Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cheater Chicken Confit

Oh, spring! It is my favorite season. Yes, by the time it arrives it is already ending, but these weeks of bright, fresh dandelion faces and dewy violets and dawn chorus, the birds awake and singing, the sky already lightening at four? Heaven on earth.

I wish I'd gotten a fairy to photo bomb, for scale.

We have been listening to Purple Rain, which I bought in 1984 after seeing the movie with my (persistently dead) friend Ali. Loss compounds loss, it turns out. Maybe you already knew that.
Plus it is, as you may know, a big foraging season for Birdy and me, which I have written about here and here and here

Birdy asked me to cut her hair, and I was happy to have the excuse to touch and smell her head. "Does it have to take so long?" she said, and I said, "It does."
We’ve been heading out with our bags and books to see what’s coming up, and what’s coming up is loads of stuff! Sweet, slippery violet leaves; pungent, invasive garlic mustard; sour sorrel and bitter dandelion. And something new to us this year. “What are you picking?” a friend asked, when we ran into her on the trail. And I said, “Solomon’s Seal shoots! Or maybe False Solomon’s Seal shoots! We’re not sure which.” She looked alarmed, but both are edible, I swear to God.

Mostly, foraging is an excuse for being outside in the spring air with Birdy, girl of my dreams. Hunting for wild food lends a shape and purpose and treasure-hunt-y feeling to our wandering, and we both love that.
They taste a little like asparagus, which is the forager’s equivalent of saying something tastes like chicken. Everything tastes a little like asparagus, but dressed with, you know, just a little dash of strychnine.

Steamed, with butter and lemon? I mean, seriously. "The more you eat, the less bitter they are!" I said, and then worried briefly that it would be the last thing I ever said, but no. Fully edible!
Anyhoo, speaking of chicken! I was inspired to confit chicken legs for a number of reasons: 1) We had one in a restaurant, on a kale salad, and it was excellent. 2) It seemed (correctly) like a way to cook chicken where I wouldn’t have to handle it very much while it was raw, which is good because I’d practically sooner cut off my own leg and handle that than spend too long fondling poultry. 3) It seemed (correctly) like a way to cook the legs that would dissolve all the weird things in the legs that I don’t like to eat.  And maybe most significantly, 4) Whole Foods was having one of those crazy madness sales such that a package of 13 chicken legs was just over four dollars. Right?

This came out just like I wanted it to: the chicken is fragrant and salty and luscious, and when you so much as look at it, all the meat falls off the bone in velvety, yielding shreds. It also keeps well and is super-versatile: we ate some plain, some on salad, and some cassouleted. 

Cheater Cassoulet. Criminally insanely good.
Plus, I took the meat off of the bones of about half the legs and stored it in a jar of its own fat in the fridge, whence we unorthodoxly dug it out to fry up with our matzoh brie all week. Yummmm! (The picture of the chicken in the fat in the jar turned out to be really too forensic-specimen-y to post.) I will be making this again and again—at least before the turning on of the oven ends for the season. It is ridiculously easy and so wonderful.

Ben, taking a break from driving and music and xbox and calculus to help build our raised garden bed. "I'm kind of surprised to see you out here!" I said, and he said, "Not as surprised as I am!"

Chicken Confit
Makes 13 chicken legs! (Or some other number.)

This is not a true confit, which usually refers to duck cooked in its own fat but would, in this case, refer to chicken cooked in its own fat. The legs contribute tons of fat while they cook, but you are going to start them off with a hefty pour of olive oil. You will need to begin this recipe at least 24 hours before you want to eat it, but you will mostly be ignoring it during that time.

Edited to add: If you make this with whole leg quarters, the chicken will give up enough fat that you only need 1/2 cup or so of olive oil, just to get it started. You probably don't even need that, to be honest, but that's what I do.

12-14 chicken drumsticks (if you use the whole leg quarters, scale the recipe up or down accordingly)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
Other seasoning (see note)
3 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 cups extra virgin olive oil (I used a kind of cheap, mild Trader Joe’s one, and I would use it again)

Pack the legs in a glass, ceramic, or enamel baking dish that holds them snugly (I used a lasagna pan). Sprinkle both sides of the chicken with the salt and seasonings, and nestle in the bay leaves. Cover and refrigerate overnight, if possible, or until the evening, which is when I think it makes the most sense to put it in the oven. (You can refrigerate it for longer, if you like—at least up to two days.)

Heat the oven to 200. Uncover the chicken, pour the oil over it (it should come about halfway up the chicken), push the garlic cloves into the oil, and pop the pan in the oven. Leave it for 12-14 hours (it’s fine to peek at it now and then, to make sure the oil is just barely bubbling—turn the oven up or down a hair as needed to make this happen) until the chicken, when you poke it, is inclined to collapse. Leave it to cool in its oil.

Now do one of four things:
1) Eat the chicken now. I like to broil the whole legs briefly to crisp the skin, or shred the meat off the bones and fry it in its own oil until crisp. Either of these is a wonderful way to turn a green salad into a meal. Or use it in a recipe, such as the cassoulet below.
2) Put the whole cooled pan in the refrigerator, covered, where it will keep well for a few days, given all the salt and oil.
3) Shred the meat off the bones and put it in a jar, then cover the meat with the oil from the pan (separate the oil from the juice first—and use or freeze the juice, which is delicious). If the chicken is fully submerged, it will keep for at least a couple of weeks. Dig out the meat and use it as you like.
4) Freeze it. I put four legs in a container in the freezer, and it froze and thawed beautifully.

When you are done eating the chicken, strain the oil and freeze it for the next time you make confit! Or use it now to fry potatoes. Likewise, the juices will make a beautiful soup or gravy.

Note: For other seasonings, I used a scant tablespoon of juniper berries that I ground in a mortar and pestle and mixed with the salt. Other great options include rosemary, thyme, or nothing at all but the garlic, bay, and pepper. You could even just use salt and pepper and it would be wonderful.

Cheater Cassoulet
This is not a real cassoulet—which is the famous French bean/duck/pork/sausage/breadcrumb dish—but it is so good that I thought I’d mention how I made it. In a deep  cast-iron skillet, I sautéed a chopped onion, a large chopped carrot, 3 chopped stalks of celery, 2 garlic cloves, a sprig of dried thyme, and some chopped-up Canadian bacon in olive oil and butter. (I could also have used regular bacon and cooked everything in the bacon grease. Ham and/or other pork things would work too, and I would have added a couple of cut-up hot dogs or some kielbasa if I'd had them. For pork-free smokiness, add a teaspoon of smoked paprika with the tomato paste.) When the veggies were tender, I added 2 tablespoons of tomato paste to the pan, stirred and fried until I could smell it, then ½ cup red wine, which I cooked off. I added a cup of the chicken confit juice (you could use stock) and brought it to a boil, then I stirred in 4 or 5 cups of cooked pinto beans with enough of their liquid that the whole thing was fairly soupy (You could use white beans, which is more traditional, but I love pintos. Also, if you’re using canned beans (3 cans), rinse them off and add extra broth to make up the liquid. ). You will want to salt as needed, depending on your beans / stock, then I nestled in a bay leaf and the 4 chicken legs (I would have used more if I’d had them) and cooked the whole dish at 425 for an hour, with the broiler on for the last 3 or 4 minutes to crisp the skin. Served with a sharp arugula salad = perfection.


  1. Must make this immediately!

  2. No chicken for me, sorry! BUT! Birdy's hair is lovely and Ben's too, and... what I really wanted to say is that Ben is gorgeous, but of course not as gorgeous as MY OWN teenager :-P (minus the acne on his forehead [thankfully!] -- don't your kids have acne? So so sad!)

  3. Ben looks so much like Michael!

  4. I love the foraging idea. And also - be careful. My best friend's family ate "wild asparagus" (turns out it was wild indigo) and ended up in the ER.They did fine ultimately. It even got written up:

    1. Wow! So glad they recovered fully. My uncle ate white day lilies (evidently they aren't ALL edible), and fortunately it wasn't life-threatening as much as hilariously hallucinogenic.

    2. Yoiks to both stories! Thank you for the warning (Mom). No, really, I am very careful. This is a rare case where it is one thing or another, but both are edible. I swear.

  5. Ahhhhh a nice glimpse of Ben, or "your Ben" as I always think of him, as I have a Ben who is the same age. I have been reading since they were babies and blogs were called "diaries", at some point I realized you lived in MA, as we do. My Ben was born in August and he just got his license last week. I am having a hard time with this direct proof of growing up - my favorite part, however is how chatty he is when he is driving and I am sitting in the passenger seat! Because he has to focus on the road, he can't look at his phone or sleep, so talking to me is the only option. I feel like these conversations are so grown up! It is like we have not really had a conversation since he was 11, and now all of a sudden he is an adult who is reading books and has opinions about politics and life! The very definition of bittersweet!

    1. Oh, Monica, I know *exactly* what you mean. The new-driver chattyness! I really do love it. It really is bittersweet.

  6. Hey Catherine, I bet you have to beat the girls off with a stick to keep them away from your Ben. He is sooooo handsome<3 My 16 yo is also new to driving and is never home, except for when we make him cut the grass. I finished your book and tore at my heartstrings. You have a way of writing that just draws us in and I love that about you.
    Take care and hugs to you and yours<3

    1. Dolly, thank you. Enjoy your 16-year-old, however fleetingly!

  7. Really, I cannot tell you how sorry I am about the persistence. Lots of love to you. It is such a treat to see Birdy's face and Ben's face in a post. My kids are so, so crazy about chicken (and I hate handling poultry so, so much); I can't wait to make this. AND a bonus recipe! superXOX

  8. Please forgive me if this is too nosy...or inappropriate...or something to that effect, but I must ask. While I was gawking at how grown up and mature Ben looks (I'm one of those crazy readers who has been following this blog since you were pregnant with Birdy...) I for some reason flashed back to a long-ago entry about Ben and an anomaly with his bone and his elbow. And for some reason I must ask, did that ever sort itself out? Did they leave it alone? Curiosity is getting the better of me.

    I am notoriously bad at cooking meat, but this recipe looks like something I might actually be able to make without messing up! thank you!

    1. Ann, how kind of you to think to ask! His elbow is congenitally dislocated-which means that it looks crazy (picture two bones not actually meeting up at the joint), but is functionally unimpaired. So, all good! xo

  9. Anonymous9:48 AM

    Made this overnight last night and will heat up for dinner tonight. My son ate one for breakfast already though, so I already know it's good.

    Made it with boneless and skinless chicken thighs and even without the skin giving extra fat, it turned out really well.

    Also, the rack in the oven I cooked it on wasn't exactly in the middle (a little closer to the top) and it made it so the top of the chicken crisped up by itself, without needing to do anything more when it was done. Just thought I'd share. --Cathy K

  10. My reaction to that picture of Ben was "Has Michael changed his hair or something? He looks a little different today -- OMG THAT IS TINY BABY BEN!" Well, now I feel incredibly old and I'm off to count my grey hairs and wrinkles.

  11. Anonymous11:06 PM

    Dear Catherine and other chefs - just wondering if this would work in the crock pot? or is it important that it's cooked in the oven?

    1. Yes, I'm sure it would. I almost said as much. My friend Launa made it that way, and it sounded like it came out great.

  12. That moment when you're ogling over blogged meats and you get an email notification your favorite author's book, Catastrophic Happiness, is finally available for you to borrow from the library! Best Tuesday night surprise.

  13. OMG, this sounds amazing. I want to like chicken legs (often at a great price at Whole Foods, as you mentioned) but they're so gnarly most of the time, all veins and tendons and undesirably functional. I want to make this and the cassoulet, because lately I have been craving beans. Thank you