Half Recipes You’re Going to Be Cared For: A Recipe for Braised Chicken Thighs
A Le Creuset Dutch oven telegraphs contentment and cheer—but for me, mine is a token of complicated bitterness and longing.
This is Half Recipes , a narrative recipe column by Nina Coomes on what it means to feed and care for yourself and those you love.
Tomato-Braised Chicken Thighs
1. One palm flat on the kitchen sink. The other clutching my phone to my ear. Knees braced against the cheap plastic-covered cabinet. Eyes focused on a dangling pothos branch, uncomprehending. These are the parts of this memory that are the easiest for me to access. Then comes the harder part: the swoop of sorrow, the rising ice tide of shame. The resentment of feeling ashamed at all.
2. Smash garlic cloves with the flat of your knife. Peel the silvery skin. Drain a can of whole tomatoes through your fingers. Crush their bodies in your hands. Feel everything. Set aside.
3. I was on the phone with my mother. That morning, I received a cheery email from my wedding-registry provider that said my mom had purchased over five hundred dollars’ worth of items off of our registry. Instantly, I knew there was a mistake. My parents were happy for me and my soon-to-be husband, but I had been touchy about the finances of the wedding, insistent that we would pay for the entire ceremony ourselves. I didn’t want the wedding and all of the confounding American expectations attached to it—save the dates and makeup artists, late-night snacks and bridal parties—to be a burden on them.
Every day, while planning the wedding, I found myself confounded by a whole new set of cultural American wedding norms to master. I wanted more than anything to sequester the confusion and anxiety to myself, to have the wedding simply be a beautiful, joyous day where my parents could eat, drink, and dance. So I insisted on handling all logistics myself. The registry (the necessity of which I didn’t totally understand; in Japan, wedding-goers just bring cash in envelopes) was something I’d kept away from them. It didn’t make sense that my mother would spend so much money on our gifts.
4. Put chicken thighs in Dutch oven, skin side down. Place Dutch oven on stove over high heat. You won’t need olive oil because the fat in the chicken thighs will render. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.
5. When I called my mother, I assumed that the fault was mine. I should have done a better job explaining the wedding registry, how Americans expected it done, how I felt like it was one of a hundred things I was doing to follow the American wedding rules. But as our call progressed, I realized my own haughty naivete. My mother was fully aware of wedding registries and how they worked. In her matter-of-fact Japanese, she told me she’d purchased everything she did because she wanted to shield me from hurt. We didn’t come from a giant, raucous white family like my husband did: a family that would know how to play by these rules. Mine was suspended across two continents, with our loved ones scattered. My mother was afraid I’d be disappointed that people from my side of the family would not be purchasing things from the registry. Her shopping spree was her way of using her hard-earned cash to prove that someone loved me, someone was showing up for me.
I don’t remember how I explained to her that I didn’t care about the registry. I only remember how it felt: moved by her love, furious that she would even need to think such a thing. How I wanted to weep and scream and fall apart. After I hung up with her, I called my registry provider and convinced them to reverse the charges. Thankfully, they refunded my mother for all her purchases except for one item, which I bought back myself. That item was my bright orange Le Creuset Dutch oven. Strange to think that what is now one of the most beloved and well-used items in my kitchen came into my possession through an experience of pain.
Strange to think that what is now one of the most beloved and well-used items in my kitchen came into my possession through an experience of pain.
6. When the chicken is spitting and pooling fat in the bottom of the pan, flip the thighs over. Add a scant tablespoon of salt, multiple cranks of freshly cracked pepper, and about a half tablespoon of chili flakes. Pour garlic and crushed tomatoes (they should retain some of their shape but shouldn’t be whole or turned into a puree) over chicken thighs. Add the dry white wine. Lay the sprigs of rosemary over everything, put the lid on, and take off heat.
7. I’ve written two, now three recipe-essays for this column that use my Dutch oven. Every time, I felt like I was telling a sideways lie. Dutch ovens seem like festive objects, well loved and potbellied, full of delicious cozy things like mulled wine and beef bourguignon. (Both things I have, in fact, made in said Dutch oven.) They’re expensive and solid, a piece in a kitchen that speaks to investment and wealth. Once, I made this braised chicken for my two beloved MFA cohort mates. When I set the bubbling pot on the table, my friend Matthew said, “There’s something about a Dutch oven that just makes you feel like you’re going to be cared for.” He’s not wrong. When I see them in other people’s homes, they seem like testaments to happiness. When I wrote recipes around my Le Creuset, I felt like I was letting the pot telegraph contentment and cheer, when in fact, for me, this item is a token of complicated bitterness and longing.
8. Place lidded pot into oven, preferably on the middle rack. Leave the pot alone for at least three hours, up to five. Let the smell of garlic and rosemary plume through your house.
9. I’ve felt a similar searing shame before. Usually around holidays and special events, panic threading every big American occasion. I used to think that my frothy, vivid horror was about not knowing customs, norms, and unspoken social rules, the type that crop up around holiday parties and Superbowls and junior proms. But now, when I lug the heft and weight of my Le Creuset into my oven, I realize that the shame is not about my lack of American knowledge. With time and distance from that morning, on the phone with my mother and then the registry rep, I realize that this is a shame of isolation, of loneliness.
If you don’t know the rules, you learn them. Next time, you perfect your errant, un-American behavior to conform to the situation. But if you don’t have the quintessential American Happy Nuclear Family, there is nothing to amend. You can’t suddenly create more people you’re related to, more people who will attend graduation parties and hold their hands over yours at first confirmations. If you are of diaspora and have cleaved your beloved family across nations; if your relationship with those who are related to you is complex and solitary; if the only recourse is for you to swallow who you authentically are or be abandoned, treated like a badly trained animal—there is nothing to be done then.
My mother bought all those things as insurance against that loneliness. As proof that someone loved me enough to show up, to spend money on me. She wanted each little box on our wedding-registry website to gray out, so other guests would think, Oh, what a cared-for couple this is . Deep within myself, I know this. I feel her need to do something, anything, as a cold metallic clinging in the place where my ribs meet my sternum.
10. Take pot out of oven. Release a cloud of delicious-smelling steam. Inside, the chicken thighs will have fallen apart in the arms of soft tomatoes and buttery garlic cloves. Spoon the braised chicken thighs into a shallow bowl. Eat with bread and a quickly sautéed bitter green, or anything you like.
11. And after the shame comes the roaring aftertaste of rage. Why should I, the people I love, we , why should we be made to feel lesser for weathering this life without the commodity of the American family? I am angry with myself for feeling ashamed at all, furious at registries and showers and the wedding industrial complex, all the things that scrutinize the tight knot of my family and find it lacking. I am fiercely proud of what we have survived. I am ferociously gratified by the sight of all of us, tearing up the dance floor at my wedding, not needing anyone but each other for our joy to bloom, defiant.
Why should I, the people I love, we, why should we be made to feel lesser for weathering this life without the commodity of the American family?
Every time I pull that damned beloved pot from its place above the sink, I am telling myself that this home, this life, this happiness and beauty is mine. Hard-won and handmade, it is real, filling, and warm. I want to do everything I can to keep the chill of old shame from seeping in.
Note : This recipe is endlessly forgiving. You can sub a quart of halved cherry tomatoes for canned tomatoes; you can increase or decrease the amount of salt, pepper, chili, and garlic; you can finish the chicken by capping it with clouds of provolone or mozzarella and letting it go gooey in a bastardized version of chicken parmesan. You can also change the flavor profile entirely; I’ve made this recipe with sake, soy sauce, mirin, yellow potatoes, carrots, and onions in a Japanese style. I’ve also subbed roughly sliced lemons for the tomatoes and added capers and olives.
The only thing you absolutely must have when making this is ample time to let the chicken fall apart. There’s a metaphor buried somewhere here: about the falsehood of forced warmth, about the gentleness that only true warmth and love over time can bring, that to fall apart is to be tender, soft, bursting with the influence of everything else in the pot, cooked and cooked and cooked without ever turning tough. But I’m still figuring that one out.