The French know a thing or two about the perfect braise, so I wasn’t surprised when I tasted the rabbit in cider, Calvados (apply brandy) and cream that my host family served me during my semester abroad in Nantes. If you ever find yourself in France, I highly suggest seeking out this classic dish that finds itself perhaps under radar of many Americans.
Back stateside, I’ve created my own slightly-Americanized version of the dish, making just enough swaps to lighten up the dish and make it weeknight-friendly while also capturing the iconic flavours.
While rabbit is a relatively lean protein choice, I use chicken thighs and legs for the braise simply because it’s readily available, easier to cook perfectly, less expensive, and my daughters may have freaked out a little about eating a bunny.
Both the French version and mine get most of their apple flavour from hard cider, which is available in many stores near the sparkling wines. But if you can’t get your hands on hard cider, feel free to use half white wine and half regular cider instead. We like using sparkling apple cider - the kind that mimics non-alcoholic champagne — leftover from family celebrations this way.
In a somewhat bold move, I completely omit two classic ingredients: cream and apple brandy. The cream, while luscious, not only added a ton of fat grams, it actually muted the other ingredients. While I certainly love an occasional creamy sauce, the main flavours of the dish are more pronounced without the cream.
Without fatty cream, the brandy became almost too strong. Leaving out an expensive ingredient that I don’t often use is always my preference as long as its presence won’t be overly missed. It wasn’t missed at our house. I use unpeeled pears instead of apples because I like the texture of their peels after braising, but certainly some tart granny smiths would feel right at home. A tiny bit of smoky bacon and a hefty dose of sweet, caramelized onions round out the dish, and make it a bright, slightly sweet, braise that you can make in under an hour anytime of the year.
CHICKEN WITH CIDER AND PEARS
Start to finish: 1 hour
3 pounds chicken thighs or legs (or mixed), skin removed, bone-in
2 thick slices of bacon, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
1 1/2 cup hard apple cider (or 3/4 cup regular cider and 3/4 cup dry white wine)
3 large pears, cut into wedges
1 bay leaf
1/4-1/2 cup chicken broth, if needed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Set the chicken on a plate and dry gently with paper towels and lightly season with salt and pepper. In a heavy oven-safe pan or Dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium heat until it starts to crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon and set aside on a plate, leaving the fat in the pan. Brown the chicken on all sides over medium high heat until all sides are golden, about 10 minutes. Add the onions and butter to the pan, and cook, stirring until onions begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and tarragon and cook until fragrant, stirring, about 1 more minute.
Turn the heat up a little to medium high and deglaze the pan with with the hard cider (or regular cider and wine) and allow the liquid to bubble up. Add the bacon, pears, bay leaf and enough broth to cover the chicken about halfway. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, then cover tightly and cook in the oven until the meat is tender, about 30 more minutes.
Serve straight from the pan, or if desired, remove the chicken and pears to a serving platter, and then simmer the liquid stovetop for 5 minutes to reduce into a richer sauce to spoon on top.