From Dutch oven, a treat for a crowd Dinner: Large pot is perfect for preparing a full meal of tender chicken and veggies.

May 13, 1998|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

I've never been to Holland, but I've always imagined it to be pretty gray and chilly. Maybe that's why I reach for my Dutch oven so often when it rains, which has been happening a lot lately.

Dutch ovens, of course, are large covered pots, usually made of cast iron. The originals had little legs so they could be placed in coals where they could be used just like ... ovens. That's probably why they're not called Dutch pots.

Why are they called Dutch ovens? I have no idea, and even the experts are perplexed. In fact, there's been a running debate about the question in Cook's Illustrated magazine. Was it the high quality of Dutch cast iron that gave the pot its name? Did it come from the Pennsylvania Dutch, who use Dutch ovens? Or could Dutch indicate that the pot was a substitute oven (as in "Dutch courage" for liquor)?

Whatever the answer, they are terrific pots. I have two and I use them all the time. One is small, about 4 quarts, and rather plain. It is a hand-me-down from my late mother-in-law. The other, enameled cast iron, is mega-sized, more than 6 quarts, and oblong.

The small one is perfect for making soup or a pot of beans. The larger, which is technically a cocotte (French for Dutch oven, as near as I can tell), is more a full-meal kind of thing. I've used it to make the Mexican hominy stew "posole" for 25 and recently roasted an entire leg of lamb in it.

One of the best things I've made in it is a kind of stewed chicken with potatoes and olives. It's just something that came together one weekend when we had people coming for dinner and the next day were visiting a friend who had just had a baby. I figured I'd make a lot and take the leftovers.

I cut up three chickens and browned them well. Then I added some aromatics and some white wine mixed with tomato paste. I cooked it until the chicken was quite tender, then added olives and herbs and boiled potatoes. The wine and tomato paste reduce to a lightly thickened sauce. The green olives and assorted fresh herbs add an aromatic complexity. And then there are potatoes to soak up a lot of that sauce.

Although there is nothing especially difficult about this recipe, a couple of hints will make it better.

First, be sure to fry the chicken long enough so that it is nicely browned. Depending on how hot the fire is, that could take 10 to 15 minutes per side. This browning is essential to developing the flavor of the bird and its sauce. But don't rush the process; you don't want to scorch the chicken.

Be sure to cook the parts in the order given. When they are stacked in the Dutch oven, you want the dark meat at the bottom. The more developed muscle meat will stay more moist during the long cooking. The more delicate breast meat should sit on top, where it will gently steam rather than boil.

I'm not exactly sure what this dish should be called. Classically, I suppose, it is a saute - the chicken is browned and then cooked with a liquid. I just call it Chicken for a Crowd.

Whatever you call it, I think it's quite good, in the homey, comforting mode.

Bits and pieces: the best way to cut up a chicken

Cutting up a chicken is a snap, and because whole fryers are usually cheaper than chicken parts, it can save money.

Start by cleaning out the cavity and giving the bird a good rinse in cool water. This is also a good time to start dividing what goes to stock and what doesn't. From the cavity, save the neck.

Next, remove the legs, being sure to include the meaty "oyster" located just in front of the hip joint. Divide the legs into drumsticks and thighs by cutting through the knee joint. There is a white line of fat that shows through the skin that will show you where to cut.

Remove the wings (they can be left on the breast for some preparations, if you wish). There's little meat on the last joint, so remove it and add it to the stockpot.

Cut through the ribs, removing both sides of the breast in one piece. Place the breast on the work surface and press down, flattening it slightly and breaking the breastbone. Cut through the breast lengthwise with a heavy knife. For bite-size pieces, cut through crosswise as well, being careful to leave some skin attached to both pieces and to not press the fillet out from underneath. Place the back in the stockpot.

You can save time by buying cut-up chickens; they will cost more but will give you more flexibility. For a stewed dish such as Chicken for a Crowd, you might want to use only dark meat.

Chicken for a crowd

Makes 8 to 10 servings

3 (3- to 3 1/2-pound) chickens

salt, pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

2 unpeeled cloves garlic plus 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 pound onions, chopped

1/2 pound green bell pepper, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1/2 pound carrots, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley plus extra for garnish

3 cups white wine

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

2 pounds white boiling potatoes, peeled

1/2 pound green olives, preferably unpitted

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

1 teaspoon chopped mint

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