Mama's Orange Chicken.
The story of this chicken recipe is a bit long and winding.
My Mama actually doesn't remember exactly where she got the recipe, but she knows it was in Berkeley in 1976. She still has the original piece of paper that she wrote the recipe down on, right under a recipe for Chinese chicken wings that she says she remembers getting from a woman at a potluck in Vancouver BC a few years prior. This gal wasn't the source of the orange chicken recipe, however, and we are currently still in the dark about it's origins. I plan to ask my aunt if she has any clues... she and my mama were both living in the bay area in those days, and my auntie is also quite a cook. If I know my family, I'm sure I will get wildly differing stories from the two of them. Time will tell.
In any case. Though this particular recipe doesn't come from a cookbook, it was brought to us recently BY a cookbook, in a roundabout sort of way. My Mom and my Sis were over at my place the other weekend, and as I busied myself in the kitchen I attempted to keep them occupied by distracting them with my immense cookbook collection. I pulled down Green Kitchen Travels for my sister to look at, and I picked Homemade for my Mom to check out. I am always intrigued by which recipes catch the eye of other people- what foods stand out to them, what flavors they're drawn to. Mama was looking at a lamb recipe, which lead to a conversation about her go-to lamb recipe, which lead to some passing comment about her go-to recipes in general; her stand by, weeknight, family dinner recipes that we survived on when I was growing up. This of course immediately brought to my mind ANOTHER cookbook, on this very topic. I handed her Keepers, by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. The first time I ever heard of this cookbook was in an email newsletter from Saveur, where Senoir Editor Karen Shimizu described it as “looks frumpy (weeknight meals for busy moms) but is secretly rad (and authored by former Saveur editors)”. This of course is totally my Mom's wheelhouse, and she subsequently flipped her lid for this book. She borrowed it then and there and has yet to return it. ANYWAY, AS she was flipping through it, saying she wants to write her own cookbook on the topic, she brought up her orange chicken recipe (see, I did have a point, I swear). Mama cooked this chicken for us a lot when I was little, though when she first mentioned it I had no memory of it. For whatever reason it just didn't stand out as an early food memory for me (no idea why, as it is delicious!). She started mentally marinating on the recipe, and the following weekend we had the chance to cook it together.
Though I couldn't even remember ever having eaten this chicken at first, the second I tried a taste of the sauce it all came back to me. I felt like I was six years old again! Crazy how a long lost flavor will take you back like that. The recipe felt a tad daunting and involved at first, but it's really quite simple and comes together in one pan at that. Plus, if you keep a stocked pantry, you probably already have most of the ingredients on hand- another reason Mama considers this an essential back-pocket weeknight recipe. Basically you brown the chicken pieces in butter in a deep, heavy bottomed pan (my mom has this INCREDIBLE super deep cast iron pan that is apparently called a “chicken fryer,” everything about which is absolutely amazing. I am not at all cool enough to own a cast iron “chicken fryer,” but would use my dutch oven for this). You remove the chicken and whisk flour and spices into the butter, then add liquids. You add the chicken back to the sauce, cover and simmer until done- about 45 minutes. While the chicken braises, you have plenty of time to whip of some rice and a big salad. This is how Mama served it when I was six, and this is how you should serve it, too.
The mysterious “original” recipe calls for one whole chicken, 2-3#. Of course, we know that no such chicken exists, and this is simply part of the Great Cookbook Conspiracy. Every chicken available in every grocery store in the world is at least 5-6 pounds, yet every recipe seems to call for a bird between 3-4 pounds. The origin of this discrepancy is that recipe writers of the world have gone mad with power and will stop at nothing to see us all down on our knees, sobbing hopelessly on the floor in the meat aisle. However, we can thwart the powers that be and avoid this awkward scene by simply using the appropriate poundage of chicken pieces instead of a (mythical) 3 pound bird. This has the added benefit of circumventing the need to break down a whole chicken- which, though satisfying, is time consuming and messy. Mama actually used 5 hindquarters when we made this dish together, and that's what I am recommending for you as well. She broke the hindquarters into thighs and drumsticks, resulting in a scrumptious meal of all-dark-meat chicken. If you prefer white meat you can sub in breasts (halved), or do a mix of both. This recipe would also be great with wings, and you wouldn't have to braise it for as long. Play as you will.
Mama's Orange Chicken
5 chicken hindquarters, or about 3# chicken pieces of your choosing
4 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour (of your choosing- Mama uses barley, but wheat or anything else will be fine)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 ¼ cup orange juice
2 clementines, or 1 orange, peeled and sectioned
½ cup slivered almonds
Melt butter over medium high heat in a big, deep, heavy bottomed pan, such as a dutch oven or chicken fryer. Brown the chicken in the butter on both sides, in batches. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside. Combine flour, salt, and spices (dry ingredients) in a small bowl, then add to butter while whisking continuously to avoid lumps. Add the orange juice, still whisking, and whisk or stir until mixture thickens and boils. Stir in the soy sauce. Return the chicken pieces to the pan along with the raisins. Cover the pan, lower the heat, and simmer until the chicken tender and cooked through, about 45 minutes. About half way through cooking, rearrange the chicken pieces so that they all get some time in the liquid at the bottom. When the chicken feels tender when stuck with a paring knife, cut in to the bone on a thigh piece to see if there is still any pinkness or redness- if there is, cook 5 minutes more and check again. About 5 minutes before chicken is done, add almonds and clementine (or orange) to the pan- you want these to be just heated through. Serve with rice and a simple salad.