why it works
- Frying a small amount of flour in the cooking fat after browning the chicken and sweating the aromatics creates a toasty roux that thickens the sauce slightly.
- Using chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken results in tender meat that won’t dry out.
Tell someone you want chicken stew and you’ll probably get a different dish depending on who you talk to. This is because there are chicken stew dishes in the African diaspora, and while the methods and ingredients may change, they all evoke deep emotions. I caused an uproar a few years ago when I took a picture of my version and posted it on Twitter. People all over the world were calling me names because what I called “chicken stew” didn’t sound like what they were used to. The truth, however, is that chicken casseroles can be found anywhere there is chicken.
What we call “chicken stew” in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where I come from, consists of a slow-cooked bird smothered in a savory brown sauce, served hot over oatmeal or rice. While others might call it a soupy consistency, it’s a stew to us; made with a roux, it has a deeply flavored but light sauce. The smell of chicken cooked on the stove with its aromatic spices, herbs and vegetables is like a warm hug. A big enough bowl would fill you up for days; it’s food that sticks to the bones. My grandmother and many southern grandmas served this dish as comfort food – if you know, you know.
At first I was annoyed by the number of people trying to correct me on Twitter, but I was also happy to see how many people were willing to learn more about a dish that looked almost like theirs and had a similar name. , and how so many people were thrilled to share their own memories of the version they ate growing up. For many in the Caribbean, for example, “chicken stew” should be a dark, braised dish which uses burnt sugar or brown sauce to deepen flavor and color. But for the stewed chicken I’m used to, we skip those caramel-colored ingredients, searing the meat and any extra veggies instead and using the brown stock that forms at the bottom of the pan for a flavorful but more clear. sauce.
Now, the recipe I give here isn’t exactly what my grandmother or most people’s grandmothers would make – it’s a bit bloated. All the feelings of comfort are still there, with just a little more flavor. Traditionally, these slow-cooked chicken dishes in the South were made with slightly older hens, cooking on the stove all day so that the tough meat became tender; the long simmer also produced a greater depth of flavor.
Because most chicken sold today is younger and more tender, my recipe reduces the longer cooking times common in older recipes, so it’s ready in about an hour. I also chose to use only the legs instead of the whole poultry, as they hold up well in cooking without drying out. To offset some of the complexity those older birds would have given to this dish, I add lots of herbs, cook my onion, and make a rich roux to add a bit more depth.
Otherwise, I keep it simple, with aromatics like onions and celery forming much of the flavor base of the sauce. Peppers, mushrooms and other vegetables can also be added, but I wouldn’t overthink or complicate things too much – this is a dish that should be quite convenient and simple to prepare.