Tony writes: I’ve become enamored of Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe. I may be arriving 5 years late to the party, but the method is a life-changer. Yes, the no-knead element is cool, but the part that really fascinates me (beyond the bread itself) is baking in a pre-heated cast-iron pot. The vessel acts like a meta-oven, speeding up the baking process by containing the loaf in its moist, super-hot confines. The preparation has become a once a week ritual for me. And each time I make it, I wonder how this oven cast-iron method would work with other ingredients. Chicken in a pot, an age-old method, was my first foray pushing the cast-iron technique beyond bread. I seared the chicken in the pre-heated pot, then surrounded it with spring vegetables (carrots, asparagus, and spring onions), covered, and baked. And I soon discovered that this pot-roasting technique produces some of the most tender and juicy chicken I’ve ever prepared. Here’s how: – Spring flavors: This is a special time of year when a handful of things are at their best. Take asparagus. Got nothing against Peru. It’s actually one of my favorite places, but I try to buy asparagus only when they’re domestic and, accordingly, sweet and fresh. That leaves a short window from March-June each year when I pounce. The time for spring Vidalia onions (pictured above) is even shorter. The fresh version of these onions are sublimely sweet and delicate. Carrots, making their first appearance of 2014, add color and earthiness to round out the trio. –Cutting up the chicken: You could certainly use parts for this method, though I prefer a whole bird. It’s far cheaper (per pound) and you get the added benefit of the back bone and wing tips (for making a great broth). If you do go with parts, buy a couple of split breasts and legs. For the whole bird, cut it into 6 pieces: cut off the legs (leave them whole) and the wings and split the breasts in half (through the breastbone). Then, whether you started with parts or a whole bird, use a paring knife to trim off and discard any excess (overhanging) skin (which will only add unwanted fat to the finished broth).
The Recipe: Serves 4
1. Prepare the chicken: Heat a large oven-proof Dutch oven (preferably cast-iron) in a 450F oven for 30 min. Cut a 4-lb chicken into 6 pieces. Remove all excess fat, rinse each piece well and pat dry. Sprinkle the chicken with 2 Tbs. chopped fresh tarragon, 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and 3/4 tsp. black pepper and coat with 1 Tbs. olive oil. 2. Sear the chicken: Carefully (using pot holders) remove the pot from the oven and set the chicken skin side down and evenly spaced in the pot. Cover, return to the oven, and cook for 5 min so the chicken browns lightly.
3. Add the vegetables, cover and roast: Flip the chicken and scatter 1 bunch asparagus (ends snapped off and discarded, cut in 2-inch pieces), 2 carrots (peeled and cut in thin pieces on the diagonal), and 2 spring onions (thinly sliced). Cover, return to the oven, and bake until the chicken cooks through and the vegetables become tender, 15 to 20 min. 4. Serve: Distribute the chicken, vegetables, and broth on 4 dinner plates. Sprinkle with more tarragon and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.