It's spring, so I am looking for fresher, lighter dinners — but it's rainy, so I'm not entirely done with my oven just yet. Here's a warm, incredibly tasty dinner dish that suits spring perfectly. Take a mess of caramelized onions, soupy and rich, and add a touch of mustard and some chicken thighs. Braise in the oven, then broil with a handful of Gruyère cheese. It's rich without being heavy, and deeply flavorful without too much work. I'm having this for dinner tonight — care to join me?
But first, before I go any further, I should give credit where credit is due. I've mentioned in the past that I often get recipe inspiration from restaurant menus, and that's what happened here. I noticed a French onion chicken on the menu at Sweetwater Grill, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and I was instantly inspired. I didn't ask for the recipe, though, and in fact I didn't even order the dish. But the idea lodged in the back of my mind, and I returned to it this week.
There are four basic steps in this recipe: Caramelize the onions, then deglaze the pan with a bit of broth. Next, brown the chicken thighs and deglaze that pan as well, with a little more broth. Combine the onions and the chicken, with their respective sauces, and bake in a slow oven for half an hour. Then take off the lid, and broil with Gruyère. Eat with some good bread and a salad!
The chicken turns out succulent and tender, and it's nestled into a bed of rich, aromatic onions, spiked with tangy mustard. There is more than enough sauce to smother the chicken, and you could even eat it separately as a very rich soup.
This is such an easy dish. It takes some time to put together, though — primarily because of caramelizing the onions. Caramelizing onions, however, is a great do-ahead step. You could caramelize the onions on a Sunday night, or even prep the entire dish — then bake after you get home from work.
It pretty much goes without saying that this dish makes fantastic lunch leftovers, too. It would also freeze magnificently.
One last note: this recipe is a good example of how dirtying three pans (and consequently, needing to do more dishes later) can save you time. If you have more time to kill while making this recipe, you can condense everything into one big Dutch oven. But it will take longer; you would brown the chicken first, take it out, then make the sauce and pour it off, then caramelize the onions and their sauce — and finally layer everything back into the Dutch oven. If you don't want to wash three pans, then try this method! Using three pans just makes the process quicker.
Braised French Onion Chicken with Gruyère
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds onions, sliced into thin half-moons
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 small sprigs thyme, leaves only
4-inch sprig rosemary
2 cups chicken broth, divided
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
2 ounces Gruyère cheese, finely grated or shaved (about 1 cup)
Melt the butter in a deep 10-inch sauté pan over medium heat. When the butter has melted completely and foams up, add the onions. They will fill the pan to the top, at this point. Stir as you add the onions to coat them in the butter. Sprinkle lightly with salt and black pepper. Cook the onions for about 40 minutes over low or medium heat, stirring occasionally.
When the onions have developed an evenly light beige color throughout, add the garlic, thyme leaves, and whole rosemary sprig, and cook for a few minutes more, stirring frequently. Turn the heat up to high and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring frequently. You want dark, slightly burnt spots to appear on the onions, and for them to develop a rich mahogany color. When the onions get quite dark, add 1 cup of the beef or chicken broth. Add it slowly, stirring and scraping the pan vigorously to scrape up any burnt or stuck-on bits. When the liquid has been added, bring it back up to a simmer and simmer lightly for 5 minutes, or until it is somewhat reduced.
Take the onions off the heat and pour them into a 3-quart oven-safe dish with a lid. (If you don't have a Dutch oven or another oven-safe dish with a lid, you can use a 9x13-inch baking dish. Just cover it tightly with a double layer of foil.)
Heat the oven to 325°F.
While the onions are cooking, brown the chicken. Heat another 10-inch or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the chicken thighs dry and season lightly with kosher salt and black pepper. When the skillet is hot, add the thighs and brown for about 3 minutes on each side, 6 minutes total. When they've developed a golden-brown crust, remove from the pan and set on top of the caramelized onions in the baking dish.
Add the remaining 1 cup broth to the pan. Stir vigorously, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Whisk in the balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard. Simmer for about 5 minutes or until reduced by half. Pour this sauce over the chicken and onions, and put the lid on the baking dish. The chicken and onions will look quite saucy; there will be plenty of liquid in the baking dish.
(At this point you can refrigerate the dish for up to 48 hours. Let it sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before baking, or else add about 5 minutes to the bake time.)
Bake at 325°F for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn the heat up to broil. Take the lid off the baking dish, and sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top of the chicken. When the broiler has heated up, return the dish to the oven and broil for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and golden on top.
Serve promptly in shallow bowls, with plenty of good bread to sop up the sauce, and a green salad on the side.
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(Images: Faith Durand)