Now, we don’t want to say this too loudly in case chicken thighs become the new oxtails, but have you noticed how the cheaper, fattier cuts of meat are just so darn delicious? Just a decade or two ago it seemed like boneless, skinless (flavorless) chicken breasts were the coveted cut for health-conscious eaters across the country, so it’s no wonder that Bourdain used to say that chicken was on the menu for people who didn’t know what else to order.
In this scrumptious dish of fig and olive chicken thighs, we’ll employ a sear-then-braise method for a dish that’s simple to put together but feels special enough to serve at a dinner party. The combo of figs and olives is a classic in Mediterranean cooking and represents a beautiful balance of salty and sweet. Plus, dried figs and jarred olives are excellent pantry staples, so with them on hand, you’re already halfway there.
Although dried figs are higher in sugar than fresh ones, there’s no reason not to enjoy them in moderation. Dried figs are not only a good source of fiber to help keep you feeling full for longer, but they are also high in essential minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Meanwhile, olives have been considered a nutritional powerhouse since Ancient Greek times, and they remain the star of the much-lauded Mediterranean diet. High in antioxidants like vitamin E and A, and loaded with healthy fats, olives are a tasty snack on their own, but here they add a briny bite to our dish.
Here’s what you’ll need to make this fig and olive chicken
Start by blending up your spices in a bowl large enough to fit all the chicken. The ones chosen here play off the Mediterranean roots of the fig and olive combo, with a slight detour into the savoriness of Shawarma, thanks to the cumin and turmeric. Make sure you give the chicken a thorough rub-down and separate the skin from the meat so the spices get everywhere.
Let the chicken rest for a few minutes while you heat up a large thick-bottomed pan. A cast iron skillet is perfect, as is a Dutch oven. You’ll want to choose something that can be covered and go straight into the oven (even if it means mismatching a pot and a lid).
Give the pan a good swirl of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom, and nestle in your chicken thighs, fat side down. It’s OK if they’re crowded, but they should be in a single layer. (If the pan isn’t big enough, it’s best to sear in batches.) Let them get nice and brown for about 10-15 minutes. Resist the urge to fuss with them until they get a good sear. Flip them over once so they’re fat side up. Cook for another 10-15 minutes. The rest of the cooking will be done with the fat on top of the chicken, which will help to keep them from drying out.
While the chicken is searing, heat up the stock and get your figs and olives ready. You can use any combo of the two that you like, but the color contrast between black mission figs and bright green Halkidiki olives is really spectacular.
To prep the figs, you’ll just need to cut off the hard stems and cut them in half, then toss them in the stock to plump up.
Pit your olives if need be and squash them on the cutting board with a thick-bottomed mug for maximum speed and catharsis. Then give them a coarse chop.
Once the chicken is nicely seared on both sides, top with the olives and pour the figs and stock over the top, saving just a bit of the stock (maybe a quarter cup) in case you need to thin the pan sauce.
Cut the bulb of garlic in half equatorially (leave the skin on) and tuck both halves cut side up into the pan. Spoon a little of the pan juices over the garlic so it doesn’t dry out. Tuck your bay leaves in between some of the chicken and you’re ready for braising.
Cover the pan and cook in the oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour, or until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Pluck out the garlic halves and use a butter knife to scoop out the insides. Set the garlic aside.
Next, take the chicken thighs out of the pan, arrange on a platter for serving, and top with the figs and olives. If need be, keep the dish warm in the oven (set it to 200 degrees Fahrenheit) while you make the sauce.
To make the sauce you’ll need to separate the fat from the rest of the pan juices. This is easiest with a gravy separator, but you can skim it off with a large spoon as well.
Pro tip: Do not toss the fat! Roast off a tray of Yukon gold or marble potatoes with it as a side dish for the chicken. Cook down the rest of the pan juices with the garlic and bay leaves until reduced by at least a third. It will start to thicken a bit, but if it starts to get gooey, go ahead and add a little of the reserved chicken stock.
To finish it off, add two tablespoons of butter and simmer until silky and smooth. Be sure to taste often and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Serve the fig and olive chicken thighs with lots of sauce and a side of saffron rice, roasted potatoes or sautéed dark leafy greens.
Blend all spices in a large bowl and add chicken thighs, tossing to coat. Be sure to rub spices under the skin as well as all over the chicken. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. (Room temperature chicken and a very hot pan are the best ingredients for a great sear!)
Heat a very large skillet or Dutch oven over high heat and add 4 tablespoons of olive oil, or enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
Place the chicken thighs fat side down in the pan (it’s OK if they’re crowded) and cook for 10-15 minutes until well-browned.
Flip chicken thighs and continue to cook another 10-15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meanwhile, heat chicken stock in a small saucepan until small bubbles form, but not boiling. Add dried figs to stock and remove from heat. Let rest for a few minutes while figs plump.
When chicken is well-browned on both sides, pour in most of the chicken stock (reserve about a quarter cup for sauce in case it needs thinning) and top chicken with figs and olives.
Cut the head of garlic in half along its equator (leave the skin on) and nestle both halves cut side up into the pan with the chicken. Tuck bay leaves in as well throughout the dish.
Cover the pan if you can and put the whole thing in the oven for 30 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and fork-tender.
Remove chicken thighs from pan and arrange on platter. Top with olives and figs. You may want to put this back in the oven (turned off) to keep it warm while you make the sauce.
Fish out the garlic and use a butter knife to scoop out the poached garlic and set aside. Discard garlic skin or save for stock. Spoon as much of the fat off the pan juices as you can (you don’t need to be perfect) and set aside for another use. Add the garlic back into the pan and cook down the rest of the liquid at a low boil for about 10 minutes or until reduced by at least a third. Keep stirring to scrape up any browned bits at the bottom and add a splash or two of reserved stock if it needs thinning. When ready to serve, remove bay leaves to use as garnish, and add 2 tablespoons of butter to the sauce. Stir until silky and smooth.