January 31, 2015
Cajun Chicken Fricassee
It's no secret that we love the food of New Orleans. Cajun and creole dishes are slowly but steadily seeping into our rotation, from the very first Jambalaya through Smoked Duck Étouffée, and of course further versions of Jambalaya, and all points in between, many of which I have yet to share with you.
The real trick is learning how to make a roux (some patience is required), and not balking at the amount of fat that goes into it. I do confess, though, that I often use less roux in my versions of recipes than is called for, to no discernible detriment to texture or flavour. Once you've got the roux down, the possibilities expand significantly. As an important public service announcement, I'm here to tell you that bacon fat makes a really delicious roux. So, if you like to save your bacon fat, this is a fantastic dish to squander it on.
This is a luxurious tasting dish, and seems more closely related to Étouffée than to its French cousin, also called Fricassee, a creamy, somewhat more subtle dish. Garnish with sliced green onions (not shown here) for maximum traditional bonus points.
Cajun Chicken Fricassee
Adapted from "Cajun — Creole Cooking" by Terry Thompson-Anderson
Serves 4 (with gravy leftover for another meal)
8 pieces of chicken (bone in, skin on, legs/thighs are optimal)
seasoned with salt, black pepper, and cayenne
1/2 cup cleaned bacon fat* or lard
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 medium yellow onions, diced
3 stalks celery, sliced or diced
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaf (less, if powdered)
OR 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
3 cups hot chicken broth or stock
4 green onions, sliced (garnish)
*If you keep salvaged bacon fat in a jar in the fridge, it usually ends up with stria of little burned flecks and lumps. Once you have a full jar of fat, it's easy to warm up it up until it becomes liquid again, and the impurities settle to the bottom. Then you can carefully pour off what you need, leaving the nasty bits behind. (Pour any extra into a clean jar to store in the fridge until needed.)
Once you start cooking, you will have no time to prep. Therefore, prepare and measure out everything that you need in advance, including heating your stock. This is your only warning.
Season the chicken pieces on both sides with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Open a window, if possible, so that the smell of frying chicken does not haunt you for days.
In a large dutch oven, heat the fat until it is shimmering (but not smoking), and fry the chicken briefly until golden on both sides (but not cooked through). I work in batches, browning the thighs first, then the drumsticks, removing the pieces to a paper towel-lined plate as they are done.
When all the chicken has been browned, turn the heat down to medium-low and sprinkle the flour over the hot fat, and get right in there with a whisk to smooth it into a roux. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir, pretty much continuously, scraping the entire bottom surface of the pan to prevent catching and scorching, for about 25 minutes, or until the roux becomes caramel-coloured. If the roux is really catching on the bottom of the pan, turn the heat down further, or remove it from the heat altogether (for a few minutes). Using bacon fat instead of lard gives you a jump start on colour, but don't trim the time, as it is necessary to cook the flour through properly and develop the flavour.
Once the roux is caramel-coloured, add the onions, garlic, and celery, and cook and stir for about four minutes, or until the vegetables are wilted and the onions have turned translucent. The roux will thicken rather a lot as this happens, so constant stirring is necessary. Add the remaining dry seasonings - bay leaves, cayenne, black pepper, thyme - and stir them through.
Add the stock, slowly, stirring constantly, until it is all integrated, and the gravy is bubbling nicely. Return the chicken to the pot, stir through, and once the dish is gently bubbling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and let cook for an hour. If you are anxious, you can peek at it now and then, and give it a little stir. No biggie.
In the meantime, while the fricassee cooks, you have a chance to clean up a little, and make any side dishes. Rice goes wonderfully, but so do noodles, mashed potatoes, biscuits, or dumplings. Your choice. Shown here is Cajun Spinach Rice (adapted from the same book), and Ukrainian pickled tomatoes (because they are delicious).
When the hour is up, stir the dish through (there may be some chicken fat settling out on the surface, just stir it back in), and garnish with sliced green onion.
This recipe makes a lot of gravy, so after dinner I set aside the extra in a freezer container, ready to become a fast weeknight dinner by adding boneless chicken breast, and serving over biscuits, with some sort of extra vegetable on the side.