One of my favorite ways to cook chicken is in a classic French sauté. A braised, stew-like preparation of bone-in pieces of chicken, a sauté can be simple and rustic or labor-intensive and refined...or somewhere in between. No matter how rustic or refined, well-executed renditions of these dishes are always flavorful and utterly satisfying—conjuring up idealized images of grandmother's house...and Sunday dinner. Every region of France seems to have its own special sautés that feature traditional and local products. A little over a year ago I posted a recipe for a refined version of a sauté from the Basque country. Today I thought I would share a sauté from Normandy called Poulet Vallée d'Auge.
The Pays d'Auge is located in central Normandy—the land of butter and cream and apples. Three of France's famous cheeses (Camembert, Livarot and Pont-l'Évêque) come from this region. It is also the home of Calvados (apple brandy), as well as hard cider and Pommeau (a fortified-style apple wine). It is only fitting that a chicken sauté from this region would feature cream, Calvados and apples.
Poulet Vallée d'Auge goes together in the usual way of a sauté—brown the chicken, remove the chicken and brown the vegetables, deglaze the pan, return the chicken to the pan, add more liquid and simmer gently until the chicken is very tender. I cover the basic steps of the sauté model in more detail in my post on Poulet Basquaise. My Poulet Vallée d'Auge is slightly less refined than my version of Poulet Basquaise—the vegetables cooked with the chicken are not strained out—but the principles behind the two dishes are the same.
The components of Poulet Vallée d'Auge vary surprisingly little from recipe to recipe. There are of course the three signature ingredients (Calvados, cream and apples). And most versions will also include shallots, mushrooms, thyme and bay. The greatest variation occurs in the liquids that are used. In addition to the Calvados and cream some recipes add even more liquid—hard cider or chicken stock are typical. I added stock to mine, but if you have access to a nice dry, hard cider, it would be entirely in keeping with the integrity of the dish to use that instead of or in combination with the stock. You will even find some recipes that add no liquids other than Calvados and cream.
If you don't keep Calvados on hand (it is fairly expensive), I think it is perfectly acceptable to use plain brandy. Certainly it would be better to use brandy than to bypass this wonderful dish just because you didn't have any Calvados. You will also notice in the recipe that it directs you to return the chicken to the pan before you add the Calvados. This is a bit of a departure from most sautés. The usual method is to deglaze the pan with wine (or possibly stock) before the chicken is returned to the pan. It is just easier to do the required boiling and scraping of the bottom of the pan without large pieces of chicken to work around (I also think it probably doesn't do the chicken any favors to expose it to hard boiling). In this dish, a lot of the work of deglazing is accomplished by the mushrooms before the Calvados is added because the mushrooms release some liquid when they are first added to the pan and before they begin to brown. Also, since the Calvados is flambéed (instead of boiled for reduction) there is a school of thought that holds that by flambéing the Calvados around the chicken, the chicken is infused with the aroma of the Calvados.
Apples are added to Poulet Vallée d'Auge at the end as a garnish. Sometimes they are simply sautéed and served alongside the chicken and its sauce. But I like to add the sautéed apples to the cream sauce for a brief simmer at the end while the sauce is reducing—this insures that the apples are tender (make sure you choose an apple that holds its shape when cooked) and it also allows them to contribute their flavor to the final sauce.
|Apples simmering in reducing cream sauce|
Since we are in the middle of apple season, now would be a perfect time to sample this dish. And if you have never tasted a French sauté, this one would be a good place to begin. Maybe it could be the centerpiece of your next Sunday dinner.
Poulet Vallée d'Auge
(Chicken with Calvados, Cream, Mushrooms & Apples)
1 T. vegetable oil
1 T. unsalted butter
1 3 1/2 lb. chicken, cut up (see note) or 3 lbs. chicken parts of your choice
8 oz. white button mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 large shallot, minced
1 T. picked thyme
1/3 to 1/2 c. Calvados (or brandy)
1 c. chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 T. unsalted butter
1 c. crème fraiche or heavy cream
Salt & Pepper
lemon, if necessary
When the white meat pieces are cooked through (after about 15 to 20 minutes), remove them to a plate and cover with foil to keep them warm. Continue to cook the remaining dark meat pieces until very tender and cooked through—another 15 minutes or so.
The chicken may be cut into 4 or 8 serving pieces (or you may use parts, as noted in the recipe). It doesn't matter how the chicken is cut up as long as all of the pieces are the same size. For these "Sauté-style" stews, the French traditionally cut the chicken into 8 pieces—2 legs, 2 thighs and 4 breast pieces. The four breast pieces are obtained by taking each split breast and cutting it cross-wise into 2 equal pieces. The other way to cut the chicken is to cut it into quarters—2 leg-thigh joints and 2 breasts. For both methods, the first joint of the wing may be left attached to the breasts.
Like all stews/braises, this dish can be made earlier in the day, or the day before. The cream sauce should not be fully reduced during the initial preparation as it will reduce further during the reheating process. To reheat, place the whole dish in a 350 degree oven and heat through...or gently warm on the stove top over low heat. If you prefer, when you make the dish ahead you could make it just to the point of adding the cream and apples, and then start from that point when you are ready to serve (Store the chicken in the cooking liquid and then reheat the chicken and liquid. Remove the chicken and add the cream and apples, reduce and then return the chicken to the pan as usual.).