly and are best cooked separately.

Often the braising liquid is reduced or thickened with flour. This produces an intense sauce to pour over potatoes, rice or pasta. You can also use the cooking juices straight out of the pan.

If you're worried about fat, here are some ways to make braised chicken a little leaner: Choose breast pieces. Discard the oil after browning the chicken. Skim the fat from the sauce with a spoon, or refrigerate the dish and remove the solidified fat from the top, as with chicken soup. Remove the skin of the chicken before serving.

A French chef taught me to make this dish, and I have always associated it with southern French cooking. In France it is called chicken Nicoise, for the town of Nice on the French Riviera, and is served with pasta. But the dish is also enjoyed in Morocco -- and might have originated there. The Moroccan version is flavored with cilantro instead of tarragon and with chicken broth or water instead of wine.

MEDITERRANEAN CHICKEN WITH OLIVES 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken pieces, patted dry Salt Freshly ground pepper 1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered, optional 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 pounds tender-ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 2 (28-ounce) cans whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped 1/2 cup dry white wine 2/3 cup pitted black olives 1/2 teaspoon dried leaf thyme, crumbled Few drops fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried leaf, crumbled 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, preferably Italian

Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Season chicken to taste with salt and pepper on both sides. Brown chicken on both sides in batches. Transfer browned pieces to plate.

Discard all but 1 tablespoon olive oil from skillet. Add mushrooms and season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Remove from skillet and set aside.

Add garlic to skillet and saute few seconds. Stir in tomatoes and wine. Return chicken and any juices that have collected on plate to skillet and bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until breast pieces are tender when pierced with sharp knife, about 35 minutes. Transfer breasts to plate. Cook remaining legs and thighs until tender, about 10 minutes longer.

If thicker sauce is desired, transfer remaining chicken to plate and boil sauce about 5 minutes, stirring. Return chicken and mushrooms to skillet and add olives, thyme and lemon juice. Cover and warm over low heat 3 minutes. Add tarragon and parsley. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

Chicken and prunes are partners in French, Polish, Russian and North African cuisines. In this version, the chicken is flavored with honey, saffron, cinnamon and plenty of onions. The flavor is slightly sweet, exotic and wonderful. Serve the chicken with couscous, rice or orzo.

MOROCCAN CHICKEN TAJINE WITH PRUNES AND ALMONDS 2 tablespoons oil or butter 3 pounds chicken pieces, patted dry 2 large onions, minced Salt Freshly ground pepper About 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads 1 cup chicken stock, broth or water 1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 1 cup moist pitted prunes 2 tablespoons honey

1/3 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted

Combine oil, chicken, onions, and salt and pepper to taste in heavy casserole. Cover and cook over low heat, turning chicken occasionally, 5 minutes. Add saffron, stock, cinnamon stick and ginger. Push cinnamon stick into liquid. Bring to boil. Reduce heat.

Cover and simmer over low heat, turning pieces occasionally, until breast pieces are tender when pierced with knife, about 35 minutes. Transfer to plate. Cover and cook remaining legs and thighs until tender, about 10 minutes longer. Transfer to plate.

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