Tell a person you want stew chicken and you'll likely get a different dish depending on who you're talking to. That's because there are stew chicken dishes across the African diaspora, and while methods and ingredients might change, they all evoke deep emotions. I caused a bit of an uproar a few years back when I took a picture of my version and put it on Twitter. I had people from all across the world calling me every name under the sun because what I'd labeled "stew chicken" didn't look like what they were used to. The truth, though, is that stewed chicken dishes are found everywhere there is a chicken.
What we call “stew chicken” in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, where I'm from, features a slow-cooked bird smothered in a savory brown gravy, served hot over grits or rice. While others might call it soup-like in consistency, it's a stew to us; made with a roux, it has a deeply flavored but light-bodied sauce. The smell of the chicken cooking on the stove with its spices, herbs, and aromatic vegetables feels like a warm hug. A big enough bowl would fill you up for days; it’s food that sticks to your bones. My granny, and many grannies across the South, served up this dish as comfort food—if you know, you know.
At first, I was annoyed by how many people were trying to correct me on Twitter, but I was also happy to see just how many people were willing to learn more about a dish that looked almost like theirs and had a similar name, and how excited so many people were to share their own memories of the version they’d grown up eating. For many in the Caribbean, for example, "stew chicken" should be a dark, braised dish that uses burnt sugar or browning sauce to deepen the flavor and color. But for the stewed-down chicken that I’m used to, we skip those caramel-colored ingredients, searing the meat and any additional vegetables instead and using the brown fond that forms on the bottom of the pot for a flavorful but lighter-colored gravy.
Now, the recipe I give here isn’t exactly what my grandmother or most people's grandmas would make—it’s a li'l gussied up. All the feelings of comfort are still there, with just a little extra flavor. Traditionally, these stewed chicken dishes in the South were made with hens that were a bit older, cooking away on the stove all day so the tough meat could become tender; the long simmering also produced a greater depth of flavor .
Because most chickens sold today are younger and more tender, my recipe cuts down on the lengthier cooking times common in older recipes, so it’s ready in about an hour. I've also chosen to use just the legs instead of the whole bird, as they hold up well to stewing without drying out. To make up for some of the complexity those older birds would have given this dish, I add lots of herbs, cook down my onion, and make a rich roux to add a bit more depth.
I otherwise keep it simple, with aromatics like onions and celery forming much of the gravy's flavor base. Bell peppers, mushrooms, and other vegetables can be added, too, but I wouldn’t overthink or over-complicate things—this is a dish that should be pretty hands-off and simple to make.
Season chicken all over with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chicken, skin side down, and cook until well browned, about 6 minutes. Using tongs, turn chicken and cook on opposite sides until browned, about 5 minutes longer. Remove from heat and transfer chicken to a platter. Set aside.
Reduce heat to medium, add onion and celery, and cook, stirring to prevent scorching, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil along with the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until peanut butter or darker in color, 3-5 minutes. While stirring vigorously, slowly add the stock. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then boil until slightly thickened, about 1 minute.
Reduce heat to medium, then stir in garlic powder, onion powder, ground sage, ground oregano, and smoked paprika. Add the chicken pieces and return liquid to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook, gently stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and beginning to fall from the bone and the sauce is reduced to a thick and silky texture, about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Serve over rice, grits, or pasta.
Water is a great substitute when you’re out of stock.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The prepared stew chicken can be refrigerated for up to 5 days; reheat gently to serve.