Heather writes : I’m hosting a dinner party for 5 in the near future and I’m not sure what to serve. With a full-time job and 3 small kids, I don’t have a lot of time to cook. So I’m thinking the slow cooker might be the way to go, but I can’t stand stews. I’ve heard you can slow cook a whole chicken which may be a good option. Any thoughts for easy, relatively hands-off entertaining?
Tony’s take: So here’s the goal as I understand it: make chicken in a slow cooker, have it feel lighter and dressier than a stew and wholly worthy of company. Normally, I wouldn’t be the guy to ask about slow cookers; I’ve had a new one sitting in its box for over a year. But hands-free cooking for company is a great question and it’s high time I took the slow-cooking plunge. So I grabbed mine out of the attic and headed to the kitchen. Crock-pots, with all their new-fangled buttons and programs, have come a long way from strict casserole duties back in the day. As I see it, the key to bringing them to the present (ie: doing dressy by slow-cooker) is all about the ingredients.
The plan: Normally, I try to avoid serving bones to company, but the options for chicken are somewhat limited. You don’t want to slow-cook boneless breasts (they’ll dry out) and boneless thighs (and their dark meat) aren’t for everyone. So go with a whole bird as you suggested, but cut it up into 10 pieces (you can have the butcher do this for you; or just buy chicken parts), so you get a nice mix of white and dark meat. Brown the pieces first to give the dish a caramelized flavor base. Then surround the chicken with bright wintry flavors with an Italian vibe. Add in some sauteed fennel, aromatic and intensely flavored, chunks of prosciutto (or pancetta), and some canned white beans. Finish with slices of orange (citrus is at its best right now), a splash of red wine vinegar, and chopped fennel fronds. The end result will be like an Italian version of a tagine: seasonal, bright and most definitely worthy of company.
Why a slow cooker: Yes, there’s hands-free convenience. But there’s also culinary value in this appliance: temperature control ultimately determines the success of a braise. And because a slow cooker can hold a relatively low temperature for a long time, it ensures hearty cuts get good and tender. The tenderizing piece might not be necessary for chicken as it is with gristly cuts of meat (which do great in slow cookers), but the gentle heat does concentrate the flavor of the chicken and its cooking broth. The recipe (Serves 4)
1. Sear the chicken (and prosciutto and fennel): This step (of browning the chicken instead of just setting it raw in the slow cooker) adds an extra 15 min of prep in the morning before you head out to work, but makes an immense difference in flavor. You should be able to find diced prosciutto pre-packed near the meat case in the supermarket; if not, use chunks of pancetta. Cut a frying chicken (about 4 1/2 lb.) into 10 pieces or have your butcher do it for you; for the sake of simplicity, you could also just buy 3 lb. of chicken parts – cut the split breasts in half through the bone). Cut off and discard excess chicken skin. Heat 2 Tbs. olive oil in a large, heavy based pot over medium-high heat until it’s shimmering hot, about 1 1/2 minutes. Sprinkle the chicken generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (about 1 1/2 tsp. and 1/2 tsp.) and dredge in 1 cup all-purpose flour; shake off any excess. Add half of the chicken pieces evenly spaced and cook without touching for 2 min until they brown and easily release from the pan when you lift an edge. Reduce the heat to medium, flip, and cook the other side until browned, 1 to 2 min. Transfer to the slow cooker and cook the remaining chicken pieces with another 1 Tbs. olive oil and 4 oz. diced prosciutto (or pancetta, cut in 1/2-inch dice) browning on both sides in the same manner; transfer them to the slow cooker as well. Still over medium heat, add 1 bulb fennel (cut in 1/4-inch dice; save the fronds for serving), sprinkle lightly with salt, and cook for 3 minutes so it starts to soften and brown. Add 3/4 cup white wine, raise the heat to high, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon, until it almost completely cooks off, 1 to 2 minutes. 2. Slow cook (dump everything in and press play): Using tongs and then a heatproof spatula, transfer the fennel mixture and the broth to the slow cooker (where the first batch of browned chicken should already be). Add 1 cup pearl onions (either fresh and peeled or frozen and defrosted; Heather, for you, go with the latter), 1 1/2 cups water, and 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme (optional). Adjust the slow cooker to low and a 6- or 8-hour setting (depending on your schedule), press start, and go about your day. 3. Reinforcements: About 30 minutes before serving (or just when you start reheating), spoon off any fat that’s accumulated on the surface of the braise. Then stir in 1 1/2 cups canned white beans (one 15-oz. can, rinsed and drained well) and 6 scallions (trimmed and thinly sliced). Simmer gently until the scallions wilt and become tender.
4. Flavor and then finish: If the broth is not thick to your liking, mix 2 tsp. corn starch with 2 Tbs. water and stir into the broth to thicken. Meanwhile, prep 2 navel oranges: cut off the peel and then cut the orange into segments. Add the segments to the broth as well as 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar. Season with salt, pepper, and more vinegar to taste and serve sprinkled with grated Parmigiano and chopped fennel fronds (the frilly green stuff from the top of the fennel).