Meatball Stuffed Chicken Thighs Braised in a Tomato and Wine Sauce


On their own, chicken thighs are tasty, but when stuffed with a savory and meaty filling, they become something very special, and suitable for a company meal. 

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1 cup finely chopped cooked spinach with all water squeezed out (see Cook’s Notes)
1 cup soft breadcrumbs, made from about 5 slices day-old bread with crusts removed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 egg, lightly beaten
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 large boneless, skinless chicken thighs (2 ½ to 3 lbs)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
1/2 cup diced fennel bulb
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups crushed tomatoes (from 1 28-oz can, I like Muir Glen)
2 cups (or more) low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound fresh long egg pasta such as linguini, pappardelle or fettuccini
freshly grated Parmesan cheese


  1. To make the stuffing: Combine 1½ cups of the chopped meatballs (reserve the remainder for the sauce), spinach, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, fennel fronds, shallots, garlic and thyme in a medium bowl. Add the egg and mix with a wooden spoon to blend well. Make a very small taster patty and fry in a small skillet over medium heat until lightly browned and cooked through, 3-4 minutes per side. Taste and add salt and pepper to the stuffing if needed. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day ahead.

  2. Arrange chicken thighs smooth side down on a work surface. Fill each with generous 2 to 3 tablespoons stuffing. Tie 2 loops of string around each thigh, enclosing filling and forming cylindrical rolls. Season outside of chicken all over generously with salt and pepper.

  3. In a large heavy, high-sided skillet or Dutch oven, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add the thighs seam-side up, taking care to not overcrowd the pan (if necessary, cook in 2 batches), and fry until golden brown on the first side, about 5 minutes. Turn over and fry until the second side is lightly colored, about 5 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

  4. To make the sauce and finish the dish: Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan. Add the remaining chopped meatballs, onions, carrots, fennel bulb, shallot and garlic and stir up browned bits. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until the vegetables are soft, stirring from time to time, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any remaining browned bits. Continue to boil until the liquid is reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, 2 cups broth, basil and thyme.

  5. Add the thighs to the sauce. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered until the thighs are cooked though and tender, turning from time to time, and adding more broth if the sauce becomes thicker than a pasta sauce, 35-40 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the thighs to a plate. If sauce is not thick enough to coat a spoon, boil over medium-high heat to thicken. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring frequently and adding more broth if too thick.)

  6. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but firm to the bite (al dente), about 3 minutes. Drain well.

  7. Place the pasta in a large shallow serving bowl. Set aside 1 cup of the sauce. Pour the remaining sauce over the pasta and toss the pasta to coat. Arrange the chicken atop the pasta, and spoon the reserved sauce over. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve pasta and 1 or 2 thighs to each person. Pass additional cheese separately to sprinkle over the chicken and pasta

  8. COOK NOTES: For 1 cup chopped, cooked spinach, use 12 oz fresh spinach. Rinse briefly and shake off most of the water. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a very big handful of the spinach with the water still clinging to the leaves to the skillet, and cook and turn with tongs until beginning to wilt, then add another very big handful spinach. Continue turning and adding more spinach until all the spinach is in the pan and has wilted and turned dark green. This will take only a few minutes. Spread the spinach out on a baking sheet to cool. Squeeze the water out of the spinach by handfuls. Chop Finely.  To use frozen chopped spinach, cook a 10-oz package according to the label. Drain and cool. Squeeze out the water by handfuls. Measure 1 cup to use in the recipe. Cooked chard, kale or collard greens make good replacements for the spinach.  To make breadcrumbs, trim the crust from 5 slices of bread. Cut the bread into about 1-inch pieces. Grind to crumbs in a food processor. Any leftover stuffing can be formed into little patties, fried and then added to another pasta sauce or enjoyed as a snack. For an easy family meal, leave out the stuffing and use all the chopped meatballs in the sauce.