Braised Chicken with Figs

I cook a lot of chicken and my favorite is braised chicken legs.  I use all sorts of combinations of ingredients for the aromatics and the braising liquids.  A particularly popular meal at our house is this chicken braise cooked with white wine, onions, and figs.  The method is a little different from the usual braise; there is less liquid, the pan is left uncovered, and the skin turns out browned and crispy rather than soft and flabby (as some chicken braises tend to be).  You cook the chicken at a higher oven heat and it goes rather quickly, which is handy on busy evenings.  The original recipe calls for fresh figs, but, where I live it isn’t always fig season.  I have found that I can substitute good-quality dried Calamyrna figs with fine results.  The finishing touch on the dish is the addition of a sweet-sour mix of honey and vinegar, swirled into the pan sauce with the figs.  It gives a great boost of flavor and brightness to the chicken.  Serve this with some grilled bread to sop up the sauce and perhaps a little green salad on the side.  It’s very good eating with minimum effort and expense. 

Braised Chicken with Figs
(serves 4)
4 whole chicken legs (or 8 chicken thighs)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
About 1/2 cup dry white wine
About 2 tablespoons dry white vermouth
About 1/2 cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
A sprig of fresh thyme
A few black peppercorns, barely cracked in a mortar
About 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
About 1 tablespoon honey
8 to 10 ripe fresh figs (or 4 to 5 plump, moist dried figs)
Chopped flat-leaf parsley or additional fresh thyme  leaves, for garnish

If you have time, season the chicken 12 to 24 hours in advance*.  Trim the excess fat and skin, then sprinkle the chicken pieces evenly with salt.  Cover loosely and refrigerate.  When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 375F.  Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12-inch, oven-proof skillet over medium-low heat.  Pat the chicken pieces dry, then add to the pan, skin-side down.  Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle sizzle and cook until the skin is evenly golden brown, about 8 minutes.  Turn the chicken pieces and color slightly on the other side, about 4 minutes.  Turn the chicken skin-side up again.  Pour off the fat.  Arrange the onion wedges in the spaces between the chicken pieces.  Add the wine, vermouth, and enough stock to come to a depth of about 1/2 inch.  Bring to a simmer and add the bay leaf, thyme, and cracked black peppercorns.  Place, uncovered, in the oven, and cook until the meat is tender, but not quite falling off the bone, about 30 to 40 minutes.  The skin will be golden and crispy and the liquid ought to have reduced by about half.  Remove from the oven and set aside in a warm spot.  Combine the vinegar and honey and warm slightly (this is most easily done with a few seconds in the microwave).  Taste.  The vinegar should dominate.  Trim the stems and cut the figs in half.  Skim as much fat as possible from the braising liquid, then set the pan over medium heat.  Bring to a boil and swirl as you reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency.  Distribute the figs evenly around the pan, add about 2 tablespoons of the vinegar-honey syrup, and swirl the pan again to combine the sauce and syrup.  Taste.  The sauce should be rich and vibrantly sour-sweet.  Add more, or all of the syrup, to taste.  (If you have used the dried figs you will likely need more of the syrup to achieve a balance of sweet and sour).  Serve immediately, dividing the onion wedges and figs amongst each plate, and topping with a few spoonfuls of the sauce.  Sprinkle with fresh parsley or thyme as you like.
* If you haven’t seasoned the chicken in advance, simply sprinkle the pieces with salt before placing in the skillet to brown.
(minimally adapted from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers)

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