Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pastis Chicken

As much as I am obsessed with Paris, I am also totally fascinated with Provence. This undying love started when I was about five years old, and I got my little hands on Marcel Pagnol's books about his childhood (yes, I could read at a creepily advanced level quite early, thanks to my linguist mother and school teacher grandfather: the sadists used to give me dictations for - their - fun when I was less than 3-foot high). His descriptions of the country where he grew up are so loving, evocative and vivid that I just fell head over heels in love with everything Provence-ish. I find the accent so beautiful, the wines so amazing, the cuisine irresistible… I can never get sick of looking at pictures of the lavender fields, calanques (sea-side natural formations of stunning beauty) and papal palaces. When I need a solid dose of undiluted beauty, I go to my drawing room and take out the now dog-eared Pagnol or Jean Giono books and read until I am in tears of literary ecstasy.

(If a certain Russian hottie is reading this, there is a major hint about travel plans that could be devised in the foreseeable future… Just sayin'…)

But Pagnol is hands down my favorite French writer, and I have devoured his books, plays and movies. I know his work by heart. In his pages (and in the lines of his movies), there are very frequent mentions of the typical Provençal aperitif, pastis. I was in hysterics when I realized the S.A.Q. (Quebec's liquor store chain) carries the Ricard brand of pastis, and I make sure I get a bottle every summer, as it is the ideal summer drink, light and refreshing, with a little taste of sunlight and cicadas (no, it doesn't literally taste of cicadas, but you know what I mean). It's a liquor made from anise seeds, and tastes like sweet licorice. The proper French ways to drink it is in a old-fashion glass, diluted with flat water and a few ice cubes.

I was horribly insulted when I did an internship in France and was told by people my age that pastis was a drink for "les vieux cons" (an expression which basically means "lame old men"). Screw that; I kept ordering it anyway. I love it. If that makes me lame, I can deal with it.

I dig Provençal cooking, which is the perfect hybrid between French and Italian cuisine. So many of the ingredients I love are grown and produced there: olives (and their precious oil), tomatoes, onions, artichokes, eggplants, pine nuts, lemons, apricots, almonds… They also produce amazing cheeses and wines, and the most amazing cooking herbs like savory, thyme and oregano. It's by the sea, so they have a million ways of cooking fishes, mussels, shellfish… And all their cuisine is amazingly healthy, rich in vitamins and low in fat. Sounds to me like Provence just may be Heaven for the gourmandes like myself (again, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, baby!).

I've played around with Provençal recipes several times before, but it had never crossed my mind to cook with pastis. When I found the recipe below (in the brilliant Mireille Guiliano's "French Women For All Seasons"), I almost smacked myself because I cook with wine and spirits regularly, but it had never occurred to me to use pastis in food. Dummy. All the other ingredients also got my taste buds' attention. I just had to try it, and I had the last of this year's Ricard left from the warm days (I was so good this year, I barely finished a bottle). I also love any recipe that I can cook in Betty-the-Dutchoven;  it just makes me feel awesome and old-school.

2/3 cup pastis
1/3 cup and 3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and ground pepper
1 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 onions, peeled and sliced
4 tomatoes, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2/3 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
1 cup fresh basil, slivered

Mix the pastis and oil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Arrange the chicken pieces in one layer in a shallow dish. Drizzle with the marinade and cover the dish with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours (up to overnight). Warm the last 3 tablespoons of oil in a Dutchoven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic and fennel seeds. Continue cooking for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken and the marinade to the Dutchoven. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes. Add the olives and 1/3 of the basil. Cover and continue to cook until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with rice, garnished with the rest of the basil.

I loved this recipe on top of wild rice (President's Choice sells an awesome blend of brown rice and wild rice that works very well with saucy chicken dishes like this one). The book also suggested noodles, but I can't really see that as anything else than messy. On the other hand, baked potatoes would absorb the delicious cooking juices. So would couscous or quinoa, of course, so don't be shy to go down that more exotic road.

Do use a whole chicken: the fat from the skin and bones will absorb much more flavor that way, and keep the meat nice and tender. I tried substituting the whole bird for 4 chicken breasts, and they turned out a bit dry. The taste of the marinade is subtle, so don't be shy to add plenty of fresh pepper, and season it more generously with the herbs if you want it very fragrant.

And of course, you can drink pastis with it, but as it is more of a pre-meal drink, I suggest picking up a well-balanced white or rosé wine. Too dry would clash with the sweetness of the pastis, and too sweet would be off with the salty olives and onions.

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