Food & Drink | March 4, 2022 12:24 pm

A Highfalutin, Houstonian Way to Turn Chicken Thighs Into Something Special

A date-night recipe courtesy of d'Alba chef Geoff Hundt

Chef Geoff Hundt's confit chicken thighs.
Chef Geoff Hundt's confit chicken thighs.
Becca Wright

Want to solve the problem of dry chicken forever? Then why not slow-cook it in an aromatic bath of canola oil, herbs and spices? Houstonian chef Geoff Hundt does just that.

“I wanted to elevate the chicken in a style that was both flavorful but not as simple as roasting or braising,” says Hundt, who is the chef at d’Alba. “Cooking the chicken in oil instead of liquid also helps with being able to get the skin very crispy when searing it or roasting it, to finish the chicken.”

After an overnight marinade with herbs and aromatics, the chicken is wholly submerged in canola oil and cooked in a 300-degree oven for three hours. Emerging fully cooked and richly flavorful, all it needs is a quick trip through a hot oven or frying pan to crisp up that skin just before serving. The resulting dish affords the perfect combination of creativity and humble goodness — par for the course at d’Alba, which is known for its creative approaches to comfort-food classics. It’s a philosophy inspired in large part by Hundt’s work with Houston’s own Monica Pope, occasionally dubbed the “Alice Waters of the Third Coast.”

“For me as a young cook — seems like a different life ago — this was truly different than anything anyone else was doing at the time,” he says of Pope’s Texas-centric locavore approach. “I adopted this philosophy and [it] became part of how I cook.”

Perhaps the only step of this recipe that may make home cooks balk is the use of plastic wrap under tin foil during that long bake. But don’t worry, this is a common cheffy trick used to keep things moist, and it’s been proven to be safe, as long as certain precautions are followed like keeping the temperature low and keeping the plastic from coming into contact with the food.

The innate simplicity of the dish may also be familiar to those who share the chef’s affinity for Italian cooking, a love that only deepened, to hear him tell it, after time spent cooking in Tuscany.

“Traditionally I’m probably an Italian chef,” he muses. “Most come from a French background, which can be fussy. Italian food is simple, soulful.”

It’s an apt description for this dish, which, despite the French technique at its core, is served with accoutrements bearing hallmark Italian flavors. The sweet-and-sour pepper conserva is made with a rich combination of bell peppers, onion and tomato seasoned with mustard seeds, vinegar and sugar. The sweet-and-savory combination’s kick of acidity provides the ideal counterpoint for the rich chicken and crispy fried potatoes.

Hundt’s philosophy and flavors are more than welcome in Houston’s Garden Oaks neighborhood, of which the chef himself is a resident. The Long Beach, CA native isn’t just proud to be serving his own community, but Houston at large, which he says he “one hundred percent believes” rivals the culture of his native West Coast.

“Here you can eat your way around the entire globe on a regular basis,” he says. “Houston chefs cook what they want, what they’re passionate about. There aren’t any borders anymore, and the city’s food has blossomed because of it.”

Chef Geoff Hundt's Confit Chicken Thighs with Smashed Red Potatoes and Pepper Conserva.
Chef Geoff Hundt’s Confit Chicken Thighs with Smashed Red Potatoes and Pepper Conserva.
Becca Wright

Confit Chicken Thighs with Smashed Red Potatoes and Pepper Conserva

For the chicken

  • 8 bone-in chicken thighs
  • 5 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2½ teaspoons ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon dried ground chile flakes
  • 1¼ teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1¼ teaspoons onion powder 
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 grams (about 2 tablespoons) whole fresh thyme leaves
  • Canola oil, for confit

For the conserva

  • 1 pound red bell peppers, seeds removed, medium dice
  • 1 pound green bell peppers, seeds removed, medium dice
  • ⅔ pound red onion, small dice
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • ⅓ ounce fresh thyme, tied with string
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
  • ⅓ cup tomato paste
  • ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons olive oil

For the potatoes

  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • ½ bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon celery salt
  • 2½ tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 2 pounds red potatoes

Toss the chicken with all of the remaining ingredients to marinade. Cover and chill overnight.

The next day, when ready to cook, preheat the oven to 300º F. Transfer the chicken into a baking dish, and add enough canola oil to cover completely (the exact amount will depend on the size of your baking dish). Cover with plastic wrap followed by foil. Braise the chicken for three hours.

Meanwhile, for the conserva, heat the oil in a medium saucepot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook until caramelized. Add the bell peppers, thyme, mustard seeds and bay leaf. Cook until the peppers are soft. Add the tomato paste and cook until caramelized. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to cook for five more minutes. Check for salt and pepper, and set aside until ready to use.

Meanwhile, for the potatoes, combine all of the ingredients in a large stock pot, and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then immediately cut the heat. Set aside until ready to use.

After three hours, remove the chicken from the oven and allow the chicken to cool in the oil. Remove the chicken from the oil and place on a rack set over a roasting pan to allow any excess oil to drip off. Cool and strain the oil; it can be reused three times. 

When ready to serve, place the chicken on the rack in a 400º F oven to heat through and crisp the skin. Meanwhile, remove the potatoes from the water, and crush by hand. In a tabletop fryer or large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the frying oil to 350º F. Fry the potatoes until golden brown. Set aside on paper towels to drain, and season with salt and pepper. Serve a mound of potatoes topped with chicken and conserva. You can also add a bit of sautéed spinach if you like!