Introduction: Braised Chicken, Babushka Style
Not too long ago I was a broke college kid trying to gain some nutrition from simple meals. A local store had great deals on whole chickens all the time, which meant my main source of protein was pretty much decided. Now, the question was always what to do next. Whole roasts were always nice and versatile, but they needed time in the fridge to brine. Breasts were always best seared off and usually got eaten first. Thighs were my favorite friers, leaving the drumsticks unloved. Luckily my grandmother came through and reminded me of her way of making them that she used on cleaning days when she couldn't watch the stove all the time. Plus, all this recipe needed could be done on one cutting board and thrown into one pot, skillet, wok, or other cooking dish that was on hand.
And so, my babushka's braised chicken came into my repertoire. Even now that I'm gainfully employed it's still a wonderful and easily scaled dinner for those nights where work tends to jump out at you or a mass of friends decide to show up at your door for a meal.
Step 1: Let's Get Prepping!
So here's what you'll need for two servings:
- 1 half of a thick carrot (the top half is best since it doesn't taper too much)
- 2 small white potatoes
- 1 head of garlic
- 5 mushrooms (really any brown capped mushroom of your choice is fine)
- 4 chicken drumsticks
- 2 or 3 laurel leaves (bay leaves)
- 1 pinch of pepper
- Salt to taste
- Dill to taste
Cut the carrot in half and slice it into 1/2 inch half rounds.
The potatoes can be left peel on, I just peel them so I can fry the skins. First cut them into quarters, long ways. Then chop them into 3/4 inch pieces.
Peel the head of garlic in your preferred manner and chop the cloves roughly.
Slice the mushrooms into 1/2 inch slivers.
The drumsticks can be left skin on if you like, but on or off are really just a point of personal preference.
The dill is best cut into 2 - 3 inch sections if you're adding it. Dill tops are generally better than the lower sections for this recipe, but so long as there's not too much thick stalk it's fine.
Onions are a great addition to this recipe, but as I'm making this for lunch as we speak and I've eaten a monstrous amount of onions this week I've forgone them.
Step 2: The Pot Line Order
So here's how we order our ingredients to maximize flavor:
Pour about 2 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil or melted butter into your pot. Heat to medium-low.
Add the mushrooms in and stir a bit to make sure nothing sticks. If they don't start crackling a bit turn up the heat a little. Throw in a little bit of salt to help things along.
Once the mushrooms have sweat and are starting to brown a little bit add in the potatoes.
Stir here a good bit to prevent any sticking.
Once the potatoes start looking a little opaque, go ahead and add the chopped garlic.
With garlic getting nice and aromatic go ahead and add a pinch of pepper now. This is a trick borrowed from Indian cooking that will allow the pepper to become more aromatic and flavorful without burning it to high hell.
With your kitchen smelling heavenly and your neighbors popping by 'just to chat', go ahead and add the carrot and mix them together with the other ingredients. Once nicely mixed, place the drumsticks on top. Fill with water to the rivets of your pot, pan, etc. and add your laurel and dill. Cover with a lid.
Step 3: Siri Could You Please
Siri or any other timer can now be set for an hour and a half and you can go about your business safely. Will the pot be on a simmer? Nope. It'll be a fairly intense boil but that's OK. See drumsticks have the wonderful benefit of having lots of bone and joints that react very favorably to a vigorous boil. The oil we added along with the natural fats of the chicken will prevent our dish from drying out leaving us with no worries.
Step 4: The Great Reduction
Once your timer rings your attentions back to the kitchen it's time for my favorite part of this recipe. Now if you're using a skillet, this step actually can be skipped as the large surface area of the skillet actually does this by itself.
Go ahead and turn the heart up to medium high or high depending on your stove and let thermodynamics do their work. This step condenses all of that wonderful flavor into a reduction that will drive you wild with joy. You'll want to reduce it roughly by half so just keep an eye on the pot while setting the table or feeding the dog. The best point in my experience is when the water is just below the level of the drumsticks.
Once it hits that magic point, go ahead and take the pot off the heat. It'll be essentially a stew at this point and with some crusty bread will warm your heart on any winter day. But the best way to eat it is by taking the solids out of the liquid with a slotted spoon. The remaining liquid makes a great chicken soup for later or can be reduced into an incredible gravy.
Now if you made this in a skillet this a great time to actually braised the whole thing (by the technical definition of braising) and put it in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes. Is this a requirement? Not at all. Even if this dish isn't technically braised, who's to argue with a Russian grandmother who was a lieutenant in the Soviet Navy? Not me.
Step 5: Oh the Variations You Could Do.
While this recipe is my grandmother's, it's not immutable. I've added a good bit of curry powder and a rue to it for a nice curry variation. Some sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce and dark vinegar makes a great Chinese style variation (fresh scallions are mandatory, of course). Add tomatoes, onions, peppers, and a squeeze of lime at the end for a great Mexican style variation.
So go ahead and try it in a million and one ways. But be sure to share it, I'd love to see what you come up with!