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Richard Olney's Chicken Gratin

Chicken gratin

I have, in my old age, become a real stickler about chicken. Neither of us wants to buy or eat factory-farmed chickens anymore, but free-range, organic ones are expensive, running about €23 for a smallish bird. I just assume that is the cost of responsibly farming animals and don't give it much further thought - we aren't passionate meat-eaters. So we keep mostly vegetarian at home and every once in a blue moon (maybe a handful of times a year?), I splurge on one of those fancy chickens.

Then, though, the pressure of what to do with that expensive chicken descends upon me. After all, I want to eke out every last bit of meat and value from the chicken, but just making chicken soup each time doesn't feel celebratory enough. And there's only so many meals of poached chicken that my family will tolerate. (Although, of course, a baggie of frozen shredded chicken to dole out over several weeks is valuable indeed.) Roasting the chicken is great, but here my competing desire for a crisp-skinned, juicy bird and a clean oven (or a home that doesn't smell like scorched chicken fat) means that I never end up doing it anymore. The slow-roasted method is brilliant for those of us with this dilemma, but its 2-3 hour cooking time means that it can only be a weekend project. You see what I mean? The last thing I want is to be the owner of an expensive chicken and then feel paralyzed about what to do with it.

But! I stumbled upon this wonderful Richard Olney recipe on Food52 last week, which has you brown chicken pieces, fit them into a baking dish and then douse them with an eggy, cheesy custard and cubes of bread crisped in chicken fat before getting baked in the oven until bronzed and let me tell you, if you want to really honor your fancy bird, this is the way to do it. Not only does the recipe result in what is by far the very best gravy/sauce I have ever tasted (AND DID I MENTION THE CHICKEN-FAT-CRISPED BREAD CUBES), but it's actually a surprisingly easy dish for weeknights and an impressive one for dinner parties. The chicken stays juicy and crisp-skinned, and the lemon juice and white wine keep things from getting too greasy. It's no wonder it was featured in Food52's brilliant Genius Recipes column. It is all that and more.

Bonus! This recipe uses a whopping three egg yolks. I don't know about you, but I'm always on the hunt for recipes to use up egg yolks. Savory recipes if possible, because after baking a batch of meringue or macaroons or whatever, the last thing I want to do is make ice cream or chocolate pudding or crème brûlée. There's mayo of course, but there's only so much mayonnaise that a family of three can consume. So on top of being delicious and easy and perfect for these dark fall evenings, this dish will also help you feel virtuous by emptying your fridge of leftover yolks (if you're the kind of person who has them lurking behind the jam jars, like me).

A warning: if you are appalled by curdled things, you may not be a fan of the way the sauce looks. But if you can get over your aversion and simply trust me, I promise that its flavor more than makes up for its looks. If you are not troubled or are even a little enchanted by rustic sauces, then carry on, friend. Good food awaits you.

Richard Olney's Chicken Gratin
Serves 4-6

For the chicken:
One 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound/1.1-1.5 kg chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 tablespoons/30 grams butter
1 large handful stale bread, crusts removed, crumbled or cubed
1/3 cup/80 ml white wine

For the cheese custard:
3/4 cup/180 ml heavy cream
3 egg yolks
Salt, pepper
3 ounces/85 grams freshly grated Gruyère
Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 400° F/200° C. Salt the chicken pieces. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Place the chicken pieces (working in batches, if necessary) in the hot pan and cook until golden-brown on both sides - about 20 minutes, adding the breasts only after the first 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken pieces to a gratin dish of a size to just hold them, arranged side by side.

2. Put the pieces of bread in the pan and sauté in the cooking fat until slightly crisp and only slightly colored. Remove them from the pan and set aside, leaving behind as much of the cooking fat as possible, and deglaze the pan with the white wine, reducing it by about half.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the cream, egg yolks, seasonings, and cheese, then whisk in the lemon juice and the deglazing liquid. Spoon or pour this mixture evenly over the chicken pieces, sprinkle the surface with the bread, and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the surface is nicely colored. Serve immediately.