I’ve had more fun with my spices from Penzeys, and that’s about the best way I can describe this dish. It was 100% an experiment with a spice I’ve never tasted before and which I put on my Christmas list, to be honest, on a whim – such is the irresistible pull of the Penzeys online catalog. On Christmas morning when I pulled jar after beautiful jar of spices from a gift bag, I was full of anticipation of that first whiff of each spice. Would I like each of them? Would the za’atar be as good as I remembered? Would the Vietnamese and Ceylon cinnamon be as wonderful as promised? Would the galangal be tasty, as promised, or as pungent as a footballer’s sneaker?
That first sniff of the galangal was not quite what I expected … and I say that lightly. Penzeys promised a flavor “similar to ginger but more flowery and intense … important and popular in Thailand”. Well, they weren’t joking about it being intense! Thankfully, it wasn’t intense like a rank, sweaty sneaker (which is what I imagined I was biting into when I tasted raclette cheese the first – and only – time), but intense like condensed, dried ginger and lily flowers. There was a smidgen of a bitter “aftersmell”, but not altogether unpleasant. More than anything, I was just curious about how to use it – and eager to do so.
Even though galangal is a Thai spice, I don’t eat Thai food – except for a delicious Thai eggplant dish I ate recently in Dahlgren, VA – and don’t plan on starting to cook that style anytime soon. Essentially, I had a serendipitous moment last week at the farmer’s market when I saw a bulb of fennel and smelled the fronds; I recalled the flowery notes of the galangal and figured the two would compliment each other well. Combined with some olives and lemons I already had at home – as well as some chicken thighs in my freezer that desperately needed to be eaten – I had the beginnings of a dish.
I ended up browning the chicken thighs, which I trimmed mercilessly but kept most of the skin on, just to see how it ended up; usually I prefer boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but hey – when life gives you lemons…. Anyway, I seasoned both sides of the chicken with salt and pepper, then generously sprinkled them with the galangal and a bit of Vietnamese cinnamon, on a whim. At this point, things were smelling good, so I knew I was on the right track.
After that, I simply sautéed the fennel with an onion, added the rest of my ingredients, and let everything simmer in its toasty, aromatic bath for a good 20 minutes while I watched the news. Easy peasy! I had pretty low expectations for this dish since it was my first time using the main spice, but it turned out to be very flavorful and pungent – in a very pleasing way. The only downside was the chicken skin, which I promptly sloughed off after plating; definitely will be going for my usual bare chicken breasts next time. Despite that, however, this dish was one worth sharing.
I invite you to try this intriguing spice. If you can’t find it, perhaps ginger might work, but if you like spicy cuisine and enjoy taking a trip down the ethnic isle at the grocer, it’s worth it to try galangal. Better yet, if you know any recipes which use it, pass them this way….
Galangal-spiced chicken with fennel, olives, and lemon
If you can’t find galangal, you can substitute a bit of ginger and perhaps coriander, but the taste won’t be quite the same. Similarly, regular store-bought cinnamon (not true cassia) can be used instead of the Vietnamese variety, but use a light hand because Vietnamese cinnamon has a sharper, less bitter taste than the cinnamon most of us are used to; a little bit goes a long way.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil, preferably Kalamata
- 2 trimmed chicken thighs or breasts (skinless)
- 1 tsp galangal spice (see headnote)
- 1/2 tsp Vietnamese cinnamon
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
- 1 bulb fennel, halved and sliced 1/4″ thick
- 1/4 cup pitted, quartered olives (a mix of green, such as Cerignola, and Kalamata, to your taste)
- 1/4 cup vermouth or dry white wine
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 cup chicken stock, preferably low sodium
- 2 Tbsp chopped fennel fronds
Heat the olive oil in a straight-sided medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season both sides of the chicken with the galangal, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Brown the chicken in the pan on both sides, about three minutes each. You don’t have to cook the chicken all the way through here, because it will cook fully later. Remove the chicken to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium and sauté the onion and fennel together. Salt the vegetables, stir, and cover the pan. Cook the onions and fennel until they are slightly softened and more translucent in color, about 5 minutes. Add the olives and cook another 30 seconds or so.
Add the vermouth (or wine) to the pan and stir, scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan. Squeeze the lemon juice (no seeds!) into the mixture, then add the stock; you may need to add a little more than 1 cup of stock so that almost all of the veggies are covered. Stir in the fennel fronds (from the fennel bulb). Nestle the chicken back into the pan so they are mostly covered by the liquid. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook until a rolling boil forms.
Decrease the heat to a simmer and cook the mixture for 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked all the way through, the vegetables are fully tender, and the liquid is reduced to a thickish sauce. Serve the chicken over the fennel, onions, and olives.