Chicken is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.
--Brillat-Savarin, 18th century French gastronome
Picture the dinner party of the '80s: A canvas by Gustav Klimt -- rich, lush and exotic, with surreal, even disturbing, combinations.
Now picture an evening meal for friends in the '90s: A scene by Edward Hopper -- all clear, plain light with straight angles, and simple fare.
Dump the duck ravioli and bag the champagne zabaglione. Scratch off Donald Trump and concoct a toast to Harry Truman. It's not that hard times are here again, but hosts and hostesses all across the economic spectrum are thinking less of money and more of responsibility, less of indulgence and more of health, less of style and more of comfort, less of fads and more of 'D familiar tastes.
In short, it's time for chicken.
But not just any chicken. Company chicken. Chicken with oomph. International chicken. Faye Levy's chicken.
Ms. Levy, a French-trained chef and author of 10 cookbooks who has just published the "Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook" (Warner Books, $29.95), with more than 300 recipes for chicken, says chicken is a natural for entertaining.
"First of all, you can prepare it by a lot of different cooking techniques," she noted in a recent interview. Some are simple techniques that home cooks may not think of, but which offer special advantages when cooking for guests.
"I really like braising," she said, because the technique produces such an intense chicken flavor. "You can do it completely ahead -- for entertaining, that's really useful," she said.
As she explains in the book, "For braising, the chicken is first browned in a little bit of oil or butter, so it gains an appealing color. Browning also melts some of the fat under the skin, which can then be poured off, resulting in a leaner dish."
While health-conscious Americans are leaping on the chicken bandwagon with enthusiasm (consumption is expected to reach pounds per person in 1992, up from 50.5 pounds 10 years ago, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Broiler Council), we are not the first and may quite possibly be the last culture to do so.
The "international" in the title of Ms. Levy's book reflects chicken's prominent place in many of the world's cuisines. "It seems that people everywhere have developed delicious chicken recipes," Ms. Levy said. "Whenever I meet someone who's from an exotic country, I try to find out how they cook chicken. I'm lucky to have relatives from all over the world, and I've learned a lot from them."
Ms. Levy, who studied and worked at La Varenne in Paris and lived in Israel for many years, now lives in Los Angeles. All are places where cultures, and their cuisines, meet and mingle, she said. She's discovered that the main difference in chicken dishes around the world is not in techniques, which tend to be the same -- grilled, roasted, sauteed, braised or poached -- but in the "flavor notes," or groups of seasonings that are central to a particular region.
For instance, she said, there is the "holy trio" from the Mediterranean: olive oil, garlic and tomato. Or the Mexican style: tomato, cilantro and chilis. In Poland, onions and dill are universal seasonings; in Hungary, sauteed tomatoes, onion and bell pepper are.
"My mother-in-law, who's from Yemen, cooks everything, including chicken, with cumin, turmeric and black pepper," Ms. Levy said. "If you make a mix of those spices and rub them on the chicken before roasting, it smells wonderful and comes out a wonderful golden color.
"You can use these seasoning styles with all sorts of chicken dishes," she said. "Even salads."
If it all sounds very easy, she means it to. "So many delicious dishes can be made without being complicated," she said. "Those dishes can be left to chefs and restaurants. And just because something is complicated doesn't mean it tastes better."
She worked on the book for about two years -- not counting the 20 or so years before that when she was studying cooking techniques and gathering chicken recipes for her own collection. "I tried to show all the major cooking techniques, and to show dishes from all the major cuisines -- and all the others I could find out about," she said.
"People ask me, 'Didn't you ever get sick of chicken?' But I didn't -- the dishes are all so different," she said, and she laughs. "Even my husband didn't get tired of it."
Ms. Levy's book includes a section on seasonings around the world and notes on pairing poultry with wine. There are also tips on buying, storing and handling poultry, and chapters on basic recipes and cooking techniques.
Here are three recipes from the book that would make entertaining an easy and elegant proposition -- not to mention delicious.
This first dish is ideal for entertaining when time is at a premium. Both the sauce and the chicken can be prepared ahead of time, then gently heated through as the fettucine is cooking. Ms. Levy says she prefers using boneless chicken thighs when reheating, as the breasts may dry out. She also says this sauce is a good way to use leftover chicken or turkey, cut in strips; and the sauce can be served over rice as well as the pasta suggested here.
Chicken in sun-dried tomato cream sauce
1/2 cup dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 cup chicken stock or low-salt broth, divided use
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound boneless and skinless chicken breast halves
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, or 2 teaspoons dried, crumbled
8 ounces fettucine
Snip tomatoes into bite-sized pieces. Melt butter in saucepan over low heat, add garlic, and cook for 30 seconds. Add 3/4 cup stock and tomatoes and bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, over medium heat about 10 minutes or until tomatoes are tender. Add cream and bring to a boil, stirring. Simmer over medium heat until sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. (Sauce can be kept, covered, 1 day in refrigerator. Reheat over low heat.)
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and saute, pressing on chicken occasionally with slotted spatula, about 4 minutes per side or until meat feels springy and is no longer pink inside; cut to check. Transfer to a board, cover and keep warm.
Discard fat from skillet. Add remaining stock and bring to a boil, stirring up pan juices. Boil to reduce slightly; then add to sauce. Stir in basil; taste and adjust seasoning.
Meanwhile, cook pasta, uncovered, in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 1 to 2 minutes for fresh or 3 to 5 minutes for dried fettucine, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, transfer to a bowl and toss with 3 or 4 tablespoons of the sauce.
Cut chicken breast into 2 or 3 diagonal slices. Reheat gently in sauce if needed. Transfer pasta to plates, top with chicken and coat with sauce.
The mushroom mixture in this next dish can be prepared ahead of time; once it's pounded, the meat takes only minutes to prepare. The combination of thin, delicate chicken and savory mushrooms makes this an elegant dish. Rice, couscous or small roasted potatoes would be a good accompaniment with a crisp green salad.
Ms. Levy notes in her introduction to the recipe that paillardes are also good grilled. "To help control the brief cooking time of the chicken," she writes, "I find that a ridged stovetop grill pan is better than a broiler or outdoor grill."
Chicken paillardes with porcini mushrooms
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 tablespoons ( 1/4 stick) butter
3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 large shallots, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
4 boneless and skinless chicken breast halves (6 to 7 ounces each)
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon cornstarch, potato starch, or arrowroot
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cold water
1/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
Soak mushrooms in enough hot water to cover them for 30 minutes. Rinse mushrooms and cut any large pieces in half.
Heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a large, heavy skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 15 minutes. Add mushrooms, half the chopped shallots, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Mixture can be kept, covered, 1 day in refrigerator.
Trim chicken of fat, cartilage and tendons. Pound pieces one by one between 2 pieces plastic wrap or waxed paper until 1/4 -inch thick, using a flat meat pounder or a rolling pin. Carefully peel off wrap or paper.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in another heavy, large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 pieces chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Saute about 2 minutes per side, or until chicken's color changes throughout; cut with a small sharp knife to check. Transfer chicken pieces to a platter, arrange side by side, and keep them warm in low oven. Saute remaining chicken, adding more oil if needed. If oil in pan turns brown, reduce heat. Transfer cooked chicken to platter.
In a cup, mix tomato paste, cornstarch and water to a smooth paste. Reheat mushroom mixture. Discard fat from skillet. Add wine and remaining shallots to skillet and bring to a boil, stirring. Add stock and bring to a boil. Add tomato paste mixture, stirring constantly. Simmer 1 or 2 minutes or until thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve chicken with mushroom mixture. Coat chicken with sauce and sprinkle with parsley.
The last recipe uses the braising technique. Ms. Levy notes in the introduction to the recipe that, "This rich-tasting chicken in its deep brown wine sauce bears a certain resemblance to the French coq au vin and Burgundian chicken, . . . but the raisins and the touch of cinnamon give this Greek chicken a different, delicately sweet-and-sour flavor." She suggests serving it with boiled potatoes or rice. It can also be made as far ahead as two days and reheated before serving.
Greek chicken with red wine
1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups baby (pearl) onions
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken pieces, patted dry
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2/3 cup chicken stock or broth
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Put baby onions in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil 1 minute. Drain in strainer and rinse under cold water. Peel with aid of a paring knife; carefully cut off root, pull off peel gently, then cut off any stringy stems.
Heat oil in a large, deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Sprinkle chicken lightly with salt and pepper on all sides. Brown on all sides in batches, taking about 7 minutes for leg and thigh pieces, about 5 minutes for breast pieces. Set on a plate, using a slotted spoon.
Add baby onions and saute about 3 minutes, shaking pan to turn them over, until lightly browned in spots. Remove with slotted spoon. Discard excess fat, leaving 1 tablespoon in pan.
Add garlic to pan and saute over low heat a few seconds. Stir in flour and cook 30 seconds, stirring, until bubbling. Add wine, stirring until smooth and scraping in brown juices. Bring to a simmer. Stir in tomato paste. Add chicken stock, cinnamon, cumin seeds, bay leaf and raisins. Mix well.
Return leg and thigh pieces to skillet. Add baby onions. Arrange breast and wing pieces on top. Add chicken juices from plate. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes, or until breast pieces are tender when pierced with a knife; turn pieces once to coat with sauce. Transfer them to a platter and keep warm. Cook remaining chicken and onions about 10 minutes, or until all are tender. Add leg and thigh pieces to platter. Remove bay leaf, skim as much fat as possible from sauce.
Chicken can be kept in sauce, covered, 2 days in refrigerator. Reheat in covered skillet; remove chicken pieces.
Add sugar to sauce; taste sauce and adjust seasoning; if flavor is too acid, add a pinch more sugar, remembering that raisins will give a hint of sweetness. Spoon sauce over chicken.