Technique: Chicken Rillettes
I often buy a whole chicken for a week’s worth of dinners. The first two meals are easy: something with the legs and then something with the breasts. But what about the wings?
There’s not much meat on them; certainly not enough for a main course. In the past, I’ve picked the meager flesh from the bones and added it to omelettes or soufflés, dishes where you don’t want a big hunk of meat with rich eggs. But for a few recent chickens, I’ve made the wings into rillettes, a spread of shredded meat and fat.
I think I got the idea after making rabbit rillettes from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. While many books suggest treating rabbit rillettes just like pork rillettes — cook the meat slowly in fat — Rodgers takes a more complicated route that gives the delicate meat a chance to shine: Poach in water with mirepoix and white wine, add a pig’s foot for body, pound in a mortar and pestle, and dribble in fat in tiny amounts.
What had worked so well for rabbit might also work well with chicken, I thought. I modified the recipe — I don’t have pigs’ feet in my freezer on a regular basis, no matter what you think — but the results were still delicious, and the dish has been a recurring favorite.
Except I make them in an ad hoc way. You could argue that Rodgers’ recipe has little in common with my technique, but they share key kinships.
First, salt the wings. Sprinkle a handful of kosher salt onto a plate, press the wings (both sides) into the salt and set them on a dish in the refrigerator for 24 hours or so. The first time I made the dish, I tried to skin the wings: I urge you not to do this; it is time-consuming and ineffective.
The next day, poach the wings in a stick of butter and just enough water to cover them. (If you want to add a little dry white wine or white wine vinegar, please do. If you want to add spices and aromatics, please do.) Cook them at barely a simmer until the meat falls off the bone with even the glancing blow of a fork, about an hour to an hour and a half. Pull the wings from the liquid and let them cool briefly, and remove the liquid from the heat. Using your fingers, strip the bones of the meat and skin and put them into a mortar. Pound the meat with the pestle until it begins to flatten. Now dribble in a tiny bit of the fat from the pot — it will have risen to the top. Pound the meat some more. Dribble in a little more fat, and continue to pound. I probably add two or three teaspoons of fat over five or six doses. You want a spreadable paste of shredded meat, but you also want the flavor front and center: Too much fat will mute it. Season with pepper, smush into a ramekin, cover, and refrigerate. If you won’t use the rillettes that day, you can let the fat continue to cool and then spoon it over the rillettes to seal them in.
Then what? I smear rillettes onto bread or put it into dumplings. Two chicken wings do not yield a lot of rillettes, but two people can get a decent dinner out of them. The other night for a potluck, I smeared a dollop of rillettes and butter onto baguette slices and topped the smear with sliced radishes to make 18 bites of finger food. The rillettes added flavor, while the butter added richness and volume.