Monday, September 27, 2010

Chicken Stew with Fennel and Herbs

In my opinion, autumn and winter are absolutely, hands-down the best seasons for cooking.  Don't get me wrong, I love the first signs of life that emerge with the spring, and the bounty that summer brings to the kitchen; but autumn and winter have a lot going for them.  The cooler temperatures fill my head with dreams of soups and stews, and roasts, and anything that requires a long, slow cooking time.  Each autumn foodies everywhere  - and especially up here in northern New England - are challenged to use a narrower selection of fresh foods, supplemented with pantry staples and home-canned produce... at least, if you're lucky enough to have a garden.

Once I started feeling the chill in the air, I started thinking about stew.  Nothing fancy or too complex, but rather a stew that got back to the roots of what a stew really is.  A little bit of meat, a few chopped vegetables, and a slightly thickened, flavorful broth - I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it.  I decided on a chicken stew, because I had chicken in the refrigerator that needed to be used, and gathered up some celery, carrots, and red-skinned potatoes.  I threw some fennel into the mix because it's in-season and looked gorgeous at the market.

So, with the bones of my stew in place, I set to work.  I cooked off the chicken, fennel and celery in bacon drippings to add an additional layer of flavor.  (I save my bacon drippings - they're like liquid gold - but if you don't have any on hand, you could use butter or oil.)  This stew came together relatively quickly, due in part to cutting the vegetables on the small side so they would cook a little quicker.  I thickened it with a flour slurry, but a roux would work well too.

Chicken Stew with Fennel and Herbs
Serves 4 - 6

2 T. bacon drippings (or, 2 T. butter or olive oil), divided
4 chicken breasts (about 1 lb.) cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T. flour
1/2 c. cool water
1/2 medium fennel bulb, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 1/2 cups pearl onions, peeled and halved
5 medium red skinned potatoes, diced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced 1/8" thick
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 t. each fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped finely

Heat 1 T. bacon drippings in a stock pot over medium heat until glistening. Working in batches, add chicken to the pot and sprinkle lightly with salt & pepper. Stir frequently until chicken has browned, and then remove to a plate or bowl. Once all chicken has been browned, add the remaining 1 T. bacon drippings. Allow to heat for 20-30 seconds, and then add celery and fennel. Salt lightly and sauté until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add chicken back into the pot, along with chicken stock. Mix flour with water, stirring until there are no lumps, and add to the pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium low, cover and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, add carrots, cover again and let simmer for 8-10 minutes, until carrots have just started to soften. Add potatoes onions, rosemary, and thyme; and simmer an additional 10-12 minutes until vegetables are tender. Taste and season as needed with salt & pepper.  Serve, garnished with thyme if desired.

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