Ever since I was a precocious little girl in North Carolina with big pouffy pigtails, I have been completely obsessed with food and cooking. While the other neighborhood kids were racing bicycles, I would be nestled in my “pioneer fort” deep within the bushes of our residential front yard stirring a pot of twigs and dirt. With one eye looking over my shoulder for anyone who might threaten my mission, I would harness the sun’s rays and intently produce smoldering leaves with my magnifying glass. Pure six-year-old exhilaration, friends!
For my first ever school project, I designed a menu for the “Charlie Brown Cafe”, which was lovingly crafted out of neon yellow and green fabric remnants from my bedroom curtains (hey, it WAS the 70’s!). My favorite toy? The Easy Bake Oven, of course!! In fact, I think I went through a few of them. My elementary school included foreign language classes in the curriculum and when given a choice between Spanish and French, I didn’t even have to think about it–French, “mais oui”!! After all, I already knew a few key words like “éclair”, “croissant”, “soufflé” from watching Julia Child’s “The French Chef” with my fabulous, yet frazzled Mom.
And so, French and Cooking seemed to be like two seeds already planted within me, which took root and flourished. I grew up (o.k., well, that’s debatable in some circles), studied beaucoup de Francais in college, read a gazillion cookbooks in my spare time, pursued a culinary arts degree after that, and have journeyed to France several times since.
The following recipe is an homage to my visit to Avignon in Provence, where the intoxicating scent of lavender fields wafts through the air. This is one of the components of the unique herb blend, “herbs de Provence”–the others are basil, fennel seed, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage and summer savory. It can be found in every farmer’s market in the region alongside gorgeous recently-plucked-from-the-earth vegetables. The abundant, majestic anise bulb (which we call fennel here), with it’s tall spiky green fronds and faint licorice flavor can be found in many Provencal recipes. In this recipe, I love how well it marries with the tomatoes and lends a bit of texture to the dish. I usually make this entree with chicken thighs, but the sauce would also be delicious on a meatier fish like Mahi-Mahi or Monkfish.
Recipe for Provençal Chicken Thighs:
6 boneless/skinless chicken thighs
1 T. Olive Oil
1 1/2 t. Herbs de Provence
1/2 Fennel bulb, diced
1 sm. onion, diced
1 1/2 t. chopped garlic
1/4 C. white wine
1/3 C. chicken broth or water
1 14.5 oz. can Diced Tomatoes
1 t. chopped fresh thyme (optional)
salt (to taste)
freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
Unroll chicken thighs and slice each one in half so that you have 12 squares. Pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and 1/2 t. of herbs de Provence.
Heat a large saute pan over med. high heat and add olive oil. Brown both sides of the chicken. Lower heat a bit and add onions, fennel, and garlic and saute for a few more minutes. Pour in wine and deglaze pan, scraping up any brown bits. Once wine has reduced to a syrupy consistency, add broth, tomatoes, and remaining herbs de Provence. Allow to come to a strong simmer. Cover and lower heat to lowest setting. Allow to cook for approximately 45 min, keeping an eye on it towards the end. Go low and slow and the chicken will be extra tender. About 5 min. before serving, sprinkle with fresh thyme, if you are using. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice, polenta, or couscous.