Braised Chicken Thighs with Apricots and Green Olives
Too busy to braise on a weeknight? Maybe you should rethink your protein. A stovetop chicken braise is in regular rotation on my weeknight dinner table for several good reasons: it's relatively quick, it's nearly foolproof, it's endlessly adaptable, and who doesn't love tender, flavor-drenched chicken thighs bathed in a savory sauce?The basic technique is a valuable lesson in learning to manage your kitchen timeline. Sure, professional cooks—and many YouTube hosts—make a big deal out of preparing all their ingredients well before they start cooking. When cooking at home, however, it makes more sense to find ways to integrate the prep work into your actual cooking process. This not only speeds things up, but also it forces you to pay more attention to the process which in turn makes you a better and more efficient cook. It can also make the whole process more engaging and ultimately more fun.A classic chicken braise has three main elements: the chicken, the aromatics, and the liquid, and because these elements are added at various stages, you can stagger their preparation. For instance, the first step in my recipe below calls for browning the chicken thighs to develop a lovely dark sear and to render some of the fat, a task that takes about 10 minutes; but instead of just standing there watching the pan, I set up a cutting board next to the stove and use the time to slice the onion, since that's what gets added next. Then, once the chicken comes out of the pan, in goes the onion, and I use the onion-cooking time to slice the garlic and measure spices and liquids. Once those go in, I turn my attention to the lemon, apricots, and olives. The pace moves along quickly but not frantically, and if it ever gets away from me —or if the phone rings or the dog needs to be fed—I just switch off the heat and allow myself to catch up. At the end, there's a nice 30- to 35-minute window of hands-off quiet simmering that you can use to boil baby potatoes, rice, or egg noodles to accompany the braise—or just pour yourself a glass of wine and read the paper.The staggered process here is about more than just good time management; it's also a great lesson in building flavor into a dish. Browning the chicken pieces creates layers of meaty flavors, both on the chicken and on the bottom of the pan. It also creates delicious drippings that I use to sauté sliced onion until silky and infused with meaty flavor. Then I create a flavor base by stirring in some smoky pimentón (Spanish paprika). This gives the dish a rich, ruddy color and a hint of smoky sweetness that plays against the fruity apricots. I counterbalance the sweetness with bright lemon zest, crisp wine, and a handful of briny olives. If you've got ground coriander in the cupboard (or, better yet, whole seed that you grind yourself), it adds a faint hint of citrus to underscore the lemon, although the dish has plenty going on without it.Once you get the technique down, go ahead and tweak this recipe according to your appetite and what's in your refrigerator and pantry. For instance, consider supplementing the onion and garlic with other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, carrots, fennel, or cabbage, to make a heartier dish. Or maybe use canned tomatoes and/or chicken broth for the liquid. Or swap out the apricots for prunes, or leave out the dried fruit and double the amount of olives. You see where this is going. Taste, test, and play; it’s my favorite way to cook.