Pots of gold

chicken rillettes

A simple equation of meat, salt, fat and time, rillettes are a complete doddle to make. Almost cheating, for the effort-to-reward ratio involved. 

They keep for several days in the fridge (making them an ideal Christmas starter), and not only are rillettes a cinch to prepare, they are also supremely versatile, good for more than just smushing into toast. Stirring through hot ribbons of pasta with grated parmesan, for a here's-one-I-prepared-earlier ragù type meal, or into potatoes with finely sliced shallots and capers, for a rich, warm, wintery potato salad.

If you're unsure of what rillettes are, let's not break the habit of a lifetime, let's ask Wikipedia:

The meat was cubed, salted and cured, cooked slowly over low heat until very tender, then raked into small shreds and blended with the warm cooking fat to form a rustic paste.
— Wikipedia

Isn't cubed, salted, raked, blended, fatty rustic meat paste all that we want from life?

Rillettes are traditionally made with pork, duck or goose - fatty beasts that render plenty of their own grease making them particularly suitable for this simple technique (frustratingly, you need to already have some fat in order to confit the meat, a process which creates even more fat). There's a knockout recipe in Hawksmoor At Home for 'pressed beef and bacon', in which beef chuck steak and smoked streaky bacon are cooked ever-so-slowly in beef dripping and stock spiked with anchovies, before being shredded and pressed into a terrine mould, and chilled until ready to slice. Toast is the vehicle featured in the book, but in their restaurants the Hawksmoor team serve this with dinky little Yorkshire puddings. Now, doesn't that sound terrific?

This method works for any of the proteins mentioned above and their relative fat. I used chicken thighs here because they're readily available (*cough* they were in my freezer *cough*), and because the aromatic chicken-schmaltzy-clarified-butter you're left with is unbeatably delicious. The amount of fat you need depends a little on the size of the meat and roasting dish; you need to have enough to cover whatever it is you're going to confit. If you're using goose or duck legs, salt for longer (4-6 hours or so) and cook lower and slower (130°C for 4-5 hours).

 
 

Ingredients

1 leek

1 white onion

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (or four whole legs - thighs are a bit easier to submerge)

1 star anise

2 bay leaves

15 peppercorns

3 tsp sea salt flakes (only 1 heaped tsp if using fine salt)

500g butter, or 450g clarified butter/ghee

1 tbsp wholegrain mustard

8-10 cornichons

A little grated nutmeg

Method

1. Remove the top, tough part of the leek, discard along with the outer layer, and slice the remainder into discs around 1cm thick. Peel and roughly chop the onion

2. Place the leek, onion, star anise, bay leaves and peppercorns into a baking dish, ensuring that it is deep enough to completely submerge the chicken thighs in butter. Rub the sea salt into the chicken thighs, add them to the dish, cover with cling film and refrigerate for an hour.

3. While the chicken is salting, make the clarified butter. Place the butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Let it melt and sizzle for a bit, then skim off the solids with a big spoon. I find it's easier if you let it do its sizzle thing for a bit, skim, leave it a bit longer, skim. Don't be tempted to stir it or you'll make things a bit tricky. Discard the milk solids, marvel at your pot of hot fat. 

4. Heat the oven to 150°C / gas mark 3. Remove the baking dish from the fridge and wipe each chicken thigh with some kitchen paper to remove the moisture and excess salt. Carefully do the same to the base of the dish (without displacing the aromatics), and place the chicken back in the dish, skin side up. Cover with the melted butter, then with foil, and bake in the oven for 2.5 - 3 hours. Turn the thighs over after an hour or so, and back again after two. It's done when the meat can be prized from the bone with the gentlest of pressure. 

5. Leave the chicken to cool until you are able to handle it. Remove the soft chicken skin and set to one side, then pull the meat from the bones and finely shred with your fingers. Place the chicken meat into a bowl, add the mustard. Slice the cornichons into very fine little discs, add those too. Pull the leeks and onions out of the warm, liquid butter, and, if you don't immediately eat them all (they are unbelievably scrumptious), add as many as you like to the bowl, squishing them a bit. If you're a pepper fan, add the whole peppercorns too; these have softened during the long, slow cook, and add aromatic little 'pops' to the finished dish. Add 3-4 tbsp of the warm butter, and mix well with a spoon. Taste for salt and add more if required; you want the rillettes to be ever-so-slightly over-salted rather than under, because this will dull a little when chilled. I find pepper too big a bully for this, but a good grate of nutmeg is lovely. Mix again. 

6. Pot the rillettes into clean ramekins, jars or bowls, and create a flat surface at the top. Cover with cling film, chill for one hour. Carefully top the chilled, just-firm rillettes with leftover, just-warm clarified butter. Cover with cling film (or lid if you're using jars) and refrigerate until you're ready to eat. To serve, remove the rillettes from the fridge an hour before to allow them to soften, or simply pop in the microwave for up to 10 seconds to remove the chill.

So you're left with some chicken skin and chickeny butter

Slice the chicken skin into ribbons, season with salt and a pinch of sugar, shallow fry or bake until crispy and delicious, then drain for a few minutes on kitchen paper. Now you have chicken scratchings, and no, you don't have to share.

The chickeny butter can be used in place of normal butter, unless you're baking a cake or vegetarian (unlikely given the above); I whipped some into cauliflower purée, and also used some to fry steak (much higher smoke temperature without the milk solids). It makes for very tasty toast, and is delicious when used to fry chilli and garlic to mix with pasta, lemon zest and capers. It's more than a little disappointing that butter doesn't come already imbued with pleasing hint roast chicken.