Friday, January 05, 2007

Not-Sweet Cider

Although you wouldn't know it by this afternoon's temperature (it hit 62° at 2 p.m.), this is the time of year for slow food -- the delicious braises and stews that make tough cuts of meat fork-tender, while filling the house with mouthwatering fragrance.

The ideal pot, whether you're cooking on the stove or in the oven, is enameled cast iron. Le Creuset is the favorite, of course, but I could never bring myself to spring for $250+ for one. Fortunately, other brands are filling the gap. Cooks Illustrated and Fine Cooking both tested a variety of brands recently, and found terrific alternatives to the high-priced French pots. Both liked Target's offering -- so much so, that Target took them off the web site and doesn't have them in the stores anymore. Dang.

I don't usually go for TV-chef-endorsed anything, but made an exception for this Mario Batali pot, which I found on Amazon (it appears to be pretty widely available). Love the green color (also available in red and orange). Its only drawback (which CI noted) is its heft -- it's extremely heavy.

Having finally acquired the right pot, I'm trying more recipes from Molly Stevens' All About Braising. Although chicken doesn't need slow cooking to be tender, it does benefit from long contact with savory ingredients to punch up its often-bland flavor. Her "Chicken Breasts Braised with Hard Cider & Parsnips" introduced me to hard cider, something I've heard about but had never gotten around to sampling. Turns out it's fairly popular here in Cincinnati, OH -- sold in 6-packs like beer. The very helpful clerk at Kroger's showed me the half-dozen brands, and suggested that Hornsby's is the most popular.

Although it looks like beer in the bottle, hard cider has none of beer's bitterness. It has a distinct apple flavor, but it's not sweet -- most of the sugars ferment into alcohol. It would be great with pork, too.

The recipes in the Braising book tend to follow the same pattern: dry the meat (usually cut up) and brown it well. Remove from the pan, and deglaze with wine, cider, or broth, and add the aromatics -- the rosemary, thyme, garlic, onion, carrot, etc, and cook for a few minutes. Return the meat to the pan, add more liquid if needed; then cover and bake, usually at 300° to 325°. For chicken, you need bake only for about an hour. To finish, remove the meat from the pan, degrease and boil the sauce down. Usually, you'll remove the vegetables and herbs, since they've given up all their goodness after very long cooking, but that's not necessary with the chicken variations that cook relatively briefly.

For this recipe, you start by browning several slices of thick-cut bacon, diced. (The no-nitrate bacon from Kroeger & Sons at Findlay Market is superb, and makes a difference.) Remove the bacon and most of the rendered fat, then brown the cut-up chicken (I used both white and dark meat). Remove the browned chicken, quickly sauté a minced shallot, then add 2 cups of hard cider to deglaze the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to free up the tasty browned bits. Boil the cider down, add a tablespoon of minced rosemary and another 1/2 cup of cider and reduce again a bit. Add peeled, roughly chopped parsnips, bacon, salt and pepper, and place the chicken pieces on top. Cover the pan and bake at 325° for about 45 minutes.

Sweet and delicious -- the cider complements the sweetness of the parsnips.