chicken

Cast-Iron Skillet Chicken with Farro and Brussels Sprouts
Feeds 4 hungry folks

Everyone likes the taste of fried chicken but maybe not the extra fat. I wanted to get the crispy skin of fried chicken without the frying. It took me a few years to figure out that roasting the chicken pieces in a cast-iron pan gives you a similar result. It’s a simple technique that can easily become standard in your repertoire. Just make sure the surface of the chicken is really dry so that the skin crisps up when it hits the pan. You pan-roast the chicken pieces almost exclusively on the skin side, then transfer the pan to the oven to cook the meat all the way through. To switch things up, I pair the chicken with Middle Eastern flavors. Farro is a form of wheat berry brought to the Southern United States from Europe; it’s prepared much like bulgur wheat is prepared in Lebanese cuisine. I give it a crunchy texture similar to fried rice by toasting the farro grains in the rendered chicken fat. They puff up and take on a glossy sheen, sort of like Honey Smacks cereal. Then I mix in some lemon juice and Brussels sprout leaves for a crisp, bright flavor. A traditional Lebanese tahini sauce rounds out the flavors with some bitterness. When these flavors stand alone, the chicken might taste too salty, the farro too sour, or the tahini too bitter. But when tasted together, they strike a balance. It’s a very satisfying take on a traditional Southern favorite.

Semi-pearled farro, preferably Anson Mills
1 cup

Water
3 cups

Brussels sprouts
a generous pound, about 32 golf ball-size sprouts

Chickens
2, about 4 pounds each

Salt and ground black pepper

Grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons

Garlic
3 cloves, shaved on a mandoline

Chicken stock
2 cups, warm, preferably homemade (recipe follows)

Olive oil
2 tablespoons

Lemon juice
1/4 cup

Tahini sauce (recipe follows)
about 1/4 cup

  1. Preheat the oven to 500°F.
  2. Soak the farro in the water for 30 minutes. Drain off the water and rinse the grains with cold water. Put the farro in a 2-quart saucepan and add enough fresh cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then cut the heat down to low, cover, and simmer until tender yet still chewy, about 20 minutes. Drain off any excess liquid and spread the farro on a baking sheet to cool. You should end up with about 2 cups of cooked farro.
  3. Meanwhile, peel off the outer green leaves of the Brussels sprouts until you have 4 cups. Reserve the inner heads for another use.
  4. Cut up the chickens into leg-thigh and breast-wing portions with the skin still attached. For each leg-thigh portion, bend the leg away from the body, cut down to the joint, then bend the joint to break it. Cut between the ball and socket, then down around the carcass to remove the entire leg-thigh portion. For each breast-wing portion, cut down along one side of the breastbone, then run the knife along the contour of the rib cage and around the wishbone to begin removing the breast from the body. When you get to the joint connecting the wing to the body, grab both wing and breast together and cut through the wing joint to remove breast and wing in one piece. Score the meat around the next wing joint closest to the breast, cutting down to bone and scraping with the knife so the bone is fairly clean. Bend the joint to break it and remove the wing. The resulting boneless breast with the first wing bone attached and exposed is called an airline breast. It looks nicer than the boneless breast by itself, and the wing bone helps keep the meat moist during cooking.
  5. Cut off any excess flaps of skin and pat the chicken very dry with a paper towel. Generously season the chicken on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat two large cast-iron skillets over medium heat. Add enough grapeseed oil to coat the bottom of each pan. Put the chicken legs in one pan, skin side down, and put the breasts in the other pan, also skin side down. Crank the heat up to medium-high and cook until the skin is nicely browned, about 4 minutes. No need to peek; just let the chicken cook undisturbed. When the skin is browned, it will release easily from the pan and the meat will start to pull away from the bone. Turn the leg-thigh portions and cook for 1 more minute skin side up, but let the breasts cook skin side down the entire time.
  6. Place both skillets in the oven and roast for 5 minutes. Carefully pull out the pan with the legs, turn the legs skin side down once again, and return to the oven for 3 more minutes. The breasts will still be skin side down, remember; they do not get turned at all. After a total of 8 minutes, carefully pull both skillets from the oven, transfer the chicken to a large plate, and tent with foil to keep warm.
  7. Using mitts, carefully pour out and discard the accumulated fat from the pans. Heat one pan over high heat until smokin’ hot. Add the cooled farro to the pan, spreading to evenly cover the bottom (save any leftover farro for another use; it makes a great salad). Again with the mitts, grab the handle and shake and toss the farro so it heats through evenly. After about 3 minutes, the farro will begin to caramelize and puff. Add the Brussels sprout leaves and stir nonstop for 1 minute. Add the garlic and warm chicken stock, then shake and toss the mixture for 2 more minutes, until almost all of the liquid is gone. The farro will absorb the stock and release its starch to thicken the remaining liquid, creating a creamy mixture.
  8. Stir in the olive oil, lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and any accumulated chicken juices from the plate. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed; with all that lemon juice in the farro, the dish screams for salt to balance it out.
  9. To serve, drizzle a circle of tahini sauce in the center of the plate, and top with a scoop of farro and a chicken breast and leg.

Chicken Stock
Makes about 10 cups

Chicken
1 bird, about 3 pounds

  1. Cut down along one side of the bird’s breastbone, then run the knife along the contour of the rib cage and around the wishbone to remove the breast meat; repeat on the other side and reserve the breast meat. Using kitchen shears, cut from the tail end up to the neck end on either side of the backbone to remove the backbone; place the backbone in an 8-quart stock pot. Cut the chicken wings from the body and put in the stockpot. Bend the leg away from the body, cut down to the joint, then bend the joint to break it; cut between the ball and socket and then down around the carcass to remove the entire leg/thigh portion. Separate the drumsticks and thighs into separate pieces and cut each in half to expose additional bone. Put all of the drumstick and thigh pieces into the pot. Cut the remaining carcass in half and put in the pot. Fill the pot with enough water to completely cover all the bones.
  2. Set the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Cut the heat down so that the liquid simmers very gently; you only want a few bubbles coming up now and then. Using a ladle, skim and discard any foam and fat from the pot. Drop the chicken breasts into the water and poach just until no longer pink (165°F internal temperature), about 15 minutes. Remove the breasts and reserve for another use. Simmer the stock gently for 2 hours, skimming the surface now and then. Pull the pot from the heat and let cool for 1 hour.
  3. Using tongs, remove and discard the bones. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer and then through a double layer of wet cheesecloth. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 6 months.

Tahini Sauce
Makes about 1 cup

Tahini is the workhorse of Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s like peanut butter but made from sesame seeds. In Lebanon, Israel, and Syria, most of the food is light and lean. Tahini adds richness and a slight bitter edge. This sauce is pretty classic, including lemon juice for acidity, garlic for pungency, and a drop of honey for sweetness. When you’re making the sauce, you’ll see it clump up as you stir in the lemon juice. Don’t worry; just keep stirring. The sauce will eventually become smooth. If it doesn’t, trickle in a little water until it gets nice and smooth. At that point, the sauce will be bulletproof. You can hold it in the refrigerator for several days without it separating. I use this sauce to balance the flavors of cast-iron skillet chicken and as a garnish for shawarma. You could also use it on a simple grilled chicken sandwich.

Lebanese tahini
1/2 cup

Lemon
1 plump

Garlic
1 clove, mashed to a paste, about 1 teaspoon

Salt
1 teaspoon

Olive oil
about 1/3 cup

Honey
a drop, if needed

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk the tahini, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the garlic, and salt until the mixture is very thick or “tightened.” It will get so thick that you’ll have trouble stirring it. Keep stirring; your arm will get tired, but keep stirring for about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in just enough water—2 to 3 tablespoons—to bring the tahini back to its original spoonable consistency. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until the mixture is smooth. When you taste the sauce, you should detect a dry bitterness with a touch of acidity. If the sauce tastes flat or overly bitter, add a little salt and just a drop of honey. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Tahini
You can find tahini, or ground sesame paste, in most grocery stores these days; but the quality varies wildly. Some brands taste mild and nutty; others taste nasty and bitter. When adding lemon juice and salt, let your taste buds guide you. You want to add just enough to balance out any bitterness. Or look for Lebanese tahini, which is consistently less bitter than tahini from other origins.