This past Halloween we asked some neighbors over for a drink and to sit by our firepit near the front porch, so we could oversee the candy basket. It was a lovely evening, cold but not too cold, with a crescent moon and a nice warm fire, and lots of ghoulish children dropping by in all their excitement, and Cosimo loving the bizarreness of all our small visitors.
Halloween has come and gone, but it is still nice to keep pumpkins and chrysanthemums around the place to brighten up the late autumn garden, especially when we start thinking about getting holiday meals together.
Often this time of year, a week or two before American Thanksgiving, I make stuffed Provençal chickens, usually choosing a cold, rainy November day for that job, when I can’t get outside in the garden and I have an urge to cook something to get ready for the holiday season.
This recipe is different from the recipes I usually post.
The other recipes are for dishes that are unusual, delicious and fairly easy to make, so much so that they should be part of the repertoire of any household that likes to eat fresh, healthy and distinctive food. Chicken Provençal is certainly fresh and healthy and distinctive, but let me say right up front that it is not easy. It is in fact very complicated, takes a lot of prep and clean-up, and is actually rather dangerous in that it involves de-boning a chicken, not a feat to be undertaken lightly.
So if difficult recipes are not your thing, please move along to something else. But if you’re not put off by that and want to try something really different and really spectacular, though complex, read on. This is actually more of a process than a recipe; it takes about three hours, or more like four the first time or two that you try this.
Inside we are cooking, but outside the annual miracle of fall foliage has begun.
Let’s see, which is more beautiful, the deep red foliage or the brilliant oranges and golds and yellow? Being simple-minded, I like best the ones I am looking at in a given moment.
It seems a distant memory now, but at the height of midsummer was when we last saw such a magnificent display of reds and yellows.
NEXT: It’s time to get cooking!
Stuffed Provençal Chicken (and Chicken Stock)
The finished dish, shown here with roasted cinnamon apples. Wow, is it good!
What You’ll Need: a very large stockpot, a small toaster oven (ideal, but a regular oven will do) and a food processor.
The bones you are going to remove from the chicken will be used to make chicken stock the old-fashioned way, so you might as well do this all at once as there will be plenty of mess when you are done. I always do two chickens at the same time and freeze one, which is often brought out during the Christmas season or actually for Christmas dinner itself. De-boning a chicken is something no one is really very handy at unless you cook professionally, so by the time you struggle through one, the second is much easier. Plus, the mess in the kitchen is hardly greater for two birds than for one, so you might as well have two of them when you are finished.
Before moving on to the recipe, a word on the de-boning process. I will describe it, but you might want to go to some internet video sources and see how this is done; it is hard to visualize from mere text, and the best way to learn is by hands-on experience. In my case, my brother, who is a talented chef, showed me how to do it, and I learned by his example to do my first one, standing next to him and doing everything he did. Then, to make sure I remembered how to do it, I quickly did two more. Your first attempt, if you’ve never done this, will likely be clumsy and kind of gross, but don’t be discouraged. I strongly recommend using a knife that is not very sharp. You will have your non-dominant hand inside the chicken, working closely in tandem with the business edge of the knife blade and a bad wound with raw chicken is not something your local emergency room will be very happy to see. I know this from personal and painful experience, tears and stitches and all, so please just trust me on this.
The overall idea of what we are doing here is to produce a wonderful, large, golden roasted chicken the size of a robust duck and filled with the most amazing stuffing, looking plump and fragrant and spectacular, but without any bones when you carve into it. This is one of the glories of the cooking of Provence, and if you have read this far, you are ready to try:
For the chicken:
4 cloves garlic
1 bunch of Italian parsley
Juice of one lemon, freshly squeezed
2 large roasting chickens (larger than 6 lbs., if possible)
4 green or other tart apples
2 medium yellow onions
1½ lbs. chicken sausage, removed from casing
1½ cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
1½ cups fresh toasted bread crumbs
10 oz. baby spinach
1 lb. ricotta cheese
One cup pesto (optional but desirable)
Olive oil, salt pepper
A nutmeg nut and grater
Kitchen string, scissors, plastic wrap, meat thermometer
For the stock:
6-8 stalks celery, leaves included
4 large carrots
1 medium yellow onion
3 roughly chopped cloves
1 packet of dried vegetable soup mix
1 Tbsp. chicken base (or 4 Tbsp. chicken bouillon)
A basic starting point of a lot of Provençal cooking is persillade. To sauté something Provençal style means to sauté it first in olive oil, then to sauté it in persillade, and then to finish it with a dash of fresh lemon juice. This is not a bad way to brighten up many foods, and there is no reason you can’t keep a dish of persillade around the place for general purposes, just as those who are lucky enough to live in Provence do. This is made with Italian parsley (persil commun, as the French say, and hence the persillade). Finely chop and re-chop enough of the parsley bunch to yield eight tablespoons of the parsley; throw the rest, stems and all, into the stockpot. Push the finely chopped parsley to the side of your cutting board, then peel and slice the garlic cloves into paper-thin slices. Pile them into a mound and dice them fine. Re-form them into a mound and dice them several more times until the garlic is very finely diced. Then start dicing the garlic and the parsley together in the same way, dicing and re-dicing until it is an extremely fine dice with a bright green and white color. Please resist the temptation to use diced garlic from a jar; this recipe is not about short-cuts, it is about authentic cuisine. Put the diced garlic and parsley in a bowl and mix with the lemon juice, and put to one side. We will be filling multiple bowls with processed ingredients in this way, then they will all be combined later.
Wash and pat dry the two large chickens. Remove any pop-up thermometer, as you will be using a meat thermometer. If you are lucky enough to have a dog around the place, this is when you put the neck, gizzards, liver, etc. in the toaster oven and cook them 35 minutes at 325 degrees; then, pick the meat off the neck and chop up the rest of the chicken bits, putting them aside for your canine assistant. If you are not fortunate enough to be assisted in the kitchen in this way, then I am sorry for you and you should forget this step and just put these bits directly in the stockpot, uncooked.
Begin de-boning the chicken, breast side up, on a cutting board that has been wrapped in several layers of wax paper. Needless to say, in working with raw chicken you want to be careful about contaminating work surfaces and implements and so on, and it is impossible to be too finicky on this point.
Start by finding the joint (from inside the chicken) between the drumstick and the thigh. Insert the knife point carefully here and sever the joint, leaving the drumstick attached to the bird only by meat and skin. Then use the knife blade to separate the thigh meat from the thigh bone. When the thigh bone is fully exposed (inside the chicken), insert the knife point into the joint between the thigh and the body, so you can extract the thigh bone and put it in the stock pot. Then sever the wings from the rib cage, but be careful not to detach the wing altogether.
Next, insert the knife into the breast meat under the skin and next to the breast bone; make a downward cut to separate the meat from the breast bone, and then work the blade slowly down the side of the rib cage, separating the breast meat from the rib cage as you go. Repeat on the other side, of course, as all of these operations are symmetrical. Use the knife blade to slowly work the rib cage and the rest of the bone structure free from the meat and skin; I find standing the chicken upright on its neck makes this easier to do than with it lying flat.
This is much easier to say than to do, but be patient; eventually the bone structure comes free. Needless to say, this is a rather gory bit of butchery work here and if you don’t have the stomach for it you should not have gotten this far. But free any meat that is still on the carcass, and then put all the bones in the stockpot. The chicken that is left will be a mess that is nearly turned inside out, so put it back together so it looks like a right-side-out chicken again, though flattened, and put this aside on a dinner plate, while you do the second chicken in the same way. Then the hard part is over and the rest is much easier. Once you have done this a few times it will go much faster, but the first one or two times are frustrating, difficult and frankly rather gross. Persevere, it is worth it, as you will soon see.
Peel, core and chop the apples, putting the result aside in a bowl: throw the peels and cores in the stock pot (we are wasting nothing here, you see, which is a good reason to make the stock while you are making the chicken). Then brown the onions in olive oil until they are golden and are just starting to caramelize; put them aside in a bowl. Next, brown the sausage, draining any juice afterwards into the stockpot; put the cooked sausage aside in a bowl. Finely grate the hard parmesan cheese and set aside. Use the good stuff here, reggiano if you can get it, and grate it fresh. Yes, I know you can get parmesan cheese already grated, but it is not the same and we are not cutting corners here. To make the bread crumbs, get some nice French bread and slice it very thin, then toast it and crush it with a rolling pin. Dice any of the bread that does not turn into crumbs and put all the bread crumbs aside.
In a very large bowl, add half the spinach, two eggs, half the ricotta cheese, and half the pesto; add salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste (at least half a teaspoon of nutmeg). Add half of all the previous ingredients, and then mix all this vigorously by hand. Yes, it is very messy, but carry on regardless. Stuff this carefully into the cavity of the first chicken, so that it resumes its plump shape. To tie the bird, tie one end of a yard-long piece of string to the end of one drumstick, leaving a tail of 3 inches in length, and draw the leg up tight to the body. Run the string up over the top (breast) of the bird and underneath, and back to the leg; then wind it around the second leg, tying the ends of the two drumsticks together; then run the string back up over the top of the bird and underneath again, tying off the string with the 3-inch tail you started with. Tuck the wing ends under the strings that go up over the breast of the bird. Repeat with the second chicken.
Place one bird in a roasting pan or casserole dish. Gently transfer the other to a 3-foot length of plastic wrap; wind this tightly around the second bird, using the plastic wrap to hold the bird in a nice plump shape. Run another long piece of plastic wrap the other way, so the bird is wrapped air-tight, then place this bird in the freezer. When you are ready to cook the first bird, roast it two hours at 350 degrees; use a meat thermometer inserted at several points to make sure the bird is cooked through to 160 degrees; remove from the oven and let rest at least 15 minutes, then carve and serve. It pairs well with a salad, dressed with a light vinaigrette.
Meanwhile, back to the stock. Using the food processor, roughly chop the leeks (after cutting off some of their greens so you have about 8-inch lengths with all the white parts and some of the greens, and washing them carefully, as they tend to be muddy). Roughly chop the carrots and onions in the food processor, too. Add all these to the stockpot. Add also the remaining ingredients, fill the pot with water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and allow to cook for two hours. Strain the result and allow it to cool. Skim off the fat that congeals on the surface of the chilled stock. Freeze the stock in large plastic freezer bags and use this as the base for winter soups.
David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.