In the summertime, I want food that is casual, soulful, and unpretentious — food that can double as a family meal and an intimate dinner for entertaining. Any dish that almost needs to be eaten with the hands (but not quite) or that can be scooped-up with röti, flatbread, or tortillas and goes well with ice cold beer is a grand slam. Suffice it to say, Caribbean food does all of these things well. And besides, I love island food.
Julia Child describes a fricassee as a dish somewhere between a sauté and a stew. Because this definition is so broad, it lends itself to a heated discussion over a cook’s creative latitude. Plant this culinary seed in an area with lots of islands and diverse cultural heritage and you end up with a menagerie of spectacular dishes. In the Caribbean alone I can think of several fricassees, like the Cuban classic Ropa Vieja or Jamaican Brown Stewed Chicken, which is more a fricassee then the name suggests.
A good fricassee is a rustic dish. It starts with browning the meat — usually bone-in to add flavor to the dish’s self-created broth — and then following with a heady dose of aromatics typically consisting of onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs. Depending on which island you’re on, a fricassee might either incorporate lots of peppery heat or be mild, but all will have notes of African or Indian flavors.
For my tastes, I like to add a tomato product, be it canned or fresh, and some sort of other acid, such as vinegar or wine. In the case of this particular dish, however, I replace the usual vinegar or wine with green olives and capers.
While I have stripped the meat from the bone, it isn’t necessary. Being a rustic dish, it would be perfectly acceptable to leave the cut chicken as is. You could easily add more heat or do as I did and separate a mild portion for the kids before adding some hot peppers to the adult portion. The amount of spicy heat is left up to the discretion of the cook who knows firsthand the preferences of the eaters.
Be it plain or with the addition of saffron and peas (as in my picture), rice is important to a fricassee. Generally speaking fricassees are not one-pot meals, but rather are served with rice, röti, and a vegetable. The rice shouldn’t outshine the main dish: the two should enhance each other in a sort of partnership. In some sense it is like this is like a pasta dish: the fricassee is used as a condiment to the rice in the same way that sauce flavors noodles.
I like dishes that don’t control my schedule. The final big plus to this kind of food is that cooking it in increments can even improve the final product. I rarely go to the kitchen anymore and cook something from start to finish in one session — most days, I just don’t have the time. Often, I find myself with snippets, 10 minutes here or an hour there, which I put to use. I may prep everything in between making the girls’ breakfast and getting them off to camp. After camp drop-off, I might run an errand before heading home to caramelize the meat and sear the veggies. If I have enough time, I’ll add the liquids and let the dish finish until the chicken is tender. Then, it can all go in the fridge until dinner, allowing the meal to be as casual as I like my summers to be.
Fricassee en Pollo (serves 6 to 8)
1 whole 3 pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces
1 tablespoon expeller pressed peanut oil
1/2 cup red bell pepper, small dice
1 cup onion, small dice
3 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon cumin, crushed
2 teaspoons paprika
2 bay leaves
16 ounces crushed tomatoes
2/3 cups green olives, halved
1/2 tablespoon capers, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
2 tablespoons hot pepper of your liking, minced
- Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place a large heavy bottomed pot over medium high heat. Add the peanut oil and swirl it around in the pan to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot add the chicken skin side down and brown it deeply on all sides. Adjust the heat as necessary to avoid scorching the oil. Once the chicken is caramelized remove it to a plate.
- Add the onions, pepper and garlic to the pan. Sweat the vegetables until they just become tender then add the dried spices. Stir the spices into the vegetables and let them toast until they become fragrant. Add the tomato and a cup of water. Season the sauce with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper reminding yourself that the olives and capers are salty so don’t season with a heavy hand. Taste and make adjustments.
- Add the chicken back to the broth and then bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the chicken is just tender. If you plan to strip the meat from the bones remove it and place it on the same plate you used before. While it is cooling let the sauce reduce until it becomes unctuous.
- Cook your rice according to the instructions on the bag or box or however it works best for you.
- Add the pulled chicken (or chicken pieces) back to the reduced sauce. Add the olives, capers and any hot peppers your might want to add. Taste and add more salt if needed. Warm through and serve with rice.