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IN THE KITCHEN / RUSS PARSONS

The Dutch Question

April 22, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

I've never been to Holland, but I've always imagined it to be pretty gray and chilly. Maybe that's why I've reached for my Dutch oven so often during this rainy winter.

Dutch ovens, of course, are large covered pots, usually made of cast iron. The originals had little legs so they could be placed in coals where they could be used just like . . . ovens. That's probably why they're not called Dutch pots.

Why are they called Dutch ovens? I have no idea, and even the experts are perplexed. In fact, there's been a running debate about just that question in Cook's Illustrated magazine. Was it the high quality of Dutch cast iron that gave the pot its name? Did it come from the Pennsylvania Dutch, who use Dutch ovens? Or could Dutch indicate that the pot was a substitute oven (as in "Dutch courage" for liquor)?

Whatever the answer, they are terrific pots. I have two and I use them all the time. One is small, about 4 quarts, and rather plain. It is a hand-me-down from my late mother-in-law. The other, enameled cast-iron, is mega-sized, more than 6 quarts, and oblong.

The small one is perfect for making soup or a pot of beans. The larger, which is technically a cocotte (French for Dutch oven, as near as I can tell), is more a full-meal kind of thing. I've used it to make the Mexican hominy stew posole for 25 and recently roasted an entire leg of lamb in it.

One of the best things I've made in it is a kind of stewed chicken with potatoes and olives. It's just something that came together one weekend when we had people coming for dinner and the next day were visiting a friend who had just had a baby. I figured I'd make a lot and take the leftovers.

I cut up three chickens and browned them well. Then I added some aromatics and some white wine mixed with tomato paste. I cooked it until the chicken was quite tender, then added olives and herbs and boiled potatoes. The wine and tomato paste reduce to a lightly thickened sauce. The green olives and assorted fresh herbs add an aromatic complexity. And then there are potatoes to soak up a lot of that sauce.

Although there is nothing especially difficult about this recipe, a couple of hints will make it better.

First, be sure to fry the chicken long enough so that it is nicely browned. Depending on how hot the fire is, that could take 10 to 15 minutes per side. This browning is essential to developing the flavor of the bird and its sauce. But don't rush the process; you don't want to scorch the chicken.

Be sure to cook the parts in the order given. When they are stacked in the Dutch oven, you want the dark meat at the bottom. The more developed muscle meat will stay more moist during the long cooking. The more delicate breast meat should sit on top, where it will gently steam rather than boil.

I'm not exactly sure what this dish should be called. Classically, I suppose, it is a saute--the chicken is browned and then cooked with a liquid. I just call it chicken for a crowd.

Whatever you call it, I think it's quite good, in the homey, comforting mode. Definitely the thing for a rainy weekend--in Holland or at home.

CHICKEN FOR A CROWD

3 (3- to 3 1/2-pound) chickens

Salt, pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

2 unpeeled cloves garlic plus 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 pound onions, chopped

1/2 pound green bell pepper, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1/2 pound carrots, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley plus extra for garnish

3 cups white wine

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

2 pounds white boiling potatoes, peeled

1/2 pound green olives, preferably unpitted

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

1 teaspoon chopped mint

* Rinse chickens well and disjoint each into 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 wings and 2 breasts. Cut each breast in half cross-wise. Reserve backs, wing tips and necks for another use. Pat dry with paper towels. Salt and pepper well.

* Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in wide skillet. Add unpeeled garlic cloves. When garlic begins to sputter and color, begin browning chicken: drumsticks and thighs first, then wings, then breast pieces. Cook each until lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes per side. Discard garlic if it begins to scorch.

* As each batch is finished, layer in large Dutch oven, beginning with drumsticks and thighs on bottom, then wings, then breast pieces.

* When all chicken is browned, pour off all but about 1 tablespoon fat. Return skillet to stove and increase heat to high. When brown bits begin to sizzle, add onions, bell pepper, celery, carrots, sliced garlic and 1/4 cup chopped parsley. Let vegetables sit 1 minute or so until they begin to steam. Then stir, scraping bottom of pan to get up as many of brown sticky bits as possible. When vegetables are brightly colored and beginning to wilt, pour over chicken in Dutch oven.

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