It is mid-September. The past few days have had a hoary air about them and I yearn for food of a comforting nature. This is the time of year when my cooking begins the transition from quick, light summer fare, to more substantial, soothing nourishment. It is still too early in the season for real cooking, that is, hearty roasts and braises that require a great deal of coddling, pampering and coaxing of ingredients; that is for the hibernation months of December through February, when long hours in a warm kitchen bring great joy and solace. Despite the chill that is about, I am also reluctant to renounce summer so easily, so I decide on a one skillet meal roasted in the oven at a high temperature. It is both quick and soothing.
I set off to market.
Bone-in, spilt chicken breasts are on sale, so I grab a package and head to produce. The cherry tomatoes look plump, and the zucchini are firm and deep green. The shallots, my first choice, are disappointing. Their skins are papery, their bulbs spongy. I inspect some red onions and find a heavy, tight skinned beauty about the size of a baseball. The garlic cloves are clustered closely together in a dense mass. I add them to the cart. Everything is a go, and yet I crave something a bit more substantial; potatoes. A quick run through of the spuds and I grab a few white jackets. I know I have fresh rosemary and thyme at home, as well as some inexpensive California brandy and a half bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. So I check out and head back there, formulating my recipe the whole way home.
The late summer vegetables were cheap, so I bought extra. Anytime I roast vegetables, I do so in volume and integrate the leftovers into meals later in the week. This is a great way to save time after work; just cook up a protein or some pasta, add the vegetables, and dinner is served.
Preheat the oven to 425F.
Cut the zucchini into one inch thick rounds, and the potatoes into one inch chunks. The red onion gets halved, and then sliced into half-inch slabs. The garlic cloves are peeled, but left whole. Rinse the cherry tomatoes clean and leave them unadulterated. Rinse clean about a dozen sprigs each of fresh rosemary and thyme.
The chicken breasts still have their skin and bones intact, and we will leave them be. Any opportunity to do so helps assure juicier, more flavorful meat. Sprinkle both sides with sea or kosher salt, and a hefty dose of fresh cracked pepper.
Heat a cast iron skillet (or some other heavy bottomed, oven prove pan) over high heat. Coat the skillet with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil and wait until it just begins to smoke. Add the chicken, skin side down. Leave the bird alone. The only task you have is to maintain the correct temperature, which is a slow steady sizzle. If the oil and chicken is a spitt’n, you are up too high. If there is no sound, you are down too low. Just sizzle along until you smell the skin browning, and then gently try to lift the chicken. If it releases without a fight, it is ready to go. If the skin is still sticking, do not wrestle it loose. Let the heat do its job. The skin always gives up in the end, so be patient. When it surrenders, remove the breast to a plate, skin side up.
Turn off the skillet heat. Add the potatoes, followed by the red onion and garlic. Put the zucchini on top. Disperse half of the herbs evenly, the other half get mounded in the middle to form a bed to rest the breast upon. Spread the tomatoes around. Drizzle it all with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with sea or kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. Nestle the chicken breast(s) onto the herb beds and vegetables, then splash brandy and red wine over the lot of them. Give them a few good shots, but do not drown them. Now pop the whole thing in the oven and in 30-35 minutes, check for doneness by sticking a sharp knife into the thickest part of the chicken. If the juices run clear, not pink, it is done.
Remove it from the oven. Let it rest for 10 minutes while you open and pour a glass of wine. A crisp, dry Rosé from Provence would work nicely. Or if, like me, you love craft beers, India Pale Ale might not seem an obvious choice, but the piney aspect of the hops tie into the herbs, the citrus side of the hops cut through the richness, and the background malts add a sweet touch that plays off the rich, savory juices that have collected in the pan.
Place the chicken breast in the middle of a plate, encircle with vegetables, and spoon over the jus, or natural juices. Serve. Relish. Share whenever possible.