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Pure elegance: Think dinner party cooking can't be quick and easy? Think again.

By Wolfgang Puck, Tribune Content Agency on

If you've ever hung out in a restaurant kitchen, or been seated close enough to one to witness the chefs in action, you've probably heard the head chef repeatedly calling out the word "Fire!" Rather than sounding any kind of alarm, the command actually means that the time has come for a particular dish to be cooked so that it will be ready to serve along with the rest of a particular table's order -- all part of the system that keeps a restaurant running efficiently.

Good restaurant cooking and service often do call for split-second timing, even though there may also be many dishes on a menu that are slowly cooked (braises, stews or roasts) or elements of recipes (sauces, dressings and fresh pastas) that require advance preparation. But it still can be really surprising how quickly many dishes do come together in a fine-dining establishment.

The same can be true when you entertain at home. While many people think that throwing a dinner party must call for hours of cooking, it is possible -- and, I would say, often preferable -- to entertain elegantly without spending very much time in the kitchen at all. The key to achieving this goal, however, relies largely on one key element: preparation.

My recipe for thyme-steamed stuffed chicken legs with watercress sauce, a classic from my pre-Spago days of cooking at Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles, is a perfect example of that principle. It's a delicious, surprisingly light main course, featuring chicken legs from which the thigh bones have been removed (you can ask the butcher to do it for you). They are filled with a port-seasoned mixture of chopped chicken breast, mushrooms, and onion, steamed over thyme-scented broth, then sliced and served with a quickly blended sauce based on fresh watercress and some of the flavorful steaming liquid.

Some people might think an elegant-sounding dish like this might take considerable time to prepare, or call for special cooking skill. But, in fact, the cooking time start to finish is under 30 minutes. The reason cooking happens so quickly is that, up to several hours in advance, you do another simple 30 minutes or so of prep work, quickly sauteing and cooling the filling, and then stuffing the boned legs and securing them with toothpicks.

That prep, and the fact that the final steaming takes place pretty much unattended and the sauce takes seconds to prepare, leaves you free to welcome and enjoy pre-dinner cocktails or a glass of wine with your guests. It all comes together so easily and seamlessly that you won't even feel the need to call out "Fire!" before serving time.


Serves 4

For the stuffed chicken legs:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, minced

2 ounces (60 g) button mushrooms, quartered

8 ounces (250 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, coarsely ground or chopped

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup (60 mL) port

1/2 cup (125 mL) chicken broth

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves

4 whole chicken legs with thighs, thigh bones removed by butcher and reserved for steaming liquid

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For steaming:

1 quart chicken broth or stock

3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the watercress sauce:

1/2 bunch watercress

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 lemon, juiced

Up to several hours ahead of serving time, make the filling: Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and saute for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and chopped chicken breast, and saute, breaking up the chicken with a wooden spoon, until the mushrooms begin to give off their liquid and the chicken is no longer pink. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove from the heat and add the port. Turn down the heat slightly, return the pan to the heat, and cook until the port is reduced by about one quarter, taking care not to let the vapors from the port ignite. Add the chicken broth and cook for 2 minutes longer.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken-mushroom mixture to a bowl. Return the pan to the heat and reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency, about 5 minutes. Add the reduced liquid to the chicken mixture. Add the parsley and stir well. Set aside to cool.

Season the chicken legs inside and out with salt and pepper. Place the legs on a clean work surface, skin-side down. Place about 1/4 cup (60 ml) of the cooled filling inside the boned portion of each leg. Fold the meat neatly over the filling and secure closed with a wooden toothpick.

To steam the chicken legs, combine the chicken stock, reserved bones, thyme, and olive oil in the bottom of a steamer or in a saucepan large enough to support a steamer basket. Bring the steaming liquid to a boil.

Place the steamer basket over the steaming liquid. Add the chicken legs in a single layer and cover. Steam until the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes.

Remove the chicken legs from the steamer and keep warm while you make the sauce. Place 1/2 cup (125 mL) of the steaming liquid in a blender. Add the watercress, cover, and blend well, following the manufacturer's instructions to avoid spattering. With the blender running on low speed, add the butter a little bit at a time. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

To serve, slice the boneless part of each chicken leg crosswise into 3 slices. Spoon some sauce on a plate and top with the chicken leg, slightly overlapping the sliced, stuffed thigh pieces.



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