The world out there may have gone mad lately but we still need to eat. And as the weather turns Arctic we could do with some warming comfort food. And my favourite go-to comfort food at this time of the year involves a confit.
In a nutshell “To confit” means to cook meat or other dishes (such as confit potatoes) in a liquid – typically oil or fat – very slowly and at a much lower temperature than you would for frying.
Strictly speaking Confit de Canard is a French dish, or even more strictly one from Gascony, or more loosely comes from Lidl’s Deluxe® range. But what about Confit de Chicken, with chicken legs rather than duck, goose or turkey?
The confit technique is exactly the same. While the four-stage process may sound a bit long (it is) and complicated (it isn’t) it’s well worth the effort.
Step #1: the salting
You will need chicken legs, some herbs and spices and sea salt, and a copious supply of duck or goose fat.
Let’s start with the chicken legs. Not from a Poulet de Bresse of course, but they should be free-range or organic. A fatty, corn-fed bird with its golden glow works well.
Next, find a sealed container that the legs will sit snugly in. A typical plastic takeaway carton is usually a good fit for a pair of chicken legs. If it’s slighty too small, either (a) chop an inch or so off the bottom of each leg bone or (b) fold and cut through the middle joint of each leg to separate it into a thigh and drumstick, or (c) find a bigger container.
With the skin still on, rub each leg on all sides with:
- A generous sprinkle of salt – sea salt or coarse rock salt, NEVER EVER “table salt”
- Peppercorns (black and/or red) and perhaps some smashed juniper berries
- Crushed garlic and
- The herbs – bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, sage, all preferably fresh rather than dried
Put a lid on the container (or cover it with clingfilm, and leave in the fridge for at least three hours; then turn the the legs over so that the rub can work its way into the other side, and give them another three hours in the fridge.
Step #2: the slow cook
Take the legs out again, rinse well in cold water to remove the rub (put the herbs and garlic aside if you want to use them later) and pat the legs dry with kitchen paper.
Put them in a pot or pan and cover them with the goose fat or duck fat. If the legs aren’t fully immersed it’s not the end of the world; you can always top it up with a little rapeseed oil.
Put the pot on the hob, heat up the oil slowly, then reduce the heat so that it stays at a very gentle simmer. Some recipes insist on an exact temperature such as 140C if you’re using a kitchen thermometer, but you can use visual cues instead: simply avoid a ferocious boil and bubble.
Continue to cook slowly and gently at this low temperature for at least an hour and a half, until the meat is about to fall off the bone.
An aside: for years I used either this pot-on-the-hob method, or a casserole dish in a low oven. Then about two years ago I became a slow cooker convert. A small slow cooker (1.5-litre capacity, less than half the standard size) is the ideal size for two chicken legs and gives failsafe results. Start at the “high” setting until the oil is warmed up, then switch to the “low” setting with the lid on for several hours. I’m far happier this way rather than leaving an unsupervised pot of hot oil on an oven hob.
Step #3: preserve in fat
Now that the legs are cooked, use cooking tongs to transfer them – with care, they are hot – to a glass Kilner jar. Or you can give them about ten minutes to cool down a bit and plonk them in a clean plastic takeaway container.
Cover them in the same oil – it works as a seal and preservative – and put the lid on. This is a traditional way of storing them for days or even weeks, but I’d generally keep them in the fridge for the next day or two until needed.
Or simply skip this stage altogether (and the next step below), and remove the skin and use a couple of forks to take all the meat off; it should fall apart easily. You can use it as “pulled” chicken. It’s not really pulled, or pushed either. It’s roughly shredded.
Step #4: reheat and crispen
Scrape most of the oil off the legs, reserving it for the next time you do a confit (or for luxurious roast potatoes). Put the legs, skin side up, on a baking tray or roasting rack in a hot oven for about 20 minutes, until they are well warmed through and the skin is crisp and golden.
(Alternatively, you can warm them up and crispen the skin in a frying pan.)
Serve with something sweet but slightly tart to cut through the fat. Try braised red cabbage. Or an onion marmalade. Or a Chinese-style plum sauce with five spice powder, or hoisin sauce.
Believe it or not you’ll find more on the classic technique for confit duck (rather than confit chicken) in the penultimate page of Black Marigolds.