The combination of chicken and mussels, sautéed with fennel fronds and vermouth, is rich, warming and deliciously aromatic. The herb fennel is closely related to the vegetable but is grown as a perennial. Every part of the plant has that distinctive, aniseed scent and at this time of year the fronds are particularly pungent. The flavour works particularly well with both poultry and shellfish.
The winter months are a perfect time to eat mussels; look for bright, clean, tightly closed, unbroken shells. Fresh mussels should smell briny not fishy. The most common Blue or European mussels have sleek, shiny shells and tender, nutritious flesh; widely available in supermarkets they are the most reasonably priced of shellfish. Preparing your mussels is the key ... buy them fresh on the day you are intending to eat them, if you have to shop the day before store them in a cool place, in a bowl covered with a wet towel; leave cleaning them until just before cooking. When you are ready to start preparing them, simply tap each shell and see if it squeezes shut, discard any that don’t along with those that are damaged or cracked. Cultivated mussels will not be full of sand and grit in the way that wild mussels often are but if you have bought wild, soak them in a bowl of cold water for about 20 minutes before cleaning. Scrub the mussels under cold running water and remove the bristly stuff sticking out from one side – their beards – pull it towards the hinge of the shell and outward, use a tea towel to help grip. Scrape off any barnacles with the back of a knife and give them a quick rinse. Checking them after cooking is equally important, if any of your mussels remain closed, discard them.
- 8 chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 50g butter
- 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 300ml chicken stock
- 150ml Vermouth
- 25g fresh fennel fronds
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 kg mussels, cleaned
- 150 ml crème fraiche
- Juice of ½ lemon
- Salt & freshly ground pepper
- Season the chicken pieces with a little salt and pepper. Heat the oil and butter in a large, deep frying pan, add the chicken thighs and fry, skin-side down, for 10 minutes or until well browned. Turn over and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
- Add the vinegar to the pan and boil until it has almost all evaporated. Add the chicken stock and vermouth and boil until reduced to half its original volume.
- Return the chicken to the pan and add half the fennel fronds and the whole garlic cloves. Partly cover with a lid and simmer very gently for 30 minutes, until the chicken is tender and cooked through.
- Add the mussels to the chicken in the pan, cover and cook over a high heat for about 3 minutes, until the mussels have opened. Lift the chicken and mussels out of the pan with a slotted spoon and place in a warmed serving dish; cover and keep warm. Strain the cooking liquid to remove the tarragon and garlic, then return it to the pan and bring back to the boil. Boil until reduced by half, then taste it; it should be really well flavoured. Chop the remaining fennel fronds, setting aside a few sprigs for garnish.
- Add the crème fraiche to the pan and boil for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. Stir in the lemon juice and chopped tarragon and season with a little salt and pepper if necessary. Simmer for one minute to release some of the flavor from the fennel fronds, then pour the sauce over the chicken and mussels.