Comforting Chicken

I’m bummed that I missed the eclipse of the full moon last night. Facebook is humming with cheerful comments today, but in Maine the sky was overcast and we woke this morning to a skiff (a skyph?) of fresh snow rapidly turning to disgusting sleety rain. What a way to face Christmas!

Time for comfort food and by that I do not mean mac & cheese or meatloaf. No, comfort food around here means poulet a l’ail or chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. The aroma alone is enough to put cheer in anyone’s heart and the chicken, slow roasted until it is thoroughly imbued with all that good garlicky fragrance, is good enough to wake the dead.

I’ve combined two favorite recipes here, Madeleine Kamman’s mother’s roast chicken from her lovely book In Madeleine’s Kitchen (1984), and James Beard’s classic Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. I think the Beard originally appeared in How to Eat Better for Less Money, a wonderful compilation of cheap eats, first published in 1954. I say “I think” because I can’t find my copy, which I stole from my sister-in-law in 1984 and it has since, obviously, been stolen from me. But the recipe is firmly in my head, and with Kammen’s addition of potatoes and carrots makes a delightful, comforting meal in a pot. You do have to stand over a hot stove for a while at first, but once everything has been browned, you just put it all in the oven and leave it to roast. And you can do this well ahead, if you wish, and reheat the dish at mealtime.

To serve 6 or 8, you’ll need:

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
30 or 40 individual cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
14 to 16 small yellow-fleshed potatoes (yellow Finns perhaps)
8 to 10 medium carrots, scraped and cut in thirds
Chicken parts: 4 legs and 4 thighs, or the equivalent in breasts
1 cup dry white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Herbs (rosemary, flat-leaf parsley, thyme, sage), chopped fine

Set a black-iron skillet or similar fry pan over low heat and add all the olive oil. When it’s nice and hot, add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the cloves are golden. Remove them and set them aside.

While the garlic is cooking, peel the potatoes and cut them in half. Set the cut sides down in the garlic-flavored oil, raise the heat and saute the potatoes until they’re golden all sides. Set them aside and saute the carrots. Now add the chicken pieces to the hot oil and continue browning (you may need to add a bit more oil but probably not) on all sides, setting the chicken aside as it browns.

Set the oven on 375º. Scatter the potatoes and carrots over the bottom of a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, one that can go in the oven. Strew the garlic cloves over the top and set the chicken pieces on top of that.

Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of oil from the skillet and set it over medium heat once more, adding the white wine. Cook rapidly, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. When the alcohol has evaporated, turn the liquid over the chicken in the pot. Add salt, pepper, and any of the chopped herbs, setting aside a few tablespoons of herbs to garnish.

Cover the pot with its lid and transfer to the oven. Cook for about 1 hour, then remove and the chicken is ready to serve. Or transfer the chicken to a serving platter and surround it with its vegetables. Scatter the remaining herbs over the top and serve. If you make this in advance, reheat it in the pot in which it was cooked and make sure it’s really hot before serving.

Beard recommended serving this with toasted bread on which to spread the softened garlic cloves. Do it if you wish but it’s an extra complication to what is basically a very simple and deeply comforting dish.

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