Everything but the Cluck
Jim Poris - April 2009
Three chefs find out that you think you know chicken until you're challenged to cook one.
Simple may be the most overtaxed word in the culinary vernacular. How many times do chefs self-defensively proclaim, "I like to keep my dishes simple." Few—make that none—want to be caught with their fussy, technically complex pants down, so to speak. All right then, as simple says, then simple do. Cook a chicken. Simple?
Should any of those death match television cooking shows ever air a one-episode condensed version, chicken will certainly be what the nervous young gladiators parade in front of the Page 6–famous judges. Simply put, there's no food that tests a cook's skills like chicken. The bird's a differentiated piece of work—white meat, dark meat, skin, gizzards—that presents a challenge no matter what cooking method is chosen. That's why Food Arts asked three chefs—Jamie Leeds of CommonWealth in Washington, D.C., and Hank's Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia; Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove in La Jolla, California; and Paul Virant of Vie Restaurant in Western Springs, Illinois--to take a stab at a common food that doesn't get a second thought. (Ah, here's a second thought made for these times: what ever happened to chicken sauté dishes, the whole long list of them? Just wondering.)
For the record, as we say in these Mystery Basket intros, the chefs were given a list of 28 ingredients, of which they were required to cook with at least 21, including two chickens. How to incorporate the others—salt and pepper; garlic; red pearl onions; white wine; celery root; tomato paste; almonds; Idaho potatoes; dried apricots; oyster mushrooms; prosciutto; celery; olive oil; artichokes; leeks; ricotta; all-purpose flour; piquillo peppers; eggs; raisins; yogurt; and any five from an herb/spice list comprised of bay leaves; mint; marjoram; cilantro; saffron; rosemary; thyme; sage; mustard seeds; juniper berries; parsley; tarragon; basil; hot, sweet, or smoked paprika; coriander seeds; cloves; nutmeg; and savory—was left to each chef's discretion.
"I was barely two months into CommonWealth, my new 140 seat gastropub in D.C., when Food Arts rang at the restaurant with a challenge. At the same time, my partner was on the other line, the sous chef had a menu modification for me to try, the bookkeeper was hovering, delivery guys were pounding on the door, and I still had to drop in at my other restaurants, Hank's Oyster Bar in D.C. and another in Alexandria, Virginia. But, c'mon, a Mystery Basket? Who could resist?
"I thought: ‘Everything's under control, and I am taking a vacation over Christmas for a little rest. I'll write it then. That's what we chefs do, push ourselves to the limit, deliver at deadline. It's one of the traits needed to be a good chef. So I started anxiously anticipating what the Mystery Basket would bring. I hoped it would be something really cool and exotic—maybe duck, or quail, or foie gras, or sea urchin… But, no, it was chicken. Chicken!!!???
"As I was thinking what masterful recipe I could come up with, I kept coming back to my absolute favorite way to eat and prepare whole chicken, which is as simple as it gets—roasted on the bone. When I was a sous chef at Union Square Café in New York City, Michael Romano shared with me the secret to making chicken taste great—proper seasoning. Judy Rodgers, who runs my favorite restaurant, Zuni Café in San Francisco, also addresses the importance of properly salting food. And I have passed this information on to all the cooks in my restaurants. I think they wonder: ‘Why doesn't chef check the head cheese or the black pudding as much as she checks the roast chicken?' The answer is that, because it is such a simple dish, if you neglect one step in its preparation, it will taste awful."
Gastropub supper of Scotch eggs, fried prosciutto wrapped chicken livers & garlic/thyme roasted chicken. "Remove the head, feet, and livers from both chickens; set these aside. Season one bird thoroughly with kosher salt, truss it, and place in the walk-in uncovered for 24 hours. To make the Scotch eggs, cook eggs until almost hard-boiled, let cool, and then shell. Bone the unsalted chicken and grind the meat with as much of the fat as possible. Finely chop garlic, leeks, parsley, and thyme; sweat leeks in olive oil until softened; set aside. Combine ground meat with garlic, thyme, leeks, parsley, and salt and freshly ground black pepper. Make two to three ounce very flat patties with the ground chicken to wrap around eggs; envelop each wrapped egg in plastic wrap; refrigerate overnight. At pickup, unwrap the eggs, dip them in egg wash, then flour, and deep-fry in olive oil.
"Next, halve chicken livers and remove any fat and bile. Wrap prosciutto around the livers, securing with a toothpick. Again, at pickup, dip in egg wash and flour and deep-fry in olive oil. For the dipping sauce, soak mustard seeds in white wine overnight. Whisk together egg yolks, olive oil, salt, roasted garlic, a touch of tomato paste, and the drained marinated mustard seeds until emulsified.
"Peel the red pearl onions. Peel and slice celery root and Idaho potatoes. Chop celery. Place whole garlic cloves, celery root, potatoes, celery, chicken feet, bay leaves, oyster mushrooms, dried apricots, picked thyme, whole parsley leaves, coriander seeds, and white wine in a roasting pan; place chicken on top; roast at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes, adding the pearl onions for the last 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the chicken to rest for about 10 minutes or so. Check the vegetables; if they're not done, then roast longer. Discard the feet.
"To serve, halve the eggs and place on a platter with livers and dipping sauce. Plate the root vegetables on a platter; quarter the chicken; place around vegetables; drizzle with pan juices, making sure to have scraped off all the good stuff from the bottom of the pan. To emphasize the ‘pub' part of gastropub, the dish calls for two beers—Samuel Smith Organic Lager from England for the Scotch eggs, because its light citrus notes lend a crisp, refreshing counterpoint to fried foods while its clean, hoppy finish stands up well to the savory sausage coating, and Arran Brewery Arran Blonde Ale from Scotland with the chicken because its subtle, peat-like smokiness complements its earthy, herbal notes."
Western Springs, Illinois
"I was excited to have chicken as the main event! I've informed my wife, Jennifer, that in our next house I will have a chicken coop! Urban/suburban chicken farmers are becoming more prevalent. The world would be a better place if every chicken eater across the globe could only consume naturally and truly pasture-raised chicken. As this is not the case, most people don't prepare chicken well and don't give it the credit it deserves.
"The versatility of this ingredient is remarkable. At Vie, we've done multiple variations incorporating the whole bird. One of my personal favorites is the ballotine—making sausage out of the breast and stuffing it into the boned-out leg/thigh, wrapping it all with our own bacon, poaching, and then roasting it. So, this would be the start of our dish, except pork fatback was not one of the ingredients, which is imperative in the farce. My sous chef, Nathan Sears, suggested a Swedish-style sausage using mashed potato instead of pork fat to keep the sausage moist.
"The ingredients posed an obvious challenge, with the list containing a number of items capable of standing on their own. I felt the best approach was to group the ingredients that work well together and eliminate the rest. I looked toward southern European food with North African accents for inspiration.
Gunthorp Farm chicken ballotine: La Quercia prosciutto, potato sausage, crispy skin, braised leeks & pearl onions, raisin/artichoke aigre-doux, piquillo pepper sabayon. "Bone both chickens, separating the breasts from the legs and thighs. Remove the skin from the breasts; place on a half sheet pan lined with parchment paper; season with salt and pepper; cover with parchment paper; place another half sheet pan on top; roast at 300 degrees until the skin is crisp. Bone the legs and thighs; reserve. Roast all the bones, including the heads, feet, and gizzards, for a stock. When the bones are about finished, add leeks, a split head of garlic, celery, and tomato paste; continue roasting; deglaze with white wine—in this case Riesling—and transfer to a stockpot. Cover the bones with water; bring to a boil; skim; reduce heat to medium; add thyme, sage, flat leaf parsley, sweet smoked paprika, bay leaves, and golden raisins to provide sweetness; simmer five hours.
"Make a sausage mixture with the breast meat—including the oysters and the livers—Idaho potato puree, roasted garlic, thyme, sage, parsley, sweet smoked paprika, and golden raisins softened in Riesling. Stuff the four sets of boneless leg and thigh with the sausage mixture; wrap each ballotine with La Quercia prosciutto from Iowa; roll in plastic wrap and then foil; poach for four hours at 140 degrees. Strain stock and reduce for the jus.
"To prepare the aigre-doux, clean some whole, trimmed baby artichokes and poach in water acidulated with white wine until tender; when done, squeeze out the water and cut in half. Using a generous amount of olive oil, sweat some raisins and the artichokes; add some sage and sweet smoked paprika; deglaze with some high acid white wine like a Sauvignon Blanc; finish with a generous pinch of parsley. Brown some leeks and red pearl onions in olive oil; add some thyme; deglaze with Riesling, add the reduced stock; and braise until tender.
"Unwrap the ballotines; brown in olive oil; roast in the oven until cooked through. For the sabayon, place egg yolks, minced piquillo peppers first roasted with thyme and olive oil, a pinch of the paprika, and Riesling in a bowl set over simmering water; whisk until it thickens; remove from the heat; fold in some ricotta. To plate, halve each ballotine on a bias, place just off center on a large flat plate; finish the braised alliums with some extra-virgin olive oil; strew the chunky jus over half of the ballotine and the sabayon over the other half; add a generous spoonful of the aigre-doux to the side of ballotine; garnish the dish with the crispy skin. Open a bottle of Betts & Scholl Riesling Eden Valley Australia 2007, and you're all set".
George's at the Cove
La Jolla, California
"The white meat. The everyday meat: industrially farmed, artisanally raised, black chicken, funky chicken, blue footed, you walk like a chicken, you act like a chicken, it tastes like chicken. Fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken potpie, chicken cordon bleu. Which came first? Why did it cross the road? Poach, fry, stew, roast, brine, grill, barbecue. Paillard. A chicken in every pot. Spring chicken. Cocks' combs, chicken skin, the wing bone, Buffalo wings, the wishbone, the oyster, chicken salad, the magical egg.
"All this crossed my mind as I drove home from work one night, because with chicken as the base ingredient, I was trying to give myself some direction for this Mystery Basket. As I'm sure it's happened with everyone who's agreed to participate in this exercise, I'm finding out that it's proving more challenging than expected. What it boiled down to for me was figuring out what it is we love about chicken and how to include the other ingredients in the outcome.
"As my kitchen crew and I contemplated this most ordinary and yet extraordinary of animals, it made us focus on all the clichés, all the classics, all the options. Chicken is the most versatile meat, the most eaten meat in the world. We love chicken poached, we love chicken roasted, we love crispy skin, we love the egg by itself and all the things we can do with it, we love the oyster. Once, chickens were raised primarily for their eggs, with the meat a useful by-product. So we started with the egg, and everything else fell together very naturally.
"Although the egg was not the main ingredient, we knew we had to use it in a way that made sense as a showcase for the bird itself. Since I wanted to cook a skinless breast sous-vide, the dish would be missing the skin. Aha! Let's use the egg as a vehicle for the skin! Let's wrap a poached egg in the skin and fry it! Delicious!
"Next, the leg meat. Should we do some kind of forcemeat? Not really our style. We will need stock, so let's make stock first with one of the chickens, pick the meat, and chop it. Ravioli filling? Stuffed gnocchi? Mix the meat with ricotta, dried apricot, raisins, parsley, and nutmeg and use it for what? Leeks! Let's braise a leek, then stuff it with the ricotta mixture, and then roast it. Someone tossed out the idea of frying the oyster. Can we find a place for it?
"Do the breast sous-vide? Poached chicken breast dangers: too bland and dry with a mushy texture. How about saltimbocca? Let's stuff it with sage and garlic, cook it in the bag with olive oil, then crust it with prosciutto, piquillo peppers, and almonds. All right, we are on to something now.
Which came first? "Remove the head from one of the chickens and discard; rinse and dry the chicken; place in a pot with garlic, celery, bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper; cover with water; bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium; simmer one hour. When cooked remove the chicken, let cool, peel off the skin; discard. Remove the meat, chop fine, and chill. Pour some of the warm chicken stock over some raisins to plump; drain. Mix the chopped meat into ricotta, minced dried apricots, the raisins, chopped parsley, and grated nutmeg; season. Trim leeks down to the whites, about four inches long; rinse well; braise in some of the chicken stock until softened; remove from the stock; push the center out so you have a cylinder of leek; chop the insides of the leek; add to the chicken/ricotta mixture. Place the chicken/ricotta mixture into a pastry bag; pipe into the leek cylinders; reserve.
"Gently poach an egg; chill it in an ice bath. Remove the skin from the other chicken by cutting along the backbone and then carefully pulling and cutting the skin off in one piece. Lay the skin out and scrape the fat from the skin with the back of a knife. Place the poached egg on the skin and pull the skin up and around the egg and hold together with a metal paper clip. Trim the excess skin and reserve the skin wrapped egg.
"Cut a breast off the raw skinless chicken, keeping the wing bone on. Thinly slice prosciutto and dry in a low oven until crisp. Use a thin boning knife to make a slit in the chicken breast running from the wing bone to about half-way to the other end of the breast; place a sage leaf and two slices of garlic in the opening; season with salt and white pepper; place the breast in a plastic food bag; add about three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil to the bag; vacuum seal; poach in a water bath one hour at 148 degrees; remove from the water bath; let rest in the bag several minutes; remove the chicken breast from the bag. While it's resting, finely mince the dried prosciutto, some piquillo peppers, and some Marcona almonds; mix together with some chopped parsley. Brush the breast with a bit of beaten egg yolk and press firmly into the prosciutto mixture until well crusted.
"OK, so far we have a chicken skin-wrapped poached egg, sous-vide chicken breast stuffed with sage and garlic and crusted with prosciutto, piquillo peppers, and almonds, and a stuffed leek. Let's count ingredients. Fourteen? That's all?! Are you kidding?
"Moving on, peel some celery root; cut it into small dice. Toast some mustard seeds in a dry pan; add white wine; simmer until dry. Sauté the celery root in olive oil until brown and tender; place in a small bowl; toss in some of the mustard seeds and a chiffonade of parsley.
"For the sauce, chop the bones from the raw chicken; brown them in olive oil; add one tablespoon of tomato paste, two cups white wine to deglaze, and then one gallon reserved chicken stock; simmer two hours; strain. Slice oyster mushrooms; caramelize in a pot with olive oil and some cracked pepper; deglaze with two cups white wine; reduce by 75 percent; add the roasted chicken stock; simmer until reduced by two-thirds. Place the sauce in a blender; blend until completely smooth; pass through a strainer; finish with chopped tarragon and some extra-virgin olive oil.
"The leek is delicious, but it needs a sauce, perhaps just a bit of yogurt is all. The breast is great the way it is; let's try not to complicate an already maxed out dish. The plate needs a bit of color and the breast needs just something light—a piquillo pepper oil made by simply blending some roasted piquillos with olive oil will do the trick. No place for the oysters so I guess we'll have to eat them.
"To plate: place the crusted chicken breast in the oven to heat through and crisp. In a small skillet sauté the stuffed leek in a bit of olive oil until nicely caramelized. Place the skin wrapped egg in a deep fryer set at 350 degrees for a few minutes until crispy and light brown. Reheat the hash if necessary. At 12 o'clock place a bit of yogurt on the plate and top with the leek. At 4 o'clock make a smear of the mushroom sauce and place a small pile of the celery root hash on top; place the fried egg on top of the hash; season with salt and pepper. At 8 o'clock place the crusted chicken breast; drizzle a bit of the piquillo oil around. Whew! Need a drink. Our sommelier, Dan Chapman, says the Paul Autard Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2006, made from a third each Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne, will go down smoothly. It's well suited to stand up to the bold combination of ingredients that support the chicken breast. It smells of peaches, honey, and roasted nuts. It has a full-body, supported by moderate oak, with a slight savory flavor and bitter almond finish. The ripe-fruit aroma and Mediterranean-inspired taste of this wine complements the strong flavors of sage, prosciutto, dried fruit, and piquillo peppers, while the rich and smooth mouthfeel matches the creamy texture of the chicken/ricotta stuffed leeks."