Back in graduate school, when my friends and I began to set up our new apartments and started to entertain and have one another over to dinner, one friend in particular stood out from the rest. She had a certain sense of style. I used to describe her as being “VSFA,” or as the store’s advertising campaign would add “Very Saks Fifth Avenue.”
At one of her dinner parties, she served linguine with white clam sauce that was much different from any I had had before. Although not typically Italian, it was delicious—creamy and seasoned with thyme. My request for the recipe introduced me to Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, which became one of my go-to books for what I thought to be American-style dishes, more urbanely sophisticated than ethnically authentic.
So when the other night my better half suggested making “something different” for a brace of chicken-leg quarters, I turned to my copy of the book and rediscovered a recipe from my past: “Herbed Baked Chicken.” Reading the recipe made me nostalgic; I think that may have been the first time I used tarragon (albeit dried) or served anything atop thin slices of toast.
After I decided to make the dish, however, I realized I didn’t have some of the ingredients the recipe called for. Back in those early days of cooking, I probably would have chosen another recipe. But having grown more confident after some 40 years of cooking, I decided to make some substitutions: for tarragon, basil with a pinch of fennel powder; for chopped chives, diced shallot; for dry sherry, dry Marsala. Confidence also came to rescue when I opted to put my rather pale looking baked chicken under the broiler for some extra browning. As I was cooking for two, I only used two leg quarters as opposed to two quartered plump broiling chickens, but kept to the recipe’s other measurements for the herbs and the sauce.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my substitutions, the dish was even better than I remember it. After all, dried tarragon and student-budget sherry weren’t much competition for my replacements. The chicken was juicy and tender; the basting sauce, concentrated and flavorful. The thin slices of toasted French bread, having soaked up the sauce, resembled an herbed stuffing and made this good dish even better. I look forward to making this chicken again, but next time will definitely skip the substitutions and go with fresh tarragon, chives, and good sherry.
Herbed Baked Chicken (adapted from Craig Claiborne’s original New York Times Cookbook)
2 leg quarters
½ cup flour for dredging
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon (I substituted basil and a pinch of fennel powder.)
4 teaspoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 teaspoons chopped chives (I substituted chopped shallots.)
½ cup butter
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup sherry (I substituted Marsala.)
Thin slices of toast (I used a French country loaf.)
1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Dry the chicken pieces well with paper towels.
2. In a paper bag, combine the flour, salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons each of the tarragon, parsley, and chives. Add the chicken and shake to coat well with the seasoned flour.
3. Generously butter a shallow baking dish. Place the chicken, skin side down, in the baking dish. Sprinkle with the juice from the lemon half and cover tightly with aluminum foil.
3. In a small sauce pan, combine the butter, lemon juice, sherry, and the remaining herbs. Over low heat, heat just until the butter melts, and then whisk to combine. Keep warm.
4. Bake the chicken 1 to 1 ½ hours, lifting the foil and basting every 20 minutes with the butter sauce. For the final 20 minutes of the cooking time, increase the oven temperature to 400°F. Remove the foil and turn the chicken to let it brown lightly. If necessary add a little more wine or water to the pan so that there will be ample sauce.
5. If the chicken is still pale, transfer to a rimmed sheet pan and place under the broiler for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the chicken is nicely browned. Be careful not to burn.
6. Transfer the chicken to warmed plates and reserve any pan juices.
7. Sprinkle the chicken with additional freshly chopped herbs and serve on thin slices of toast accompanied by the pan juices.
Wine Pairing: Chardonnay