saffron chicken with spring onions & peas

This recipe is very loosely adapted from Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Loosely meaning in this case, the chicken is verbatim from the book, but everything else is my own adaptation. I love Sunday Suppers. I even love the name – something about the word supper is just so much more appetizing than dinner. Supper makes me think family meals and wooden tables and hearty plates. Anyways, name aside, the book is beautifully written, and our copy (or more accurately, John’s copy that I’ve stolen) is so dog-eared and stained, it makes me smile every time it falls open to a well-worn recipe we’ve made and loved. 
Which brings me to today’s chicken. I love a good chicken dish. This is pure comfort food – reminds me of chicken and dumplings, minus the dumplings and full of spring instead. I cooked up the tiniest shell pasta I’ve ever seen, so sweet and small and exactly perfectly pea-sized; part of the bounty I brought home from Russo’s yesterday. 

Alongside tiny shells and saffron marinated, crispy-skinned chicken, this dish has buttery-caramelized spring onions (slightly sweeter and less intense than mature onions – think half way between an onion and a scallion), fresh peas, spinach (from our garden!), and some garlic scapes I picked up from the farmer’s market last week. For those of you unfamiliar with scapes, they’re a spring time treat, the stalk of the young garlic plant. Curly green stems, similar to the spring onions, they taste like a milder version of their adult counterpart. Chop them finely and use them anywhere you would normally use garlic. I love the way garlic scapes look whole – vibrant green and curled around themselves – I’m always tempted to toss them whole into something, but pretty as they are, a big mouthful of scape seems like a bad idea. If you can’t find scapes in your area, I would skip them all together rather than substituting mature garlic – the onions provide plenty of flavor all on their own, and I think mature garlic would be too strong here.
This recipe calls for the dreaded chicken breast. Dreaded because they seem to be universally hated by chefs and food enthusiasts. I love chicken, all its parts, provided it’s cooked right. Here, marinated in saffron infused olive oil, thyme, parsley, and lemon zest and then seared skin side down until crispy and golden, it’s just plain lovely. And, did I mention? The chicken is from Sunday Suppers, so it would appear Chef Goin is in my camp too. But, I know there’s chicken issues out there. I often read accusations of dryness and blandness, so I thought I’d type up a few tips for buying and cooking a good chicken to dispel the myths (see footnote below.*) This dish serves 2-4 depending on your appetite. 

For the Chicken and Vegetables

2 skin on de-boned chicken breasts
2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
½ tsp saffron
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp chopped thyme
1 tsp chopped parsley
The zest of half a lemon
1 ¼ lbs fresh pea pods, shelled
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic scapes, thinly sliced
1 small bunch of fresh spinach, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
½ cup good quality chicken stock

Salt and pepper
2 cups small dried pasta of your choice

Marrinate the Chicken
Toast the saffron in a small pan very briefly until brittle. Transfer to a mortar and pound into a powder. Using the butter, scoop up half of the saffron and place in a small bowl. Stir to combine and set aside. Pour 2 tbsp of olive oil into the remaining saffron and mix to combine. 
Toss the chicken with the saffron oil, thyme, parsley, and lemon zest. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight. 

Cooking and Assembly
Boil a medium pot of lightly salted water. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside. 
Season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat a large sautee pan over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil along with 1 tbsp canola oil. Cook the chicken skin side down 4-5 minutes until nicely browned and crisp. Flip, reduce the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking 6-7 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the pan and set aside on a plate or cutting board.
Turn the heat on the pan back to medium and add half of the saffron butter. When it foams, add the spring onions and garlic scapes. Cook 2-3 minutes and then add the peas and continue cooking 3-4 minutes until the onions are soft and slightly caramelized. 
Add the remaining butter and the stock and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, turn off the heat and stir in the spinach. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. 
Meanwhile, slice the chicken. Divide the pasta between serving bowls, spoon over the vegetables and sauce, and top with slices of chicken. Drizzle any pan juices from the chicken on top. Serve at once. 


*A Footnote on Chicken

Buy good quality chicken – free range birds from small farms taste better. I would opt for birds from small farms rather than supermarket organic, but if it comes down to that (trust me I know it does), those are good too.

Buy whole birds as much as possible, or at least always buy skin on, bone on pieces. The skin is the best part of chicken – crisp and caramelized, you don’t want to miss out. Whole birds can be roasted as is or cut up for parts – bones and trimmings can be cooked into fantastic chicken stock (I included a basic recipe below, which can be modified based on what you have on hand – in addition to the vegetables listed in the recipe, shallots, leeks, scallions, parsnips, turnips, or garlic can also be tossed in as aromatics.) Bonus, chicken with the skin and bones is much more affordable, even more so with the stock you get. 

Chicken legs and thighs should always be cooked through, and can even be braised or slow cooked, but the breasts cannot be overcooked – you want them just cooked through, and remember they will continue cooking some after they are off the heat. Breasts also generally benefit from an overnight marinade or brine. No time to brine? Pound them! Put the breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap and give them a good beating with one of those funny looking square hammers. A great way to get out your frustrations, this also tenderizes the meant by breaking down the protein structure somewhat. Take a page from John’s book and toss that pounded chicken with a little garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sherry, and a dash of corn starch; marinate 15 minutes; and then stir fry with greens. Yum. 

Basic Chicken Stock
Bones and trimmings from one small chicken
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped leaves included
1 large onion, roughly chopped skin on
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp whole peppercorns
3 tbsp salt
4 quarts of water

Combine all of the ingredients in a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 1-2 hours until a rich stock has formed. Remove from the heat and strain. Discard the chicken and vegetables. Portion the stock, 2 cups at a time, into ziplock sandwich bags and freeze for future use.