Something ridiculous always happens when the seasons change. I find myself excited for the foods I associate with the new season, and immediately nostalgic for the foods of the season that just ended. That sensation is never more palpable than during the transition from summer to autumn, when we’re looking forward to digging our sweaters out of the chest under the bed, but still secretly hoping we get to steal one last beach day with the ones we love.
In Provincetown, we are usually lucky enough to get one or two of those stolen, sunshine-drenched, breezy days in October, but their pleasure is matched only by their unpredictability. We’re human, so we may be thinking of braising something all day in the oven when, unannounced, summer returns — and we humans absolutely hate changing our plans. So, listen, I have a recipe for that. Rather, I learned a recipe for that from Edna Lewis.
Lewis was a rightfully celebrated Southern chef who grew up on a farm just outside Freetown, Va. — a village founded by formerly enslaved people. In her essential cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis groups recipes by menus that align with the seasons on the farm. Her Steamed Chicken in Casserole is one I come back to over and over again when the seasons are indecisive, and I want to be able to roll with their punches.
The first thing to know about this chicken is that its simplicity makes it incredibly versatile. If it decides to be fall outside, you can bake the resulting tender chicken into a pot pie. If it decides to be summer outside, you can eat a heap of it with potato salad and a cold beer on the back porch in the sun. The second thing about this chicken is how unbelievably tender and flavorful it is, considering you do absolutely nothing fancy in the service of making it that way.
When I first read this recipe, I’ll admit to cocking one eyebrow at the idea of steaming a chicken. If it helps to ease your eyebrow back down your forehead, this is really a dry braise, where you trust your ingredients to create their own gravy and are rewarded for your fortitude.
Lewis calls for a whole chicken, cut into eight pieces, with a few extra wings. I’ll let her explain why: “They are added really to give thickness to the sauce, which comes from the two last wing joints.”
But I like this recipe with all thighs, because I think that’s the best part. You should use whichever part of the chicken is your favorite.
I’ve adapted this recipe very gently. Lewis says you can do this on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the oven because it lets me walk away to pull the last of the leeks out of the garden, finish the last chapter of a book, or enjoy the last sliver of sunshine coming through the trees out back.
Edna Lewis’s Steamed Chicken in Casserole
8 chicken thighs
½ cup butter
2 medium-sized onions, chopped fine
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
½ cup sliced carrots
½ Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
Salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 250 degrees. Pat your chicken pieces dry, and season with salt.
Put the butter in a heavy, oven-safe pot or saucepan, and heat it to the foaming stage. Add the onions. When the onions are soft and translucent, add in the chicken. Raise the flame and brown the chicken and onions well, without burning.
When the chicken is well browned, turn the burner as low as possible, add the thyme, bay leaf, and carrots, cover the pot with a closely fitting lid, and set into the preheated oven. Sometimes I’ll add a splash of stock or white wine before I put this in the oven, if I want there to be some extra sauce at the end, but you absolutely don’t have to. Be sure the pot is quite hot when set into the oven. Cook for one hour.
When it comes to the tarragon, here is a direct quotation from Edna Lewis, because she’s right, and knows better than I do:
“If you have fresh tarragon, add 1/2 tablespoon about 15 minutes before removing from the oven, then salt and pepper to taste, and swish the pot around to blend in the herb. Adding the tarragon at the last gives a better flavor than if it is cooked in from the beginning. Don’t use dried tarragon; it’s too strong.”