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Eric Akis: Samfaina sauce adds Spanish flair to chicken dish

Use chicken and fresh tomatoes, eggplant, onions, zucchini, garlic and peppers to make samfaina — the Catalan version of ratatouille.
Chicken baked and braised in Spanish-style, summer-vegetable-rich samfaina sauce. ERIC AKIS

I was having some friends over for dinner a few days ago, so bought some chicken to serve them, and then headed to a few farm stands for inspiration on how to prepare it.

At those stands I found wonderfully fresh tomatoes, eggplant, onions, zucchini, garlic and peppers. Items I could use — and did use — to make a dish I recently read about in a cookbook called The Food of Spain: A Journey for Food Lovers.

That dish is called pollo en samfaina, which in English translates to chicken in samfaina sauce. That book says everyone else in Spain describes samfaina as the Catalan version of ratatouille, except the folks in Catalan, which borders France, who say ratatouille is the French version of samfaina.

Not surprisingly, the two are made in a similar fashion by cooking and combining the vegetables noted above into flavourful summer vegetable stew.

To make chicken in samfaina sauce, The Food of Spain book browns pieces of chicken in olive oil in a skillet and then removes them. The samfaina sauce is then made in the skillet, and the browned chicken is set in it. The chicken is then covered and simmered on the stovetop until cooked through and richly flavoured by the samfaina sauce.

In my version of the recipe, rather than cook the chicken completely on the stovetop, I decided to instead only brown the chicken thighs and drumsticks I used there. Once that was done, the chicken was then set in a large casserole dish, topped with the simmering samfaina sauce, covered and then baked in the oven until cooked through.

The end result was a similar-tasting dish that allowed me to do other things while the chicken baked in the oven.

You can cut, prepare and measure the vegetables and other ingredients needed for the samfaina sauce many hours in advance. And, if you do that, when it’s time to cook it, the dish will come together reasonably quickly and be baking in the oven before you know it.

I served the chicken with rice pilaf accented with lemon, almonds and parsley, and some slices of good, crusty bread.

The chicken recipe yields six, two-piece each, servings. If that’s too many for you, any leftover chicken and samfaina sauce, once cooled, could be frozen, to thaw and reheat for a quick meal later in the year.

Chicken Baked in Samfaina Sauce

Browned pieces of chicken set in a casserole with summer-vegetable-rich samfaina sauce, covered and baked until tender and very flavourful.

Preparation time: 70 minutes

Cooking time: about 80-85 minutes

Makes: six (two pieces of chicken each) servings

4 ripe medium to large ripe, red tomatoes

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

6 chicken thighs

6 chicken drumsticks

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 Tbsp olive oil, plus more, if needed

1 small to medium (about 7- inch long and 2-inch wide) eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1 medium onion, halved and sliced

1 medium green bell pepper, halved, seeded and sliced

1 medium red bell pepper, halved, seeded and sliced

1 small green zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1 small yellow zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2/3 cup white wine

2/3 cup chicken stock

1 1/2 tsp dried, or 1 1/2 Tbsp chopped fresh, oregano

1/2 tsp dried, or 1 1/2 tsp minced fresh, thyme

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Bring a medium to large pot of water to a boil. Cut the stem end out of each tomato. Cut a small, shallow X into the blossom (curved) end of each tomato. Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for one minute. Lift out of the water, set on a plate and let cool a few minutes. Now pull the skins off the tomatoes; they should slip off easily. Coarsely chop the peeled tomatoes and place them and all the juices on the board in a bowl. Set aside.

Spread flour out on a wide, sided plate. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Deeply dredge chicken in the flour, shaking off the excess.

Heat the 3 Tbsp oil in a large (mine was 12 inches wide) skillet set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, cook chicken, in two batches, until rich golden, about three minutes per side, and then set in a single layer in a large casserole (mine was 14 x 10 inches).

Preheat oven to 350 F. Set the skillet you cooked the chicken in over medium heat, adding a bit more oil to it to cook the vegetables, if needed. Add the onion and eggplant to the skillet and cook until softened, about six minutes. Stir in the bell peppers, zucchini and garlic and cook four minutes more. Add the wine, stock, chopped tomatoes, oregano, thyme and pepper flakes and bring to a simmer. Season this samfaina sauce with salt and pepper, and then pour over the chicken.

Cover and bake chicken 50 minutes. Now uncover chicken and bake 15 to 20 minutes more, or until bubbly and cooked through.

Rice Pilaf with Lemon, Almonds and Parsley

Rice steamed and flavoured with lemon, almonds and parsley you can serve with the chicken baked in samfaina sauce.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 25 minutes

Makes: six servings

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 medium onion, finely diced

1 1/3 cups long grain white rice

1 3/4 cups chicken stock

2 tsp finely grated lemon zest (see Note)

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/3 cup sliced, skin-on, almonds

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

Place the oil in a medium pot (mine was eight inches wide) set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the onion and cook until softened, about three minutes. Mix in the rice and cook and stir two minutes. Add the stock, lemon zest and juice, almonds, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the rice, turn the heat to its lowest setting, and cook 15 minutes, or until tender. Fluff the rice with a fork, mix in the parsley, and it’s ready to serve.

Note: One very large lemon should yield the zest and juice needed here.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.