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Classic braised chicken thighs get lighter

Let's have a quick show of hands among the diet-conscious: Who is craving a plain baked chicken breast?

Exactly. No one.

Chicken breasts au naturel don't ring my bells either, so I'm always looking for ways to pair chicken with flavor detonators in order to have myself a real meal. One of my favorite ways to enjoy chicken is to dispense with the breasts altogether. And, since I'm a thigh man, I opt to use chicken thighs.

Yes, it's true that the thigh is fattier than the breast -- about 8 grams per 4-ounce cooked portion -- but the fat brings with it the extra zing and moisture breasts often can lack.

Plus, the dark meat of the thigh contains the nutritional jackpot of more iron and twice the zinc of white meat. Better yet, you'll be saving more than 400 calories a serving here, compared to a classically prepared chicken dish like coq au vin. Traditional versions of this dish pack 781 calories and 68 grams of fat per serving. Mine• Just 338 calories and 9 grams of fat.

And, if you're a novice cook, that extra fat also means that it's harder to screw up a chicken-thigh recipe, no matter how you cook them. Unlike with chicken breasts, thighs rarely end up overcooked or dry. To reduce the fat, though, I suggest trimming off any extra bits of fat.

My recipe for braised chicken thighs, which is perfect for a hearty winter meal, combines two techniques: browning over high heat and cooking with quick, low-heat braise, in the oven or a slow cooker.

Braising foods is a great way to create tender meaty dishes. Cook this dish at a lower temperature in your slow cooker if you need to be away from the kitchen for the day. Or, you can do it in the oven at 275 degrees for 3 to 5 hours. Just be sure you have a tight-fitting cover for your pot to make sure the liquid doesn't evaporate.

The braising liquid uses something that's probably been residing, forgotten, in the back of your liquor cabinet since the days of the Nixon administration: sweet red vermouth (used mostly for Manhattans). Vermouth is a wine infused with a concoction of herbs. Combined with thyme and two varieties of mustard, the vermouth creates a lusty sauce for the chicken that packs unbelievable flavor.

So, when you're craving a diet meal that's low in fat and calories, but rich with delicious flavor, try this one. Just about any side dish goes with it, be it baked potatoes or yams, brown rice or steamed veggies.

Need to be away from the kitchen• This dish also can be prepared in a slow cooker. Prepare through the step of adding the vermouth, then, transfer the mixture to a 4- to 5-quart slow cooker. Top with the browned chicken pieces, and add the stock and mushrooms. Cover and cook on high for 3 to 4 hours, or low for 7 to 8 hours. Add the mustards, remaining vermouth and thyme, then cover and cook on high for another 30 minutes.

Braised Chicken With Mushrooms and Mustard

Start to finish: 1 hour (20 minutes active), plus cooling

  • 1 cup fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken stock or broth
  • 20 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 8 small bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 12 pounds total), skinned
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 12 cups chopped, yellow onion
  • 12 cup sweet red vermouth (such as Martini Rossi), divided
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
  • 2 teaspoons lightly chopped, fresh thyme

In a medium-size saucepan over medium-high, combine the chicken stock and mushrooms. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside.

Place the chicken stock and mushrooms in a medium-size bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove and discard the mushroom stems. Cut the mushroom caps in half and return them to the stock.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

In a large Dutch oven or other oven-safe pot, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the chicken, half at a time if necessary, and brown on both sides, for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate, then, add the onions to the pan. Cook over medium heat until the onions are softened, for about 3 minutes. Add half of the vermouth and stir to deglaze the pan.

Return the chicken to the pan, then, add the stock and mushroom mixture. Cover and bring to a simmer.

Transfer the pot to the oven and bake, covered, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

After the chicken is cooked, uncover the pot. Place the pot on a burner over medium heat and add both mustards, the remaining vermouth and the thyme. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly and glazes the chicken.

Divide the chicken among 4 serving plates. Spoon the sauce over and around the chicken.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 338 calories, 9 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 115 milligrams cholesterol, 31 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, 676 milligrams sodium

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