Walter Wells: A Good Man Around a Chicken (Recipe Included)
We had a chicken in the pot, a recipe (see below) in which bunches of aromatic vegetables and the chicken are quickly browned in a little oil before they’re packed into a Dutch oven, bathed in chicken broth, white wine and olive oil, covered really tightly and cooked for 55 minutes.
Here’s what it looks like before it goes into the oven:
And when it comes out (I don’t have a picture — I was too busy thinking about getting it to the table), it’s moist and tender, because it’s been steamed more than roasted; fragrant from the herbs and garlic; and so beautiful — what could be more appealing than seeing a golden chicken surrounded by fall’s best root vegetables? And what could be better than a dish that cooks without you ever having to check in on it?
So here’s the rub with the bird — it looks prettiest cooked whole, but a whole bird means you’ve got to lift it out of its cozy nest and cut it into proper bits. Enter Walter Wells, who carves elegantly and enthusiastically — it’s so clear that he loves the job that I didn’t feel terrible about pulling him away from the table to lend me a hand. Actually, even if I did feel just a little terrible, I’d still have done it — I wanted to watch the master at work.
Walter was firm and sure with the chicken — he located the joints immediately, cut through them cleanly and quickly carved the bird into portions. Then, because in addition to being dexterous Walter is sweet, he scooped out the ‘oysters’ — those chunklets of meat on the edges of the back between the wings and thighs — and set them aside for me. And he carved off a piece of the breast bone — I’d call it the wishbone; he called it the pulley bone, a sign of his southern roots — and told me to guard that morsel, too. You gotta love a guy who can carve and coddle at the same time.
Here’s the recipe for last night’s chicken — like so many recipes of its kind, it’s flexible: you can change the vegetables on a whim or according to what’s in the market or your fridge, and you can add different herbs, lemon or orange zest, a few slices of ginger or maybe a star anise or two. And if your carving skills are sketchy and Walter’s not coming to your house for dinner, you can start with a cut-up chicken.
CHICKEN IN THE POT
Makes 4 servings
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 small potatoes, scrubbed and halved lengthwise
8 shallots, peeled and trimmed
4 carrots, peeled, trimmed and quartered, or 8 small carrots, peeled and trimmed
2 stalks celery, trimmed and quartered
1 small fennel, trimmed and quartered, optional
2 heads garlic, cloves separated but not peeled
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs rosemary
1 chicken, whole or cut-up
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Have a large Dutch oven at hand.
Warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the vegetables and garlic, season with salt and pepper and saute until brown on all sides. (If necessary, do this in batches.) Spoon the vegetables into the Dutch oven and stir in the herbs.
Return the skillet to the heat, add another tablespoon of oil and brown the chicken on all sides, seasoning it with salt and pepper as it cooks. Tuck the chicken into the casserole surrounding it with the vegetables.
Stir together the broth, wine and remaining olive oil and pour the mixture over the chicken and vegetables.
Cover the casserole tightly with a piece of foil, close with the lid and slide it into the oven. Cook for 55 minutes.
If the chicken was cut-up, you can bring the Dutch oven to the table and serve directly from it. If you’ve got a whole bird, you’ll need to remove the chicken, cut it in the kitchen and then return it to the pot for serving. Either way, make sure that everyone gets some of each vegetable and a generous few spoonfuls of the cooking jus. The Chicken in the Pot is a meal unto itself, so you don’t have to think about side dishes, but you should have bread on the table, so everyone can sop up some of the good sauce.