A New Favorite: Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Croutons

A "no-recipe'' recipe of crispy-skin chicken on a bed of caramelized onions and shallots, with arugula and home-made croutons.
A “no-recipe” recipe of crispy-skin chicken on a bed of caramelized onions and shallots, with arugula and home-made croutons.

If you were to spy a recipe that offered merely a list of ingredients — without any precise measurements for the most part — along with no specified number of servings, and only one paragraph of instructions, would you:

A. Be petrified.

B. Rejoice in its invitation to let loose and improvise.

C. Consider it a gimmick.

Now, imagine an entire cookbook like that, and you have “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes” (Ten Speed Press). It’s by Sam Sifton, the founding editor of New York Times Cooking.

As a cookbook writer, myself, who’s always had it drilled into her to be as specific as possible when writing or editing recipes, this cookbook initially gave me pause. With its tack that less is actually more when it comes to recipe verbiage, I wondered: Would novice cooks would find this style off-putting and too intimidating? And would experienced cooks give the book a pass, assuming the recipes must be far too easy or mundane to accommodate such a truncated style?

It pays to approach this book with an open mind. Whether you’re just learning to cook or already a decent home-cook, you’re sure to find new, inspired ways — as streamlined as they might be — to get dinner on the table. What this book does is encourage you to trust your instincts more, to be less rigid in the way you cook, and to be more imaginative in scouring your pantry for substitute ingredients when need be. And in a pandemic year, which has seen grocery shelves decimated at times, that’s an invaluable skill to possess.

Admittedly, I was surprised at how much more I liked this book than I thought I would. It contains about 100 recipes. Some are as uncomplicated as it gets, such as “Brown Butter Tomato Salad,” with just two ingredients: tomatoes and butter. All you do is slice really great tomatoes, cook butter until it’s browned and nutty smelling, and then drizzle it over. That’s it. But how many of us would have thought to serve fresh tomatoes in that manner?

The other recipes take an equally breezy approach, such as “Pot Stickers with Tomato Sauce” (yes, frozen Asian dumplings cooked in an Italian sauce), “Shaved Cucumbers with Peanut Sauce,” and “Cafeteria Tacos.” A few do actually give you a little more guidance on amounts in the actual recipe directions, such as 1 tablespoon of this or that.

The chicken thighs cooked in a pan atop a bed of sliced onions and shallots.
The chicken thighs cooked in a pan atop a bed of sliced onions and shallots.

“Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Croutons” appealed to me because it sounded like a simplified, deconstructed take on the fabled Zuni Cafe roast chicken served over a bed of torn bread and bitter greens. While the Zuni chicken is immensely doable at home, you do need to plan ahead, as the chicken needs to be salted and refrigerated 24 hours before cooking. With the New York Times‘ “no-recipe” riff, though, you could easily make it on the spur of the moment.

Lay sliced onions and shallots on the bottom of a skillet. Top with bone-in chicken thighs — as many as you want or as many as can fit in one layer in your pan. I went with six. Season them with salt and pepper, then slide the pan into a hot oven. Take some crusty artisan bread and tear it into bite-size pieces, toss with olive oil, and toast on a baking sheet in the same oven until crisp — 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan of croutons, and allow the chicken to continue cooking until cooked through.

Scatter some bitter salad greens on the bottom of a serving platter. I used handfuls of arugula. Add the croutons. Then, arrange the chicken and onions over the top, spooning any juices in the pan over the greens.

The chicken is incredibly juicy with wonderfully crisp skin. The onions and shallots cook in the chicken juices and fat, turning melty and sweet. The arugula give a peppery, green freshness, and the croutons add crunch, along with a vehicle to soak up the juices. It’s amazing how flavorful this dish is, given that only salt and pepper are used. While you could get a little fancier by using lemon pepper or seasoned salts or even a dry rub of some sort, I urge you to try it first with just basic salt and pepper on a good-quality chicken to taste for yourself how delicious this dish is simply like that.

This dish is warmly homey tasting yet with enough presence to impress company. It’s the kind of chicken dish we all need in our lives.

Best yet, after making it once or twice, it’s easy enough to commit to memory, so that you’ll really need “no recipe” to enjoy it again and again.

It looks impressive, but it's easy enough to make on a weeknight.
It looks impressive, but it’s easy enough to make on a weeknight.

Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Croutons

(Serves however many you like)

Onion

Shallots

Natural oil

Chicken thighs (bone-in)

Wine or chicken stock

Good bread

Olive oil

Bitter salad greens

Scatter a bunch of sliced onion and shallots across the oiled bottom of a large pan, then put a bunch of bone-in chicken thighs on top of them, skin-side up. Season the thighs with salt and pepper, then slide the pan into a 425-degree oven to roast until the chicken is crisp on top and cooked through, about 35 minutes. Shake the pan every so often, and add wine or stock if the onion is browning too fast. Meanwhile, make some croutons from good, chewy olive-oil tossed bread cubes, toasting them in a pan until golden or in the oven on a sheet pan alongside the chicken. They can be torn up — no matter. When everything’s done, put the salad greens on a warm platter, top with the croutons, dump the contents of the roasting pan over the top, and arrange the chicken on top of that. Boy howdy.

From “The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes” by Sam Sifton

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5 comments

  • I actually rather like this style of recipe presentation. I’m always changing things around anyway, so why not start with a streamlined recipe? Sounds like a fun book, and this is definitely a tasty looking recipe. Thanks!

  • I’ve been intrigued by the sound of this book from the many references to it in the daily NYT Cooking column. Seems as though it would really suit my preferred style of cooking with whatever happens to be on hand. The skin of that chicken in your photo does not immediately strike me as being “wonderfully crisp”, but I’m more than willing to take your word for it. And homemade croutons are right up there with bacon on my “Makes Everything Better” list. Pretty sure this one will be another winner, Carolyn!

  • Hi Carroll: I admit I’m not the world’s best photographer, so maybe that’s why the skin is deceiving in the photo. I didn’t get a dark bronze color on the skin, but the fat underneath rendered and it turned quite delightfully crisp. I swear! 😉

  • You were right! Super crispy skin, and extremely delicious. While I normally agree with and adhere to your stated preference for trying a recipe “as is” the first time, it also felt as though this one could be considered more of a “place to start” rather than an end unto itself. Thus, when my husband walked in and said “That smells delicious. Did you use up the rest of the mushrooms?”, I smacked hand to head and thought “Mushrooms! They would be fantastic with this!!” So, while the chicken was finishing, I sautéed “the rest of the mushrooms” (I hope Mr. Sifton would applaud that precise measurement) harvested extremely fresh yard-to-table arugula, followed the rest of your directions to the letter, but additionally, when plated, dumped the pan of mushrooms atop the chicken and garnished with a liberal snipping of fresh chives. “Boy howdy’ is right!!! My onions did not even come close to caramelizing, but I think that’s because I did this (for just the two of us) in an 8 x 8 Pyrex dish with two very large chicken thighs on top, so quite a bit of liquid accumulated without much surface area for the onions to dry out. Lots of yummy juices to meld with the greens and croutons, though; this one is definitely “Another Keeper From Carolyn”!

  • Hi Carroll: You always slay me with your witty comments! I am so glad you loved this chicken dish as much as I did. I think the mushrooms are an inspired addition. And something tells me that Sam Sifton would heartily agree. 😉

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