Fat. Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we? Fat’s probably the best place to begin a discussion of Chicken Rillettes with Preserved Lemon and Summer Savory. Au debut, as the French say, in the beginning, rillettes meant one thing – pork. Or rather, pork and fat. Rillettes was pork that had been salted, cooked slowly in pork fat, shredded, then preserved in the same fat, and served at room temperature, usually spread on toast. Rillettes* are now found all over France, and while pork is still popular, in the Southwest, the Midi-Pyrenees, extending down to the Spanish border, the technique is more often seen with duck or rabbit. Today rillettes of salmon, tuna or other fatty fish, or even mushrooms are not uncommon on pricey menus. It’s hard to argue with that–what doesn’t taste good when cooked slowly in fat and salt?
I don’t think a day of our trip to France passed without yet another version of rillettes or fois gras being put in front of us, often atop a salad, which seemed to be the customary way of serving them in the Quercy region where we were staying. Sarriette, summer savory, a traditional herb for braising, was a common flavoring, also often planted next to beans, an ingredient in another of Quercy’s regional specialities, cassoulet, where it is thought (don’t ask me how) to protect the beans from beetles. Sharp or sour condiments contrast nicely with the rich saltiness of rillettes, so pickles and mustard frequently materialized from culinary stage left as soon as we were served.
Rillettes also take well to preserved lemon, a non-traditional idea we found at the Auberge Flora, in Paris, where Chef Flora Mikula, famous for her contemporary spin on southern (French) country food, served us rabbit rillettes with preserved lemon. After – briefly, very briefly - wondering whether we could ask readers to braise a couple of rabbits, Jody decided to apply the same technique to chicken thighs, the tastiest and easiest part of the bird to bone.
A slow cooker is custom made for rillettes, although you can also use a Dutch oven over very low heat.
This recipe fills six 6.5-ounce bail-lid jars with rillettes. An open jar of rillettes can be as difficult to close – just one more bite – as a pint of good of ice cream. Etymological reflection helps. “Rillettes” is the plural diminutive of the old French word “rille,” a piece of pork. Pig, piglet. Rille, rillettes. Rille probably evolved out of an even earlier term for “board” or “straight edge,” from the Latin “regula,” meaning a straight edge. Presumably all those early cooks of rillettes were shredding their pork atop boards of one kind or another. Regula, of course, has given us all manner of English words about rules and limits, including self-regulation. A single jar of rillettes was enough for Jody and me for a last-minute late-night dinner, with pickles, mustard, bread and salad, and a bottle of inky wine from Cahors. Unless you’re riding in the Tour de France, you may want to draw your own straight edge at the one-jar limit. We’re keeping two jars in our fridge for emergencies, and we’ve prudently frozen the remainder, to be restored as a first course for a dinner party, or as needed for sharing out at a picnic. There is such a thing as having too much of a good thing available. Enjoy. Ken
*Rillettes is one of those rare words whose verb agreement in English may be either singular or plural. Rillettes is… and rillettes are… both appear, depending on the context. In French rillettes are treated as plural.
Chicken Rillettes with Preserved Lemon and Summer Savory
- 3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces pancetta, cut into ¼-inch pieces
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil (you may not use all of it)
- 1 cup onion cut into ¼-inch pieces
- 4 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 cup dry rose or white wine
- 2 star anise
- 8 whole cloves
- 1 preserved lemon, cut into-¼ inch dice (our recipe, if you need it)
- 2 tablespoons chopped summer savory, plus sprigs for garnish
- Toss the chicken thighs with the salt and sprinkle generously with freshly ground black pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.
- Pat dry.
- Put the diced pancetta into a large heavy-bottomed sauté pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil and render over medium heat. Transfer the pancetta to the slow cooker. Increase the heat to medium-high, add the thighs, skin-side down, and brown lightly. Turn the thighs and and cook on the other side for 30 seconds, just long enough to create a light sear. Transfer the chicken to a slow cooker, placing the thighs skin-side up. Add the onion, garlic and ginger to the sauté pan and cook 5 minutes. Add the wine, the star anise, the cloves and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil for 30 seconds, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Turn off the heat.
- Pour the contents of the pan over the chicken thighs. Cover and cook on the low setting for 4 hours. The meat should easily come off the bone. Remove the cover, allow the chicken to cool in the liquid.
- Remove the chicken from the pot. Strain the juices into a clear measuring cup – reserve the strainer with the bits of onion and pancetta. Siphon the fat off the juices. Put the juices in a pot over medium heat and reduce to a glaze. Reserve.
- Pick through the things in the strainer and discard the star anise, cloves and any cartilage, or skin. Onions, pancetta and perhaps a smashed garlic clove or two should remain.
- Separate the skin, bones and cartilage from the chicken meat. Put the meat into a large bowl and shred with a couple of forks or your fingers.
- Add the onions, pancetta, etc. from the strainer to the shredded chicken, along with the reduced juices. Add the preserved lemon and summer savory and toss gently. Put into terrines and pack down. I use a glass covered with plastic wrap to help with packing. Pour several spoonfuls of olive oil over each terrine. Cool.
- Top each terrine with a sprig of summer savory. Cover and refrigerate.
- Before serving, if the top looks dry, drizzle the rillettes with a little more oil. Accompany with pickles, Dijon mustard, or chutney.
People always want to know where I get my recipe ideas. For the most part, I make them up, drawing from readings, travel and whatever is in season. But the secret’s out with this one… sometimes I downright steal them. After our cycling week in Provence last year I accompanied my friend Amy back to Paris on the train, and during the trip she raved about the rabbit rillettes with preserved lemon in her neighborhood restaurant, Auberge Flora. Of course I had to try them – and Amy was right.
After tasting them again this past month, I decided I wanted to reproduce them. With Ken reminding me that using rabbits would set the bar beyond where most of our readers would be inclined to reach, I settled on chicken thighs. The only ingredients I know for sure that my recipe shares with Floras’s are the preserved lemon and olive oil. The summer savory and other seasonings are my own.
I’ve loved having the rillettes around this week. Ken and I made dinner with them one night. On another, after staggering through the door after a hot and muggy night in the kitchen that seemed to go on forever, I wasn’t very hungry, but I wanted a little something. A dollop of rillettes on a piece of toast with a chilled glass of rose was just the thing.