When in Doubt, Chicken-in-the-Pot

My favorite recipe in this exalted category is a type of Chicken-in-the-Pot. I hardly ever make it the same way, but every time I make it it’s a winner. Basically, it’s a chicken (which you can brown or not, depending on how much time you’ve got and how you’re feeling about a little sputtering fat) surrounded by vegetables (your choice) and lots of garlic (a must), moistened with olive oil, wine and chicken broth (or just broth), put into a pot that’s only just big enough to hold everything, sealed up tight (the original recipe calls for sealing the pot with a flour and water paste that hardens with heat) and baked for an hour or so.

As simple as it is, it’s always delicious and fun – especially if you put the pot in the center of the table and encourage everyone to dip hunks of bread into the goop, which is the only thing I’ve ever called the cooking juice and which is what my friends now call it. It sounds particularly funny in French, but I couldn’t think of a translation. "Jus de cuisson", which is correct, sounds way too formal for anything you’re dunking into (a no-no in polite French company, but I consider my apartment American territory) and certainly too formal for anything, like this, which usually entails finger licking.

I made this last night with a chicken and vegetables I bought at the market on Avenue du President Woodrow Wilson (which I never know how to pronounce in French and which, when pronounced in "American" is not understood by Parisian taxi drivers). We were just four for dinner, but I ended up adding so many vegetables, I had to pull out the pot I usually use when I’m cooking for a crowd. That’s the thing about this recipe, you can do just about whatever you want with it and it will always be great.

Here’s a basic recipe. I know you’ll play around with it – it’s impossible not to – so I hope you’ll let me know what you do.

Oh, the picture shows what the dish looked like before it went into the oven — by the time I remembered that I wanted to take an "after" picture, the chicken and vegs were pretty picked over.

Makes 4 servings (but you can multiply the recipe easily)

Approximately 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 heads of garlic, broken into cloves, but not peeled
16 shallots, peeled and trimmed, or 4 onions, peeled, trimmed and quartered, or 4 leeks, white part only, halved lengthwise
8 carrots, peeled, trimmed and quartered
4 celery stalks, trimmed and quartered
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
Grated zest of 1 lemon
16 prunes, optional (apricots or dried apples are also good in this dish)
1 chicken, whole or cut-up
1/2 small (2 lbs or less) cabbage, green or red, cut into 4 wedges (try Savoy cabbage)
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine, or another 1/2 cup chicken broth
About 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, for the seal
About 3/4 cup hot water, for the seal

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Set a large skillet over high heat and add about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Toss in the garlic cloves and all the vegetables, EXCEPT the cabbage – you might have to do this in two batches, you don’t want to crowd the skillet – season generously with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are lightly browned on all sides. Spoon the vegetables into a large Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid – you’ll need a pot that holds at least 5 quarts. Stir in the herbs, lemon zest and prunes, if you’re using them.

Return the skillet to the heat and add another tablespoon or so of oil. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and brown the chicken on all sides. Put the chicken in the casserole, nestling it among the vegetables. Fit the cabbage wedges around the chicken.

Stir together the chicken broth, wine and 1/2 cup olive oil and pour the mixture over the chicken and vegetables.

Now you have a choice: you can cover the pot with a sheet of aluminum foil and the lid, or you can make a paste to seal the lid. To make the paste, stir the flour and water together, mixing until you have a soft, workable dough. Working on a floured surface, shape the dough into a long sausage, then press the sausage onto the rim of the casserole. Press the lid into the dough to seal the pot.

Slide the pot into the oven and bake for 70 minutes. If you need to keep it in the oven a little longer because you’re not ready for it, don’t worry – turn the heat down to 325 degrees F and you’ll be good for another 30 minutes or so.

The easiest way to break the seal, is to wiggle the point of a screwdriver between the dough and the pot – being careful not to stand in the line of the escaping (and wildly aromatic) steam. If the chicken was whole, quarter it and return it to the pot, so that you can serve directly from the pot, or arrange the chicken and vegetables on a serving platter.

Dorie Greenspan