Spring Chicken: Chicken in a Claypot with Lemon, Thyme, and Asparagus

Analiza writes: I have bone-in chicken breasts (3 lb.) and fresh thyme, oregano and lemon.  I would love to bake it in my new German clay pot.  Recommendations would be much appreciated!

Tony’s take: First, I’m jealous. Once upon a time, I had a clay pot and during one move or another, it ended up in somebody else’s kitchen. For those who have never used one, clay pots are one of those old-fashioned pieces of kitchen equipment which still have merit today. They’re prominent in Asian and European cooking, often paired with chicken as with the French classic Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic. Clay pots do demand a little extra attention – you need to soak both the pot and its top in  water for about 15 minutes before using (and you have to be gentle when cleaning them), but what you get in return is super-even cooking. The clay absorbs some water from soaking and then releases it (in the form of steam) during cooking. The result? Chicken cooked in a clay pot is ridiculously moist and achieves that most trite of culinary cliches… falling-off-the-bone tender. Though clay pots are often used to make heavy, wintry dishes with plenty of root vegetables, I would push you towards a lighter dish where the lemon and herbs lead the way. You already have most everything you’ll need. Toss the chicken with the herbs (why not use both!), a little olive oil, and plenty of salt and pepper. Smash some garlic cloves so they’re intact but lightly crushed and cut a lemon into wedges. Add all of these to the pot along with a light drizzle of honey and a couple of carrots if you have and feel so moved – they’ll not only be colorful and spring-ish, but they’ll also give the dish some depth. Cover and slide the pot into the oven (that’s not been preheated), crank the temp to 450F, and come back about 1 1/4 hour later and the chicken should be good to go – cooked through, but extremely moist and tender. Roast those asparagus alongside on a baking sheet (with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper), cut them into 1-inch pieces, and toss with the cooked chicken. Serve over polenta or with a good crusty baguette and you’ve got the perfect spring meal.

What you need: Ingredients: Chicken (split breasts are fine or cut a 4-lb bird into pieces so you get a mix of white and dark meat), lemon (1), olive oil, honey, fresh herbs (like thyme, rosemary, or oregano), garlic, (aromatics like carrots or onion), S+P.

Equipment:  Clay pot (or a medium Dutch oven), cutting board, chef’s knife, tongs

How to do it: Prepare the chicken and the pot: So first you’re going to want to soak the clay pot (both the pot and its top) in cold water for 15 minutes. Then focus on the chicken. You’re going to want to cut the split chicken breasts (about 3 lb.) in half crosswise down through the rib bones (or if you have a whole bird cut the chicken into 10 pieces). Smaller pieces cook more quickly and also allow the surrounding flavors to better infuse the chicken. Then you have a decision to make: skin-on or skin-off? If you leave the skin on, the sauce which results from the accumulated juices during cooking will have a greasy slick from the rendered chicken fat, but fat = flavor and you can always spoon off this fat.  Also, if you do go skin-on, once the chicken is cooked through, you’ll want to uncover the pot and cook the chicken another 15 minutes or so so the skin browns and crisps up a bit; you can serve skinless chicken right when it’s done.

Set the skin-on or skinless chicken pieces in the clay pot (or in a Dutch oven) and toss with a splash of olive oil (about 1 Tbs.), a little honey (about 2 tsp.) and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper (about 1 1/2 tsp. and 3/4 tsp. respectively). Take 1 head of garlic and smash/press each clove with the side of a chef’s knife to remove the skin and release some of the oils. Cut a lemon into wedges. Add the smashed garlic cloves (about 8) and the lemon wedges (about 10)  to the pot along with some coarsely chopped fresh thyme or oregano or both (about 2 tsp. thyme or 2 Tbs. oregano) and 1 Spanish onion (cut into wedges) or 2 carrots (cut into 1-inch pieces) if you like (add another splash of olive oil if you add these vegetables). Toss well.

Bake the chicken: Slide the clay pot (or Dutch oven) onto the middle rack of the oven. Turn the oven to 450F and cook the chicken without touching for 1 hour. At this point start checking the chicken every ten minutes or so until it’s cooked through and tender; be careful as the top will be hot (use a potholder) and there will be quite a bit of steam when you remove it to peek in. Cook skin-on chicken another 10 to 15 minutes or until its skin starts to brown.

Serve: Slice up the asparagus (if you roasted them) and scatter them around the pot with the cooked chicken. Sprinkle with some more chopped herbs and serve with polenta and some bread to sop up those juices.

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