With the pandemic overload and the underlying depression accompanying it, and with take-out options so underwhelming these days, it makes me yearn for the elaborate old school dishes my mom would prepare even during the week. Especially those on the days when I was home sick from school.
I find myself in the kitchen doing my best to re-create some of them but cutting corners where it wouldn’t compromise the finished dish in a major way.
One of those that is a good stand by is brown stewed chicken.
By cutting out the browning of the chicken in oil to develop the flavor and color of the dish, I was able to shave quite a few minutes off the cooking time by instead melting and caramelizing sugar in the pot and then adding the meat.
This technique I assume was the first deviation from the original, then when cooking became an afterthought, commercially available burnt sugar in the bottle became the norm. Somehow the depth of flavor and love is lost and the end result and is so far removed from the original intent when using the bottled stuff. Furthermore, there are so many questionable additives to these commercial bottled helpers, I choose to stay away.
Getting that sugar melted in the pan successfully is what makes the difference between a good cook and a carpenter. Starting with brown sugar instead of white sugar helps. Having a heavy bottomed enamel cast iron pan over medium to low heat also contributes to success as there is less chance of burning the sugar. The idea is to get a deep caramelization before the point of the sugar getting burnt which is when the complex flavors that you developed during the melting process quickly turns to one simple flavor – bitter.
So, with any braise or stew requiring browning as a first step, pick your poison; laborious browning of the protein in oil that allows you a wide margin of error and best flavor, or the much quicker browning of sugar method that is much less forgiving to the amateur cook.
I love a challenge, so melting the sugar is where it was at for me as I prided myself in being a click above amateur cook. Needless to say, I burned the first batch and had to start all over. It’s tricky, but after a few attempts, you will quickly become proficient.
Another ingredient that would never be used in “old School” cooking is ketchup.
As a matter of fact, my culinary instructors would cringe if they knew I used it to make this dish. However, my instructors did not grow up in Jamaica, nor do they understand my mom’s brown stewed chicken!
I decided to go with an organic brand of ketchup that only had the ingredients that any good braise or stew would use anyways-salt, sugar, vinegar and tomato paste, except that they are all together in a bottle as opposed to adding them separately, so what’s the big fuss?
Adding a few aromatics and vegetables and my brown stewed chicken was on the way to deliciousness. Enjoy and good luck!
1 Whole Chicken, cut up for stew
¼ C Light Brown Sugar
¼ C Ketchup
4 sprigs Fresh Thyme
½ tsp Scotch Bonnet Pepper, fine chopped
1 TBSP Garlic, fine chopped
2 Idaho Potatoes, cut in 4 pieces each
4 Allspice Berries, whole
Salt and Pepper to taste
Melting the sugar:
Add the sugar to a pan and turn on medium/low heat.
Use a wooden spoon or spatula and begin to slowly stir. The sugar will start to dissolve and turn into a syrupy consistency while darkening. The more it darkens, the more the depth of flavor but also the less sweet the sugar becomes, so it becomes a matter of personal taste.
If the sugars begin to smoke too quickly then reduce the flame or switch off the stove and continue to stir while charring the sugar.
The sugar will darken to a dark brown, almost black color.
Remove from the stove and carefully add the HOT water. The mixture will cause plenty of steam and splatter a bit, which is normal but be very careful when following this step and add the water slowly – keep on stirring the pan.
Once the sauce is formed, allow to cool, then add the ketchup and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken and coat with mixture. Add chicken stock or water to the pot and turn heat to high.
Add thyme, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper and allspice berries and potatoes and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes until chicken is cooked through and almost falling off the bone, potatoes are tender and the gravy is slightly thickened from the addition of the potatoes.
Serve with steamed white rice or rice and peas.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavor.