The French have a mad zeal for codification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the seemingly simple task of cooking chicken.
They have the saut, wherein the bird is browned in butter, then removed to a plate while the sauce is prepared separately, before the whole thing is brought together - briefly, never at a boil - before serving. And they have chicken tuve, always cooked with plenty of liquid and no browning.
In between, there's the cocotte, which is like a saut, except that ++ the chicken is cooked in a covered pot (a cocotte). The all-but-forgotten poele is a lot like a cocotte, except that the chicken is cooked on a bed of vegetables.
Then they've got the fricassee family, made by cooking browned chicken (how brown it is and the type of stock and wine determine whether it is a light or a dark fricassee) in liquid until very tender, then binding that liquid with a combination of egg yolks and cream. The blanquette, a first cousin, is the same thing except that the chicken is brought slowly to a simmer in cold stock, giving a more delicate flavor.
Thanks to the French, we have a thousand names for chicken, but I have absolutely no idea what to call the bird I made the other night. If forced to follow French terminology, I suppose I'd call it a modern kind of dark fricassee - one that favors direct flavor rather than richness.
But I prefer to think of it as that prototypically American dish, the smother. That name doesn't have an Escoffier pedigree, and I'm afraid to look it up in the old Larousse for fear there would be some graphic details on a superior means of slaughter.
This is not to say that smothered chicken has no history. In fact, this recipe somewhat resembles one described under the heading "To Smother Young Chickens" in Lettice Bryan's "The Kentucky Housewife," published in 1839 and now available in a facsimile edition from Food Heritage Press, 978-356-8306.
I think it's time for the smother to come back into its own. If I were French and forced to codify the preparation of a smother, it would go something like this: Meat is lightly coated with flour, then browned. Seasoning vegetables are added and lightly cooked. A moderate amount of liquid is added and everything is cooked, loosely covered, until the meat is quite tender. If desired, other garnishing vegetables can be added when the cooking is almost complete.
What you wind up with is meat that is dead tender (perhaps a bad choice of words, given the name), in a lightly thickened, deeply flavored sauce. Considering the flexibility in seasoning vegetables and cooking medium (stock, wine, water), there are hundreds of possible variations.
The fixed rules for success are these:
* Make sure the pieces are thoroughly but lightly floured. The flour browns nicely, giving a good deep flavor, but too much will turn to a gluey mess when the liquid is added. Bang the floured pieces together, pat them with your hands, knock them against the side of the bowl, do whatever it takes to make sure that only the thinnest coating adheres.
* Brown the pieces slowly. That is what makes for a deeply flavored sauce. It might seem that it's taking too long, but at 10 minutes per side, you'll wind up with perfectly golden chicken, ready to braise. Note: That's golden, not dark brown. You don't want to overcook the chicken or it will be tough. When you're braising it, make sure it doesn't cook too quickly, either. If you rush it, the chicken will get tough rather than tender.
* Pay attention to how you stack the chicken. Dark meat always goes in the bottom, to cook in the liquid. White meat always goes on top, out of the liquid but in the steam so it won't dry out. Poultry purists will go so far as to say that chicken white meat should never be cooked in a fricassee, stew or, presumably, smother, only the dark. But I've got two white meat lovers in my house, so I'm obligated. If you're not so encumbered, feel free to use just dark meat.
* Cover the pot during the braising, but leave the lid slightly askew. This encourages a slow evaporation, thickening and strengthening the sauce, and it bleeds off steam, keeping the white meat from overcooking (or, more accurately, lessening the amount it overcooks).
* Don't be tempted to add more liquid than is called for. Depending on how wide your pan is, you may not even be able to see the two cups of wine once they're added. Don't worry about it. It's there. With this amount of liquid, you'll wind up with a perfect sauce - just barely thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Because, of course, you don't want to take that smothering thing too literally.
Smothered Chicken With Fennel and Green Olives
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 tablespoons butter
3 slices bacon, cut in 1-inch squares
2 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chickens
1/2 cup flour
1/2 pound onions, thinly sliced
1 pound fennel bulb
2 cups dry white wine
2 to 2 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes, cubed
1 cup green olives, unpitted
1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup chopped fennel fronds
Cook butter and bacon in bottom of large, heavy casserole over medium heat until bacon crisps, about 10 minutes.
Cut up each chicken into 10 serving pieces (two wings, two drumsticks, two thighs and each breast half cut in half). Combine flour and 2 teaspoons salt in large mixing bowl. Toss each chicken piece in seasoned flour, knock against side of bowl to get rid of excess flour and set aside on plate.
When bacon is crisp, remove with slotted spoon and reserve, leaving fat in bottom of pan.
Begin frying chicken, using only enough pieces to fill bottom of pan without crowding. Cook chicken until lightly browned on both sides (about 10 minutes per side). Remove chicken to cooling rack over baking sheet. Repeat until all chicken is browned.
When all chicken is browned, drain all but 1 tablespoon fat. Add onions and cook, stirring and scraping bottom of pan to release brown sticky residue.
Cut fennel in quarters, remove cores, then cut into 2-inch sections. Add to onions and cook until fennel begins to soften, about 5 minutes.
Add chicken, putting legs and thighs on bottom, then wings and finally breast pieces. Add wine. Put lid on pot slightly askew and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. If chicken begins to stick, reduce heat.
While chicken is cooking, cook potatoes in large pan of boiling, lightly salted water until tender, about 15 minutes.
When chicken is tender enough to pierce easily with a knife, add reserved bacon squares, green olives and mushrooms to chicken and cook 10 minutes more. Add potatoes and heat through, about 5 minutes.
Before serving, garnish with fennel fronds and stir well.
Each of 10 servings: 423 calories; 474 milligrams sodium; 82 milligrams cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.80 gram fiber
Pub Date: 12/16/98