Cool Chicken

Chicken à la niçoise is a traditional dish that combines tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil in a flavorful entree.

chicken (photo credit: MCT)
(photo credit: MCT)
Sometimes I’m in the mood to eat chicken in the summer, but the weather is too warm to stand over a hot frying pan or a barbecue to saute, fry or grill the meat. Turning on the oven to roast the chicken isn’t something I feel like doing, either.
On such summer days, there are two Mediterranean chicken entrees that appeal to me the most. Both are easy to prepare and, with a little adaptation, can be served either hot or cold.
One is from the kitchens of Provence, a region of southern France famous for its lavish use of tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil. Chicken à la niçoise is a traditional dish that combines these elements in a flavorful entree. I like the simple way it was made by Josephine Besson, who was known as La Mère Besson or Mother Besson (“mère” is an endearing term that was used for a well-known woman chef). We enjoyed a dinner at her restaurant, which is known for its authentic Provencal fare, when we visited Cannes in the French Riviera.
In her book, Ma Cuisine Provencale, Besson explained how to prepare this chicken specialty. She cooked chicken pieces with chopped, sauteed onion, crushed garlic and tomatoes, and then simmered them with white wine, bay leaves and the small, oil-cured black olives of Nice. The white wine gives the dish a refreshing quality and enhances its flavor. Besson recommended serving the chicken with ravioli or gnocchi; Nice was once part of Italy, and this is an example of the Italian influence on its cuisine.
To simplify and adapt the entree for hot-weather cooking, I tweak the recipe in three ways. I cook the chicken pieces without their skin to make the dish lighter, with much less fat in the sauce. In addition, I skip the usual step of sauteing the chicken pieces in oil. Browning the chicken does enrich the sauce, but it’s worth omitting this step when the weather is hot. To further save time, I often use boneless chicken.
My second summertime serve-it-hot-or-cold dish is inspired by Istanbul street food. I noticed carts around the city that appeared to contain cooked rice. When I looked at the rice more closely, I saw that it was studded with chickpeas and cubes of chicken.
The tasty dish is actually a form of rice pilaf and is easy to prepare at home. It is made by briefly heating rice with lightly sauteed onion, and adding broth to cook the rice.
When it’s nearly done, you add cooked chickpeas and diced cooked chicken. To adapt the traditional recipe so it is kosher and suitable for serving cold, I replace the customary butter used to saute the onion with olive oil.
If I don’t have cooked chicken on hand for this entree, I poach some the French way with onions, carrots, thyme, bay leaf, white wine and water.
Poaching doesn’t involve standing over a hot pot; you can leave the pan unattended while the ingredients cook gently over low heat. Although poaching chicken with its bones gives the resulting chicken broth more flavor, in summer I often use boneless chicken to save time.
Another option for cooking the chicken is the fast, easy technique used by Ozcan Ozan, author of Sultan’s Kitchen, for his Istanbul chicken and rice pilaf, a sumptuous dish made with almonds and pistachios instead of chickpeas and flavored with saffron and dill. He puts diced uncooked chicken breast meat in a pan in which he has heated a little oil, pours in a small amount of chicken broth and cooks the chicken over low heat for only a few minutes.
Chicken with chickpeas is a snap to prepare when I have chicken and rice left over from Shabbat. Then all I need to do is to combine them with canned chickpeas, a little olive oil, chopped onion, parsley and additional seasoning. The pilaf is delicious hot as a main course or cold as a salad. Occasionally I add diced tomatoes and black olives to do Istanbul-Nice fusion.
The writer is the author of Fresh from France: Dinner Inspirations and of Feast from the Mideast.
Easy chicken a la nicoise
Black olives and fresh tomato sauce are the hallmarks of many dishes called “à la niçoise.” If using Niçoise olives or other pungent olives, simmer them in water for 2 or 3 minutes before adding them to the sauce; this is not necessary with mild-flavored canned olives.
When serving this entree cold, you can spoon the chicken, tomatoes and olives onto a bed of greens to make a festive main course salad. For a casual lunch or supper, you can serve the boneless chicken pieces and its thick sauce as a sandwich in crusty French bread drizzled lightly with extra virgin olive oil, with a few fresh basil leaves tucked inside.
2 or 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 cup chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, chopped
700 gr. (11⁄2 lbs.) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or an 800-gr. (28-oz.) can tomatoes, drained, chopped
1 large fresh thyme sprig or 1⁄2 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
570 gr.-700 gr. (11⁄4 to 11⁄2 lbs.) boneless, skinless chicken pieces, dark or light meat
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄2 to 2⁄3 cup pitted black olives
a few drops of lemon juice (optional)
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil or parsley (optional)
In a skillet or saute pan large enough to hold the chicken in one layer, heat 1 or 2 Tbsp. oil. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Add garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes, thyme and bay leaf and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add wine and bring to a simmer.
Sprinkle chicken pieces with pepper and very lightly with salt. Fold each piece in half. Add chicken to sauce and bring just to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium- low heat for 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked through; cut a piece in its thickest part with a sharp knife to check that the color is no longer pink. Using tongs, transfer chicken pieces to a plate.
If sauce is too thin, simmer it uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes, or until it has thickened enough for your taste. Add olives and heat briefly.
Taste, and add lemon juice if you like, depending on the acidity or sweetness of the tomatoes and the flavor of the wine. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig.
Return chicken to sauce. If serving hot, reheat chicken gently in sauce. If you like, add chopped basil or parsley just before serving and drizzle the chicken and sauce with a little more oil.
Makes 4 to 6 servings .

Chicken and rice pilaf with chickpeas
When preparing this Turkish specialty, you can add finely chopped tomatoes when cooking the rice. To do this, stir 1 cup finely chopped, peeled, seeded tomatoes into the rice and onion mixture just before adding the broth.
When I serve this pilaf cold, I add tomatoes to the finished dish without cooking them; I gently fold 2 small diced tomatoes into the rice at the same time as the parsley. If you like, garnish the dish with a few black olives.
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 1⁄2 cups long-grain white rice
2 large garlic cloves, minced (optional)
3 cups hot chicken, meat or vegetable broth or water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin (optional)
1 1⁄2 to 2 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans), with 2 Tbsp. cooking liquid, or a 400-gr. (15-oz.) can, drained
1 to 1 1⁄2 cups diced cooked chicken
3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Heat 1 1⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. oil in a heavy, shallow stew pan or large saute pan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add rice and garlic and saute, stirring, about 2 minutes or until grains turn milky white.
Add broth, salt to taste, 1⁄4 tsp. pepper and 1⁄2 tsp. cumin. Stir once and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 10 minutes.
Add chickpeas and chicken in a fairly even layer without stirring. Cover and continue cooking over low heat for 8 minutes. Taste rice; if it is not yet tender, simmer for 2 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes or until ready to serve, and fluff gently with a fork; if serving cold or at room temperature, uncover and let cool briefly, and then transfer gently to another dish to refrigerate or serve it.
Just before serving, fold in 2 Tbsp. parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or cool, sprinkled with remaining parsley.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.