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Cooking Off the Cuff: A November Dish Of Fennel, Leeks And Chicken

11/21/2017 08:06 EST | Updated 11/21/2017 09:20 EST

I sometimes think that most vegetables of a given season are intrinsically harmonious: that just about all produce simultaneously available in a garden or farmers’ market can be combined to good effect. There surely are flaws in that hypothesis, but consider ratatouille and kindred dishes: It’s as though the cook has walked through the garden blindfolded and filled a basket with every summery thing that came to hand.

At the moment, our New York City farmers’ markets present a different picture: roots, tubers and sturdy greens dominate, and many will continue to improve in flavor for another couple of months. There’s nothing stark about the winter market, even if the colors are muted.

Jackie and I didn’t go to the market last weekend, because we’re running down the fridge before a trip, but the November produce we had in the house was muted in color too, and in putting together a recent chicken dinner I reached for a leek, pearly white tinged with pale green, and a small bulb of fennel of similar hue. Beyond their matchy-matchy colors, leeks and fennel share a gentle sweetness that brings their entirely distinctive flavors together.

They also pair well with chicken: they support without dominating. Leeks in particular seem to have an affinity with either white or dark meat, and fennel brings in its own herbal aroma.

And that’s what we had for dinner: Chicken legs with creamed leeks and fennel.

The day before, I’d cut the breasts and legs from a good chicken – and boned the legs, too (using the bones, carcass and trimmings to make stock, and freezing the now-boneless breasts for another time). An hour before I planned to cook, I salted the boneless legs and left them in the refrigerator to improve.

Note: If you make this dish with skin-on chicken breasts, which would be an elegant option, shorten the initial browning time by three or four minutes.

As dinner time approached, I halved the white and palest green parts of a medium-large leek lengthwise (don’t worry too much about the size; there’ll be plenty no matter what) and rinsed under running water, checking for soil. After patting it dry, I cut it crosswise into 2-inch (5-cm) lengths, then lengthwise into thin strips. You can also cut it across into eighth-inch (3 or 4-mm) semicircles if you find that easier. After removing the tougher stems from a small fennel bulb (a medium-sized one would work in this dish too), I halved it lengthwise, removed the core and sliced it into strips an eighth of an inch wide or a little wider.

I set a skillet over medium heat; when it was moderately hot, I added a little butter. As it melted and foamed, I patted the two chicken legs dry, seasoned them with pepper (they were already salted) and laid them into the skillet (opened flat, not rolled: this enables all the skin to brown nicely). To make sure the skin was in contact with the hot pan and hot butter, I pressed the chicken down with a spatula. Actually, I used my fingers, but some people are squeamish about raw poultry and splattering fat. After 10 minutes of cooking – unattended apart from checking that the fire wasn’t too hot, which it was – I removed the crisp-skinned but not yet fully cooked legs to a plate (skin side up, so it wouldn’t get soggy), added the leeks and fennel, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and sautéed for a minute or so, until the vegetables had begun to soften.

Then, I added half a cup (120 ml) of chicken stock, brought it to the boil, lowered the heat to medium-low and returned the chicken to the pan, nestling the pieces in the vegetable mixture and ensuring that the skin was not submerged. This simmered for another 10 minutes or until the chicken was tender, as verified by poking it with a thin skewer (a cake-tester in this case), which entered with minimal resistance.

I moved the chicken to a warm plate, added 1/3 cup (80 ml) of heavy cream to the pan with the leek mixture, and simmered until a smooth, lightly viscous sauce formed, just a minute or so. I considered adding a teaspoonful of lemon juice, but it was not needed; use your own judgment on this. After checking for seasoning, I spooned half of the creamed leeks-fennel onto each of our (warmed) plates and set a piece of chicken on top, drizzling with some of the creamy sauce. If it hadn’t been winter, I’d have had a bunch of tarragon in the house, and I’d have added some to the sauce at the last minute; I could have done this with parsley, but the sauce was delicious (very) as it was.

Between the fat and juices in the pan, the stock and the chicken itself, there is a lot of poultry flavor here, yet the leeks and fennel have their say too. I’d serve this with rice. In fact, I did.

Edward Schneider
Boneless chicken leg with creamed leeks and fennel
Edward Schneider
Boned chicken legs, seasoned
Edward Schneider
A leek, halved lenthwise, cut crosswise, and ready to be julienned
Edward Schneider
Leek, nearly julienned
Edward Schneider
Fennel added to the leek
Edward Schneider
Keep the chicken skin side down for a solid 10 minutes over medium or medium-low heat
Edward Schneider
The chicken continues cooking skin side up on a bed of leeks, fennel and chicken stock
Edward Schneider
With cream, the vegetable mixture becomes a sauce....
Edward Schneider
... and the chicken is set on top.