I've adapted this from a recipe that first appeared in Gourmet magazine. It boasts a secret ingredient, what the French call a "farce," but we call it forcemeat. It's what makes this chicken ridiculously moist and flavourful.
A forcemeat is a mixture of well-seasoned meat, poultry, fish or vegetables, that is finely chopped or ground, then cooked and served alone or used as a stuffing. Some fat usually is added to ensure the forcemeat has a smooth texture. Forcemeat is the base of many charcuterie products, including pates, terrines and sausages.
But in this recipe, it doesn't just add delicious flavour. It also insulates the chicken from the intensity of the heat in the oven, making it almost impossible for the meat to dry out.
For my forcemeat, I've used a mixture of chicken, spinach, low-fat sour cream (in place of the original recipe's heavy cream), and Mediterranean flavourings, including lemon zest, nutmeg (often paired with spinach) and fennel seed. I'd advise those of you who think you hate fennel (which tastes vaguely of licorice) to give this combo a chance. It's a delicious blend of flavours and you won't even notice the fennel.
But before you get going, a few kitchen notes.
We'll start with the tools. Your best bet for grinding the fennel seeds is a spice or coffee grinder, but you also can crush them with the bottom of a heavy saucepan. As for grating the lemon zest and nutmeg, get yourself a wand-style grater, which makes quick work of both.
If you're using dry pre-washed spinach, throw a little water into the skillet with it to help it wilt, then stir it often. Don't be surprised when it cooks down to almost nothing. You'll notice then that the spinach has generated water of its own in excess. The best way to lose the water is to wrap batches of the spinach in a dish towel and squeeze hard.
You may wonder whether all the stuffing will fit under the chicken's skin, or whether the excess will ooze out when you saute the meat. Don't worry. Chicken skin is remarkably elastic. And the forcemeat firms right up during cooking and won't slide out.
Wait a minute! Doesn't that skin contain a lot of fat? It does. But I figure that the holidays are one time of the year you can splurge a little.
And by the way, there's no reason to confine the enjoyment of this dish to the holidays. You can customize the seasonings or flavourings as you like as long as you keep the amounts of the core ingredients — chicken, sour cream and ice — untouched. That said, this is indeed a perfect dish for entertaining because you can make it ahead and keep it in the refrigerator until about 40 minutes before you want to serve it.
SPINACH-STUFFED CHICKEN THIGHS
Start to finish: 1 hour 55 minutes (30 minutes active)
5 ounces baby spinach
2 pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (8 thighs)
2 tablespoons crushed ice
1/3 cup low-fat sour cream
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil.
In a large skillet over medium heat, wilt the spinach until completely reduced. Let cool until easily handled, then squeeze any moisture from the spinach. Finely chop the spinach. You should have about 1/3 cup. Set aside.
Using a paring knife, remove the skin and bone from 2 of the chicken thighs. Place thigh meat in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the ice and process until absorbed. Add the sour cream and pulse again until well mixed. Add the spinach, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, fennel seeds, lemon zest, nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon of black pepper. Pulse, scraping down the sides, until well mixed. Set aside.
Arrange the remaining thighs on a cutting board, skin side up. Carefully pull back the skin, leaving it attached on one end. Divide the ground chicken and spinach mixture evenly between the 6 thighs, spreading it evenly over the meat. Stretch the skin back over the filling on each thigh. Arrange the stuffed thighs on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 400f.
In a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Season the chicken skin lightly with salt and pepper, then add the chicken to the skillet, skin side down. Cook until the skin is golden brown, then use tongs to turn the thighs skin side up. Place the skillet in the oven and roast for 25 minutes, or until the thighs reach 160 F.
Remove the skillet from the oven and cover with foil. Let rest for 5 minutes before transferring each thigh to a serving plate. Spoon any juices from the skillet over the thighs just before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 310 calories; 200 calories from fat (65 per cent of total calories); 23 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 110 mg cholesterol; 3 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 22 g protein; 370 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."