Recipe: Braised chicken & fennel with wheat beer and tarragon

Chicken & Fennel

With Jo brewing about 40 pints every couple of weeks we often have an overabundance of really tasty beer in the house.  It’s delicious to drink but I’ve also been experimenting with using beer in my cooking too.  As I’ve started to say…”Why use stock when you can use beer?”

I’ve just read Michael Pollan’s ‘Cooked: A natural history of transformation’. It’s a fascinating read in which Pollan explores how throughout history humans have used the four ancient elements (fire, water, earth & air) to transform food. Along the way, you learn a lot about how the history of cooking and the story of human development are intertwined. In the ‘water’ section he explores the history of pot cooking, and some of the mouth-watering recipes he tries have inspired me to lug out my old casserole pot and get braising.

I learnt from Pollan’s book that each culture has its own base for pot cooking; in Italy soffritto, France mirepoix (both have onions, carrots and celery), in Portugal and Brazil refogado (onions, garlic and tomato), in Germany suppengrun (leeks, carrots and celeriac) and in Cajun and Creole cooking the holy trinity (onions, celery and peppers).  With braises, stews and casseroles it’s all about building up layers of flavour, seasoning and separately cooking each layer of ingredients as you go. By doing this you can really transform a few simple ingredients into something really delicious.  I’ve used carrots and onions in the base of this dish but you could easily add a fine dice of celery as well.

There are typically two different types of wheat beer, the German-style weissbier and the Belgian-style witbier (which is often flavoured with coriander seeds and orange peel). Both are brewed with up to 50% wheat, never 100% wheat – as you need a good proportion of malted barley in the brew for special barley-only-enzymes that are vital in the brewing process. The combination of the wheat and wheat-friendly yeast varieties often produce interesting flavours of clove, smoke, banana and sometimes vanilla.  These sweet, floral and fragrant notes make wheat beer a great match for spicy Asian food but also a delicious with aniseed flavours like in this chicken, fennel and tarragon dish.  I used a home-brewed wheat beer, but you could use any German-style wheat beer,  Erdinger or Franziskaner are both widely available.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

8 chicken thighs (skin on)

2 carrots (finely diced)

2 medium onions (finely diced)

2 cloves of garlic

1 tsp fennel seeds

2 fennel bulbs (quartered, fronds trimmed and kept of garnish)

Bunch of tarragon (leaves picked, keep a few sprigs for decoration)

500ml German-style wheat beer

1 lemon (zest & juice)

2 tbsp of olive oil

Salt and pepper

A heavy bottomed casserole dish

Beer & tasty things

Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in the heavy bottomed casserole dish and brown the chicken thighs on all sides over a medium-high heat, until the skin is a bit crispy.  You may need to do this in two batches depending on the size of your casserole.  Don’t crowd the pan as otherwise the meat will stew not brown.

Remove the chicken thighs from the pan and turn the heat down to low; you may need to add the extra tablespoon olive oil to the casserole dish.  Now add the finely diced onions and season well. Cook the onions over a low heat until they are almost soft, about 15 minutes.  Then add the finely diced carrots and the crushed garlic cloves, season again, and continue to cook over a low heat until all the vegetables are soft.

Add the tarragon leaves, the browned chicken thighs, fennel seeds and fennel bulbs and lemon zest. Give it a quick stir and then immediately add the wheat beer.  Turn the heat up to medium until everything is bubbling, and then turn the heat down and simmer covered for about 25 minutes until the chicken is and fennel is cooked.  Gently stir, occasionally.  If there is a bit too much liquid in the casserole, remove the lid for the last ten minutes of cooking.

Turn off the heat, taste the braising liquid and add the lemon juice and more seasoning to taste.  Sprinkle over some fresh tarragon and finely chopped fennel fronds.  Serve with boiled new potatoes, steamed greens and of course, a glass of delicious wheat beer.

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