Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fig and Caramelized Onion Chicken - And a few thoughts

When it comes to cooking, one of the things I believe every beginner cook needs to learn is restraint.

Twenty years ago when I decided it was time to expand my kitchen skills beyond baking desserts and that I should start cooking actual real food, I didn't know the meaning of restraint. I had a taste for spicy food and a desire to show the world I wasn't afraid of the spice rack. Every flavor I could add to a dish was new and exciting and everything I had on hand was poured into the pot. Then there was the garlic. Garlic was the king of flavors and if the recipe said to use two cloves, I used four. No recipe could have enough garlic.

I look back on those days and realize I was making a mistake, however well-intentioned and enthusiastic, and that many beginner cooks make the same one. Unfortunately, there is a school that encourages this type of cooking. Check out any cooking show aimed at beginners and you'll see what I mean. Sandra Lee adds herbs and "seasoning packets" to bottled Italian dressing and then throws herbed cheese into the dish. Rachael Ray's recipes often have upwards of 15 ingredients in them and she never goes without garlic. How many years did I cook before I learned that "Italian" was not synonymous with "reeking of garlic"? It's very easy when you're a beginner cook to want to explore your spice rack. Every jar seems intriguiging so you just want to use them all.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to hold back. I've discovered that in many dishes a few, simple, complimentary flavors can pack as much power as a shelf full of spices. "Simple" is not the same thing as "bland". In fact, sometimes taking the less-is-more approach can make a dish seem more flavorful because the distinct tastes of each ingredient are left to shine. Yes, chicken goes with anything, but let the chicken be a chicken instead of making it nothing more than a vehicle for a sauce. (Now I'm hearing Tom Colicchio telling me to "Honor the Protein".)

I think one of my favorite examples of this is the cacciatore I made a few months ago. I kept my ingredients to a minimum in that dish: chicken, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, wine. I thought my cacciatore was very fresh tasting. I know that if I had made that same dish twenty -or even ten - years ago, I would have added several cloves of garlic, a spoonful of oregano, basil leaves, and who knows what else (rosemary perhaps). I don't think adding all of that extra flavor would have really done that much more for the dish. The simple taste of the vegetables was perfect on its own. Readers may notice my marinara sauces tend to stick to just red pepper, garlic, tomatoes, and basil with the occasional onion or cup of wine. Why bury the star ingredient - tomatoes - under too many herbs?

So now that I've given my lecture for the day, you may be asking what this has to do wtih my recipe.

My recipe today sticks to the principle that one should show a little restraint and simply add a few lovingly-treated ingredients to create a stellar dish. I came up with this recipe because figs are readily available right now and since I discovered the joy of fresh figs last summer, I'm eager to use them in as many recipes as I can. I combined ingredients I knew would work well together: figs with salty pork products, chicken with wine, caramelized onions with - well - everything!

There isn't much original about this dish. I have seen a dozen similar recipes on the internet and I'm sure there are hundreds more floating around. This isn't so much about creating an original recipe as it is about simply using the rules from my own head. What few ingredients can I combine for maximum deliciousness and how can I make the most of their individual properties? This is about crispy pancetta, sweet sweet caramelized onions, well-browned chicken, and wine carefully reduced to it's strongest essence.

The recipe takes a little time, but the results are well worth it.

I started by browning pancetta and then caramelizing onions. Yes, use that pancetta grease if you have it.
Next I browned pounded and dregded chicken breasts on both sides.

I made a sauce by reducing wine, figs, and a little chicken broth.

The breasts were simmered in the sauce till cooked through. I served them with squares of polenta and green beans in a balsamic reduction (Yes, there is garlic in my balsamic reduction).

I thought this dish was delicious and worth the effort. Unfortunately, the effort was wasted on Sir Pickypants, who left a pile of those expensive figs and carefully caramelized onions on the plate when he was finished. No matter how hard I try to make them sweet and delicious, he won't let go of the idea that onions=bad.

Chicken in Figs, Wine and Caramelized Onions

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, pounded slightly
Four for dredging
1-2 Tbl olive oil
3 Tbl butter
3 oz. pancetta, cut in small pieces
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 lb fresh figs, sliced
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken broth

Dredge chicken breasts in flour, salt and pepper.

In a large pan, cook pancetta pieces until crisp. Add onions to the pan. If there is not enough grease, add 1 Tbl of olive oil. Cook at least 20 minutes at a low temperature or until they are nice and brown and sweet. Remove from pan.

Add 1 Tbl of butter and 1 Tbl oil to the pan. Brown chicken breasts well on both sides. Should be about 5 minutes per side. Remove from pan and keep warm.

Add wine, broth, and figs to the pan. Cook until reduced by about half. Adjust seasoning as necessary. You will likely want more salt here.

Put chicken and onions back into the pan and simmer until cooked through. Remove chicken breasts from pan and swirl the remaining 2 Tbl of butter into the sauce. Serve chicken breasts covered in sauce and sprinkled with the reserved pancetta bits (unless you're serving it to my husband in which case don't add the pancetta - and while you're at it, leave off the sauce).


Kitchen Butterfly said...

Trying to drum up courage to cook with figs...I've only tried them fresh I'll line up this as one to do... soon

Adam said...

I like your thoughts on using restraint. I think I am a recovering over-herb user. It takes a gentle hand to kind of just let go and let the FOOD take center stage, don't you think?

Anyways, I've practically fallen in love with figs over the years, so you have my undivided attention here. This is a stellar sweet dish :)

noble pig said...

Restraint is key and it's so hard! This dish is beautiful and I would have eaten every onion and fig!

The Blonde Duck said...

I think you've got a really good point. Its so easy to overload.

The Duo Dishes said...

This is true, true, true. We love to add everything under the sun. Restraint is one thing we have not learned, especially with garlic!

Dandy said...

You know I keep seeing fresh figs and had no idea how to use them. Thanks for the recipe!

Sue said...

Yummy dish! So interesting. It IS amazing how different one's cooking is now compared to when we were young(er).

I'm not sure I was guilty of over-schuzzing up recipes, but I was definitely guilty of overkill in the AMOUNT and VARIETY of food. I used to treat cooking for company like an Olympic sport and I think a lot of enthusiastic cooks do the same thing. I like Ina's approach. If the host is relaxed, then the guests will be too.

Donna-FFW said...

I do agree.. you know whats funny.. Rachael Ray in her first two cookbooks she cooked with restraint and those recipes I enjoyed. As her career prolonged, her ingredient list is indeed higher. I like her first recipes better.

This dish looks fantastic!

Bunny said...

Very nice post , your so right about the spices and restraint! I love this dish, oh those caramelized onions!!

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

KB - Definitely try them. I think for dishes like this, black mission figs work a little better than green ones (I could only find green ones in the store this time). Thanks for dropping by!

Adam - Glad you enjoyed the recipe. The gentle hand thing is tough to learn sometimes.

Cathy - Maybe I should have sent his plate over. ;-)

Duckie - Unless you're talking about coconut of course. ;-)

DD - I love garlic too, so it really can be hard. The key is to find a dish where garlic is really meant to be the star. Then you can really go all out!

Dandy - Thanks for stopping by. If you really would like an easy way to use fresh figs, just try a nice sharp cheese and some proscuitto. You won't be disappointed.

Sue - Ha! I'm still guilty of that. It's the drama queen in me.

Bunny - Caramelized onions are a magical thing.