“It isn’t often that the words “roll” and “thigh” combine to such harmonious delight. Envision juicy dark meat wrapped in creamy slices of fat streaked bacon. Once browned in a blazing hot pan the bacon tightens to hold the meat snugly. Then comes a steamy bath in sherry-scented barley risotto, cooked slowly to succulent tenderness.” Whoa, wait a minute… I admit I may have read one too many steamy novels while on vacation last week. After all, what’s a girl to do while lounging on a beach? What I’m getting a little carried away about here is DINNER. I’m finally home and able to cook my own food in my own kitchen. And it feels really good.
Though not exactly the dead of winter anymore, it’s still chilly outside and nothing makes my house smell more heavenly than cooking chicken. Even better, this dinner that’s good enough for company is a one pan meal; my new favorite way to cook. I love how the thighs give up so much of their flavor to the grains of barley that simmer below. And thanks to boneless chicken thighs, it takes less than an hour start to finish.
Thighs are so much more interesting when stuffed with something tasty, so bitter onion and garlic flecked escarole and sweet sherry soaked figs are the perfect companions to the already discussed juicy dark meat. Instead of rice, I’ve lately become a fan of making risotto with barley. The grains have a delightful way of bouncing, spring-like when you bite down on them and the cooking time isn’t nearly as critical. Since barley isn’t high in starch, the addition of a little cream adds that velvety quality we’ve come to expect in a risotto. An easy fix.
All that is needed to finish the dish is a sprinkle of lemon zest and a snip from the chives that are now peeking up out of my awakening herb patch in the back yard. I like to serve this dish with a fresh green salad of endive, radicchio, fennel, orange, olives, feta and a simple vinaigrette. Oh, and some good bread. And maybe a bottle of Pinot Noir. Or two. After all, it’s a homecoming celebration, right?
Kitchen Counter Point: I don’t always cook with boned chicken thighs. When I have more time, cooking bone-in results in the best flavor. There are times, though, when I need to have dinner on the table in under 1 hour or I may want to stuff them. That’s when I opt for the boneless variety. But I almost always cook them sans skin for the simple reason that at the end of the cooking process there is less fat in the dish. I know, I know. I removed the skin and then wrapped the little buggers in bacon, but that’s because I wanted to inject a smoky element into the dish. If you’re going get a little hinkey about the bacon fat you can pour it off after browning, but I would advise against it. It just wouldn’t be right.
Hands on time: 30 minutes
Start to finish: 50 minutes
1/3 cup sherry or dry white wine
8 dried black mission figs, stemmed and cut in half
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or two small onions, chopped, divided
1 head escarole, chopped or about 2 large handfuls
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 boned and skinned chicken thighs, trimmed of fat
8 slices bacon
1-1/2 cups pearled barley
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced, divided
Zest of 1 lemon
Bring the sherry and figs to a boil over medium heat (be careful, it might flame up). Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for 20 minutes so that the figs soften and absorb some of the sherry.
Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet with a lid over medium high heat and sauté half the onion for 3 minutes or until it begins to soften. Add the escarole and cook for another 3 minutes or until the escarole is wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two or until the garlic is fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly.
Lay out chicken thighs skin side down and salt and pepper them. Divide the greens and figs among the chicken and roll them up to enclose the filling. Wrap the chicken in the bacon and secure each one with a toothpick.
Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and add the chicken rolls over medium heat. Brown them on all sides, about 5 minutes total. The chicken won’t be fully cooked at this point. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the remaining onion. Saute for about 3 minutes then add the barley to the pan. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes, or until the barley is lightly toasted then add the reserved sherry and cook for about 1 minute or until it mostly cooks off. Add the chicken stock and salt and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and tuck the chicken down into the barley. Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the barley is tender.
Transfer the chicken to a plate and remove the toothpicks. Stir the cream, 1 tablespoon of the chives and the pinch of cayenne into the barley over medium heat until hot. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper as desired.
Mound the barley risotto onto a platter and top with the chicken thighs. Garnish with the remaining chives and lemon zest. Dine happily.