Recipe copyright 2010 by Dorie Greenspan, Photo © Alan Richardson, reproduced with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
I can’t remember exactly when I first made a chicken cooked in a casserole that was sealed tighter than the ancient pyramids, but I do remember that it was called Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic and that the recipe came from Richard Olney’s deservedly classic cookbook Simple French Food. In his version of this traditional dish, the chicken is cut up and tucked into a casserole with four heads of garlic, separated into cloves but not peeled; dried herbs; a bouquet garni; and some olive oil. Everything is turned around until it’s all mixed up, the casserole is sealed tight with a flour-and-water dough, and the whole is slid into the oven to bake until the chicken is done and the garlic is cooked through, sweet and soft enough to spread on bread. It’s a masterpiece of simplicity, and when the seal is cracked at the table, the pouf of fragrant steam is mildly theatrical and completely intoxicating.
Olney’s recipe was the first of I-can’t-even-count-how-many chickens in a pot I’ve made. I’ve cooked chickens whole and in pieces, with a garden’s worth of vegetables and with only garlic, with hot spices and with fragrant herbs, with and without wine, and with and without the dough seal (with is better). I’ve cooked the chicken in a heavy Dutch oven (my favorite), a speckled enamel roaster (not the best), and a clay cooker (my second favorite; if you use a clay cooker, though, omit the dough seal — the clay is too fragile). And I’ve cooked it in every season — it’s just as good in the summer as in winter.
This, my garlic and lemon rendition, was inspired by a dish made by Antoine Westermann, a chef with a Michelin three-star restaurant in Alsace and a bistro in Paris. That there’s nothing Alsatian about his use of Moroccan preserved lemons and nothing particularly French about the addition of sweet potatoes makes the dish even more fun.
½ preserved lemon, rinsed well
1 cup water
¼ cup sugar
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and each cut into 8 same-sized pieces (you can use white potatoes, if you prefer)
16 small white onions, yellow onions, or shallots
8 carrots, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
4 celery stalks, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
4 garlic heads, cloves separated but not peeled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 thyme sprigs
3 parsley sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
1 chicken, about 4 pounds, preferably organic, whole or cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
1 cup chicken broth
½ cup dry white wine
About 1½ cups all-purpose flour
About ¾ cup hot water
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Using a paring knife, slice the peel from the preserved lemon and cut it into small squares; discard the pulp. Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, drop in the peel, and cook for 1 minute; drain and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the vegetables and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until the vegetables are brown on all sides. (If necessary, do this in 2 batches.) Spoon the vegetables into a 4½- to 5-quart Dutch oven or other pot with a lid and stir in the herbs and the preserved lemon.
Return the skillet to the heat, add another tablespoon of oil, and brown the chicken on all sides, seasoning it with salt and pepper as it cooks. Tuck the chicken into the casserole, surrounding it with the vegetables. Mix together the broth, wine, and the remaining olive oil and pour over the chicken and vegetables.
Put 1½ cups flour in a medium bowl and add enough hot water to make a malleable dough. Dust a work surface with a little flour, turn out the dough, and, working with your hands, roll the dough into a sausage. Place the dough on the rim of the pot — if it breaks, just piece it together — and press the lid onto the dough to seal the pot.
Slide the pot into the oven and bake for 55 minutes.
Now you have a choice — you can break the seal in the kitchen or do it at the table, where it’s bound to make a mess, but where everyone will have the pleasure of sharing that first fragrant whiff as you lift the lid with a flourish. Whether at the table or in the kitchen, the best tool to break the seal is the least attractive — a screwdriver. Use the point of the screwdriver as a lever to separate the lid from the dough.
Depending on whether your chicken was whole or cut up, you might have to do some in-the-kitchen carving, but in the end, you want to make sure that the vegetables and the delicious broth are on the table with the chicken.
If the chicken is cut up, you can just serve it and the vegetables from the pot. If the chicken is whole, you can quarter it and return the pieces to the pot or arrange the chicken and vegetables on a serving platter. Either way, you don’t need to serve anything else but some country bread, which is good for two things: spreading with the sweet garlic popped from the skins and dunking into the cooking broth. One of the reasons I like to bring the pot to the table is because it makes for easy dipping.
If you have any leftover chicken, vegetables, and broth (what we call “goop” in our house), they can be reheated gently in the top of a double boiler or in a microwave oven.
You can save yourself a little time and some cleanup by using store-bought pizza dough to seal the pot. If you use pizza dough, it will rise around the pot.