Winds may blow us off course, but eventually set us back down where we began. I’ve boned whole chickens, stuffed them with exotic rice and preserved lemons, bathed them in sauces of mushrooms, pistachios, fresh herbs and creme fraiche, but sometimes I’m ready for some simple fried chicken. I’m not interested in the boneless, battered, deep-fried model but just an honest piece of flavorful, free-range chicken seared until the skin is crispy, the meat juicy and bathed with a simple reduction of greaseless pan glazing.
Long ago I learned all it takes in addition to my heirloom cast-iron skillet, a swirl of oil, and a few cloves of garlic is a splash of common red wine vinegar. I’ve repeated this chicken sauté countless times over the decades with slight variations along the way, and it’s always a favorite. Diners will never guess the secret ingredient is vinegar that sweetens, tenderizes and moistens the chicken.
Country cooks have long known the benefits of using vinegar, one of the oldest kitchen staples. All you need are five ingredients, along with salt and pepper and half an hour to recreate the version of fried chicken that made Paul Bocuse a celebrity chef forty years ago. Even if you hesitate at the vinegar idea, you’ll want to give this healthy, tasty alternative a chance. It’s not necessary to use fancy balsamic, sherry or champagne vinegars here; simple salad vinegar, red wine or cider, is fine. For any pan-fried chicken, choose bone-in pieces that boost calcium, hold in moisture—and as most chicken aficionados know, the choice pieces are dark.
French Style Sautéed Vinegar Chicken
4 leg/thigh pieces of free-range chicken (about 2 1/2 lbs.), or one 3-lb. chicken cut in pieces.
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
6-8 large whole cloves garlic
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon tomato paste, Dijon mustard or 1 chopped fresh
3/4 cup (6 fl. oz.) chicken stock
Cut through the underside fat line between the knee and thigh joint to make two pieces or just sever the tendon so the joint will lie flat as it cooks. Blot chicken dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Swirl oil in a heavy iron skillet and heat until oil shimmers. Find a lid or a baking sheet that will cover the skillet tightly, and set aside. Using tongs, add chicken pieces, skin side down. Distribute whole, unpeeled garlic cloves among chicken pieces. Sauté over moderately high heat for ten minutes. Turn chicken, which should be deeply golden, and cook for ten minutes on the other side. At this point the chicken should be almost cooked through.
Remove chicken and garlic to a plate, and pour fat from pan (there may be as much as 4-5 tablespoons excess fat). Return chicken and garlic to skillet; bring heat back up. Measure 4 tablespoons vinegar. Once the chicken is again sizzling, pour the vinegar over the chicken and immediately cover with lid and steam the chicken for 5 minutes. Remove the lid; again remove chicken and garlic from the skillet which will be filmed with a sticky residue from the vinegar and chicken juices; this is the precious bit to turn into a glazing sauce.
Work the teaspoon of flour into the little bit of remaining fat, and add tomato paste, mustard or diced whole tomato. Whisk in chicken stock and boil up quickly to form a light sauce. Return the chicken and garlic to the pan, coat with sauce and simmer a few seconds. Serve with sauce glaze, whole soft garlic cloves and a sprinkling of fresh parsley and chives. Serves 4. Any leftovers make excellent room-temperature picnic bits.