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How-To

Shortcut Chicken Stews

A trick or two gives slow-cooked flavor in less time

Fine Cooking Issue 56
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Before I could identify the different parts of a chicken or knew how to cook them, I found myself, a 20-year-old in Spain, shrinking in front of a stern-faced butcher, ticket #87 crumpled in my hand and a wave of irritable shoppers pushing up against my back. I ordered chicken thighs, contramuslos in Spanish, because they were the cheapest option. After stewing the chicken with the entirety of my culinary repertoire (bacon, wine, and every herb I could find), I decided the meaty, flavorful thighs—seemingly immune from drying out—were my kind of food: cheap, tasty, and forgiving.

I still gravitate to chicken thighs when I crave something substantial and easy in the winter. They hold up well to all sorts of preparations, particularly stews. I brown the thighs and then stew them with aromatic vegetables, spices, and chicken broth. To create a full-bodied sauce (without a long, slow reduction), I purée some of the vegetables and cooking liquid. The whole process comes to about an hour or so of active cooking; not your standard throw-everything-in-the-pot-and-walk-away stew, but quick enough for weeknight meals, and appealingly rustic for casual entertaining.

For stewing, skinless bone-in thighs are foolproof. Selecting bone-in chicken thighs for stewing is an easy decision. The thigh bone helps keep the chicken moist, making the flavorful thighs even harder to overcook.

I also opt to cook the thighs without the skin. In stews, it’s impossible to keep chicken skin crisp, even if it’s browned sufficiently beforehand. The stewed skin takes on an unappealing soggy texture, and since it renders fat during cooking, the stew would have to be skimmed—an unwanted extra step. To make up for any loss of flavor by not using the skin, I only trim off large pieces of fat from the thighs. The remaining untrimmed fat will melt off during cooking and give the sauce a touch of richness.

Purée the vegetables for a “stewy” texture. I look to a blender, not slow cooking, to produce a thick, stewy consistency in the sauce. After browning the chicken thighs, I make a caramelized vegetable broth by sautéing onions and garlic in the flavorful browned fat left behind by the chicken. I add chicken broth and some sort of starch, like potatoes or beans, to the caramelized onions and simmer until the vegetables soften. Then I purée about half of the mixture in a blender and mix it back into the rest of the broth, and this gives the dish that substantial stewy texture I want. I return the browned thighs to the now-thickened sauce and simmer them until they enrich the sauce and the meat is cooked through.

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