Winter weather brings out what I call my Braising Instinct. I drift towards meals that call on the basic formula of all braised dishes: hot sear, slow simmer, a final dish that's lusciously saucy. I've braised pork, lamb, short ribs, cabbage, eggplant, and so many others — but, in this recipe, chicken finally gets the star treatment.
Chicken thighs make a quicker braise than most. Just an hour will give you a saucy dish of shredded chicken in a smoky bacon sauce. But the bacon isn't the secret ingredient. There's one more essential thing in this chicken braise, and it's the reason why I've made this three times in the past months.
The secret, my friends, to this particularly delicious sauce is fennel. Fennel stands in for the more common aromatics of celery and carrots, and it brightens the rich bacon and chicken with a subtle and sophisticated undertone.
The fennel is one of the key factors in a dish that is richer and more delicious, in fact, than you might expect given its very short ingredient list. I count just seven major ingredients, other than salt and pepper, and most of them are kitchen basics that I always have on hand.
The whole dish ends up very budget-friendly, too, thanks to the economical chicken thighs, and it's a good way to make use of dark meat. Not everyone loves chicken thighs, but almost anyone can love this dish.
I often serve it with pasta, gnocchi, or Ricotta Spätzle (heavenly), but lately I've been serving it over cauliflower rice, roasted vegetables, or baked potatoes.
Chicken Ragù with Bacon & Fennel
Serves 4 to 6
6 ounces thick bacon, about 3 strips, diced
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into large pieces
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Cook the bacon over low heat in a Dutch oven or heavy pot for 5 to 10 minutes, until the fat has rendered out and the bacon is getting crispy. Stir in the onion, garlic, and fennel until coated with the bacon fat, and cook over low to medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes or until soft and glistening.
Push the vegetables to the edge of the pan and turn the heat to medium-high. Sear the chicken thigh pieces in the center of the pot for about 3 minutes, turning frequently. The goal is not to develop a dark sear or crust on the chicken, but just to start the cooking.
Stir in the flour. Pour in the chicken broth, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook for 1 hour or until the chicken is very tender. Vigorously work through the pot with two forks to shred the meat fine.
Taste before serving and add salt or other seasonings if needed. Serve with gnocchi, as seen here, or pasta, brown rice, or roasted vegetables.
Leftovers keep up to 4 days in the refrigerator and they also freeze extremely well.
On Seasoning: I do not add any salt to this dish until the end of cooking, as bacon can be quite salty enough.
Fennel Tops: If your fennel bulb comes with its stalks and fronds, trim away the fronds and reserve for garnishing the dish. The stalks can be diced and added to the pot with the bulb.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)