While brainstorming ideas for this column on a dreary day in December, my good friend and fellow food writer Lauren Shockey suggested using the flavors of a traditional French bouillabaisse and pairing them with chicken. I'm glad she suggested it because the recipe is easy, filling, and exactly what I crave on cold winter nights.
Bouillabaisse is a classic southern French seafood stew flavored with tomatoes, saffron, and fennel, that's served with a garlicky mayonnaise-like rouille made with bread, olive oil, and cayenne pepper. Here, I decided to use the same ingredients to make a quick chicken stew that's a little heartier but equally as tasty. French traditionalists might sigh and cringe at the sight of their beloved bouillabaisse being paired with chicken, but I would take it as a compliment: believe me, the end results are darn delicious.
The key to building up great flavor in under 30 minutes is to layer ingredients, adding each one at the right time to best impact the final product.
To get things started, I brown the chicken to get good color on it and then set it aside, using the same pan to soften the onions, fennel, and garlic, which I slice very thinly to maximize flavor extraction, scraping up all the browned chicken bits on the bottom of the pan in the juices released by the vegetables. Next up, dry white wine, which I reduce in the skillet to concentrate its flavor before adding tomatoes (whole canned tomatoes broken up with a wooden spoon provide the best flavor and texture), potatoes, and a bay leaf. I nestle the chicken pieces back into the pan, then cover the whole thing and let it simmer on the stovetop until the potatoes and chicken are tender.
While a traditional rouille is made by pounding bread with olive oil and garlic until it forms a thick, opaque emulsion, I make a quick, cheaty version using store-bought mayonnaise flavored with garlic, lemon juice, and extra-virgin olive oil, along with a pinch of saffron. You'd be amazed at how homemade it ends up tasting, and the creamy spread is fantastic to stir into your bowl as a garnish or to slather onto the bread for dipping into the soupy sauce.
The chicken may be the star, but those chunks of soup-soaked bread with garlicky mayonnaise are the side players that steal the show.