Let's have a quick show of hands among the diet-conscious: Who is craving a plain baked chicken breast right now?
Exactly. No one.
Chicken breasts au naturel don't ring my bells either, so I'm always looking for ways to pair chicken with flavour detonators in order to have myself a real meal. One of my favourite ways to enjoy chicken is to dispense with the breasts altogether. And since I'm a thigh man, I opt to use chicken thighs instead.
Yes, it's true that the thigh is fattier than the breast — about eight grams per 125-gram (four-ounce) cooked portion — but the fat brings with it the extra zing and moisture breasts can so often lack.
Plus, the dark meat of the thigh contains the nutritional jackpot of more iron and twice the zinc of white meat. Better yet, you'll be saving more than 400 calories a serving here, compared to a classically prepared chicken dish like coq au vin. Traditional versions of this dish pack 781 calories and 68 grams of fat per serving. Mine? Just 338 calories and nine grams of fat.
And if you're a novice cook, that extra fat also means that it's harder to screw up a chicken thigh recipe, no matter how you cook them. Unlike with chicken breasts, thighs rarely end up overcooked or dry. To reduce the fat, though, I suggest trimming off any extra bits of fat.
My recipe for braised chicken thighs, which is perfect for a hearty winter meal, combines two techniques: browning over high heat and cooking with quick, low-heat braise, either in the oven or a slow cooker.
Braising foods is a great way to create tender meaty dishes. Cook this dish at a lower temperature in your slow cooker if you need to be away from the kitchen for the day. Or you can do it in the oven at 140 C (275 F) for 3 to 5 hours. Just be sure you have a tight fitting cover for your pot to make sure the liquid doesn't evaporate.
The braising liquid uses something that's probably been residing, forgotten, in the back of your liquor cabinet since the days of the Nixon administration: sweet red vermouth (used mostly for Manhattans). Vermouth is a wine infused with a concoction of herbs. Combined with thyme and two varieties of mustard, the vermouth creates a lusty sauce for the chicken that packs unbelievable flavour.
So when you're craving a diet meal that's low in fat and calories, but rich with delicious flavour, try this one. Just about any side dish goes with it, be it baked potatoes or yams, brown rice or steamed veggies.
— Need to be away from the kitchen? This dish also can be prepared in a slow cooker. Prepare through the step of adding the vermouth, then transfer the mixture to a 4- to 5-litre (4- to 5-quart) slow cooker. Top with the browned chicken pieces and add the stock and mushrooms. Cover and cook on high for 3 to 4 hours, or low for 7 to 8 hours. Add the mustards, remaining vermouth and thyme, then cover and cook on high for another 30 minutes.
BRAISED CHICKEN WITH MUSHROOMS AND MUSTARD
Start to finish: 1 hour (20 minutes active), plus cooling
250 ml (1 cup) fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken stock or broth
20 dried shiitake mushrooms
8 small bone-in chicken thighs (about 1.25 kg or 2 1/2 pounds total), skinned
Salt and ground black pepper
15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) chopped yellow onion
125 ml (1/2 cup) sweet red vermouth (such as Martini Rossi), divided
30 ml (2 tbsp) Dijon mustard
15 ml (1 tbsp) whole-grain mustard
10 ml (2 tsp) lightly chopped fresh thyme
In a medium saucepan over medium-high, combine the chicken stock ad mushrooms. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the chicken stock and mushrooms. Cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove and discard the mushroom stems. Cut mushroom caps in half and return to the stock.
Heat the oven to 160 C (325 F). Season all the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.
In a large Dutch oven or other oven-safe pot, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the chicken, half at a time if necessary, and brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate, then add the onions to the pan. Cook over medium heat until the onions are softened, about 3 minutes. Add half of the vermouth and stir to deglaze the pan.
Return the chicken to the pan, then add the stock and mushroom mixture. Cover and bring to a simmer.
Transfer the pot to the oven and bake, covered, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.
Once the chicken is cooked, uncover from the pot. Place the pot on a burner over medium heat and add both mustards, the remaining vermouth and the thyme. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly and glazes the chicken.
Divide the chicken between 4 serving plates. Spoon the sauce over and around the chicken.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 338 calories; 9 g fat (24 per cent of calories from fat) (2 g saturated); 115 mg cholesterol; 25 g carbohydrate; 31 g protein; 3 g fibre; 676 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rocco DiSpirito is author of the "Now Eat This!" and "Now Eat This! Diet" cookbooks.