Ashley Phillips is an associate editor at Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House. Originally from Mississippi, she’s lived in New York City since 2008 and loves exploring the city’s restaurants, cooking and baking for friends, and running the loop around Central Park.

Finally, Alex Guarnaschelli’s first cookbook, Old School Comfort Food, (Clarkson Potter, April 2013) is out! I’ve been excited for this book, both because she’s a super talented chef and her upbringing sounds like one big cooking play land (her mother is a well-known cookbook editor, thus their home was centered on the kitchen), and because the dishes are irresistible. Her “old-school,” personal recipes in this book exhibit the scope of her skills and experience, while also hitting that soft spot in each of us where food is comfort.

1_spice mix for rice pilaf

A couple of weekends ago, I invited some friends to dinner and chose two of Alex’s recipes for the meal: Braised Chicken Legs and Thighs with Ginger and Tomato, and My Favorite Rice Pilaf. For a while now, I’ve been really into savory recipes that call for spices such as cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom, as well as fresh ginger and garlic, and these dishes certainly scratched that itch. One of the best things, too, is that, while the recipes call for whole spices, you don’t need a spice grinder. The green cardamom is the only one you have to do anything to: put a little pressure on the green pod, the sides will pop open, and you take the little black seeds out, discarding the pod.

4_chicken browning in pan

First things first, I put the rice into a bowl of water. Alex says that whenever she works with basmati rice, she soaks it for at least 30 minutes. I’d never heard that before, but heaven knows I need help in the rice department, so I was intrigued by her tip. I think I ended up soaking it for more like an hour, distracted by other things. (Spoiler alert: it worked perfectly!! No burning whatsoever.)

Then, I got going on the chicken. The process is very simple: brown the chicken, caramelize the onions, stew it all together without the chicken, add the chicken to finish. Make sure you give proper time to each step, because the magic is in flavor development. The more the onions caramelize, the deeper their flavor. The more thoroughly you reduce the wine and cook down the tomatoes, the richer the sauce.

5_onions cooking in pan

11_chicken added to pan

While the chicken finished up, I started the rice. Alex says that lightly toasting the spices in the oven “awaken[s] the flavors” before cooking, and you could tell how much more fragrant they were afterward. The rice didn’t take long to make, and it was neat to watch cook, as the rice sort of bubbled up in a ring as it absorbed the liquid.

Everything was a hit! This meal was one of those where you can’t believe how tasty everything is. The braised chicken and rice really are perfect matches; if you’re tempted to skip the pilaf recipe and serve with plain rice, please don’t! Well, I’m sure it would taste good, but the pilaf is worth the extra attention (it’s really not hard work!).

13_rice done and fluffed up

Braised Chicken Legs and Thighs with Ginger and Tomato
Recipe from Old-School Comfort Food by Alex Guarnaschelli
Serves 6 to 8

3 tablespoons canola oil
6 large whole skin-on chicken legs, thighs and drumsticks separated
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 large white onions (about 1¾ pounds total), halved and thinly sliced
1 (2-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated (1 tablespoon)
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 cinnamon stick
2 dried bay leaves
2 cups dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Brown the chicken: Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. Arrange the chicken in a single layer on a baking sheet and season the pieces with salt and half of the red pepper flakes. Turn the pieces on their other side and season with more salt and the remaining red pepper flakes. When the oil begins to smoke lightly, carefully add the pieces to the oil. Do not overcrowd the pan; work in batches if necessary. Resist the temptation to move or turn the chicken and allow the pieces to brown on their first side, 5 to 8 minutes. Use tongs to flip the pieces over and brown, 3 to 5 minutes more. Transfer the chicken pieces to a large plate or baking sheet.

2. Make the sauce: In the same skillet, strain off the oil and wipe out any burnt bits. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to smoke lightly, add the cumin and stir rapidly to give the seeds a quick roast, 5 seconds. Add the onions. Season with salt and cook, stirring frequently, until they turn light brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and add the cinnamon and bay leaves. Pour in the white wine and gently boil until reduced by half to allow the raw taste of the alcohol to cook out before adding any other ingredients, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and simmer to allow the flavors to come together, 10 minutes.

3. Cook the chicken: Add about 1 cup water to the skillet and arrange the chicken pieces in the sauce. Use a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes. Keep the heat low and simmer until the pieces are cooked through and the meat can be pulled off with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick or begins to stick to the bottom of the skillet, add a little more water. If it’s too thin, transfer the chicken to a tray, bring the sauce to a boil, and simmer to the desired consistency. Stir the butter into the sauce. Return the chicken to the sauce, if need be. Discard the cinnamon and bay leaves before serving.

My Favorite Rice Pilaf
Recipe from Old-School Comfort Food by Alex Guarnaschelli
Serves 8 to 10

2 cups basmati rice
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 green cardamom pods, lightly
crushed, black seeds removed, pods discarded
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
12 whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 bay leaves
1 large red onion, finely diced (about 12 ounces)
Kosher salt

1. Preheat the oven to 250ºF.

2. Prepare the rice: Put the rice in a strainer and rinse quickly in cold water. Put the rice in a bowl, add 4 cups cold water, and let soak for 30 minutes.

3. Make the spice mix: On a rimmed baking sheet, combine the cumin, cardamom, fennel, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Put in the center of the oven to lightly toast the spices and awaken the flavors, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan and allow the spices to cool.

4. Cook the rice: Heat a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter, bay leaves, and onion. Season with salt and cook until the onion is translucent but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the spices. Drain the rice but reserve the soaking water. Stir in the rice and cook for 2 minutes, until you hear it crackling. Lower the heat if needed. Then add the reserved water. Stir gently. Season with a generous portion of salt and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Cook the rice over medium-low heat, uncovered and undisturbed, for about 8 minutes. Take a fork (so as not to damage the rice) and flake a few grains off and taste for doneness. It may need another 2 to 4 minutes until cooked. Remove from the heat and allow the rice to rest for 10 minutes before fluffing it gently into a bowl and serving. Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon if desired.