Thursday, February 24, 2011

Poulet à la Fermière

I taught a class last week called Chicken Basics. To illustrate the technique of braising I use a simple, one-dish recipe that I found several years ago in a "collectors' edition" issue of Gourmet Magazine that was entirely devoted to dining and cooking in Paris. I had forgotten how much I love this recipe. After having just a taste of it after my class, I was hungry for more and knew I had to make it again soon.

The name of the dish is Poulet à la Fermière which Gourmet translated as "Gratinéed Chicken in Cream Sauce". This is actually not a translation so much as it is a description of the dish—chicken in cream sauce, finished with a scattering of Gruyère cheese and gratinéed under the broiler. Poulet à la Fermière is more correctly translated as "The Farmer's Wife's Chicken". So the title of the dish is meant to convey the abundance of good ingredients available to a farmer's wife—chicken, cream, cheese, onions, carrots, baby potatoes and peas—basically the bounty of the farm...all in one dish.

For some reason, the original version of this recipe calls for frozen pearl onions. I am not fond of frozen pearl onions. If cooked until they are tender, they fall apart into mush. If maintaining their shape is important, they remain hard and are a bit sharp tasting. This time of year, fresh pearl onions are widely available, so there is no reason not to use them. Cipollini onions—little flat, sweet Italian onions—make a fine substitute.

If you do not want to take the time to peel any sort of tiny onion, sliced leeks would be an authentic and flavorful substitution.

As it turns out, neither pearl nor cipollini onions are that difficult to peel. Simply trim the ends and drop the onions in a bowl of hot tap water. After a few moments the thin, brittle skins will have begun to soften and will pull easily away with the help of a small paring knife. Spread the onions on a towel to dry them off after they have been peeled. To save time, they can be peeled ahead and stored (covered) in the refrigerator.

This recipe is intended to be simple and homey—the chicken is cooked and served on the bone and the sauce is left a little bit on the thin side. The final dish is delicious when made just this way and for a weeknight family meal, this is exactly how I serve it. But if you are entertaining and would like to make the final result a little more refined, there are easy ways to remedy both of these things.

If you would like to have a slightly thicker sauce, when the chicken and vegetables are finished cooking, simply remove the chicken to a platter and cover loosely to keep warm. Add the cream and peas as directed and simmer the cream sauce and vegetables together, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened. Don't overdo it. This shouldn't take more than a minute or two. It is much better to have a sauce that is just a bit thinner than you would like than to have a thick and gloppy one. When the sauce is thickened to your liking, return the chicken to the pan and proceed with the recipe.

If eating bone-in chicken covered in cream sauce strikes you as being rather inelegant, it is an easy thing to remove the bones after the chicken is fully cooked. To do this, when the chicken and vegetables are finished cooking, remove the pan from the heat and remove the chicken to a plate. When the chicken thighs are cool enough to handle, take one and turn it over so the skin-side is down. With a sharp boning knife make an incision from knuckle to knuckle along the length of the bone. Grab one end of the bone and twist slightly to release the meat from the bone. You may need to use the tip of your knife to release bits of meat that want to cling to the bone, but if the chicken is properly cooked you should be able to gently lift the bone up and away from the meat without too much trouble. Tuck any bits of meat that have come away back into the interior of the now boneless thigh and flip the thigh back over so it is skin side up. Repeat this operation until all of the thighs have been deboned.

To finish the dish, return the pan of vegetables to the heat and add the cream and peas. Bring to a simmer and reduce the sauce slightly. Taste and correct the seasoning. Nestle the boneless thighs back in amongst the vegetables and gently heat through. Scatter the cheese over all and gratinée as directed.

I like to serve this dish family-style—directly from the pan it was cooked in—but you could also transfer the vegetables and chicken in cream sauce to a broiler proof serving dish (such as a gratin) before topping with cheese and browning. However you choose to finish this dish, it makes a pretty great one dish meal. Although it doesn't need anything else, because it is slightly rich, a salad makes a nice accompaniment—which is how I served it to my book group friends this week. Altogether, it made an utterly satisfying meal for a cold and blustery February night.

Poulet à la Fermière
(Gratinéed Chicken in Cream Sauce)

2 lbs. chicken thighs (anywhere from 4 to 8 thighs)
1 to 2 T. unsalted butter
4 carrots (about 12 oz.), cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 1/2 cups pearl or cipollini onions, peeled (see note)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup chicken stock
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 lb. small (1 ½-inch) boiling potatoes (8 to 10), peeled & halved
2/3 cup heavy cream or crème fraiche
1 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat butter in a 12-inch ovenproof deep heavy sauté pan over moderately high heat until foam subsides. Add the chicken, skin side down and brown all over, in batches if necessary to keep from crowding the pan. Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle. This will take about 15 minutes. Don't shortcut this step.  If the fat in the skin is not rendered as much as possible, the final dish will be greasy.  Transfer the chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 T. of fat from the pan.

Add the carrots and onions to the pan and cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the vegetables are beginning to brown, add the wine and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring and scraping up any browned bits, until the liquid is reduced by about half, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, thyme and chicken, skin side up, along with any juices from the plate.

Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, nestling them down in the sauce, in between the chicken pieces, and salt & pepper to taste. Continue to simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through—20 to 25 minutes.

When the chicken and vegetables are cooked, preheat the broiler. Discard the thyme. Add the cream and the peas, swirling the pan to distribute the cream and peas throughout. Bring the cream to a simmer. Taste and correct the seasoning. Sprinkle the chicken and vegetables all over with the Gruyère and broil 4 to 5 inches from the heat until browned and bubbling—about 3 to 4 minutes.

Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Note: If using cipollini onions, halve or quarter them if they are large. Two medium leeks (white & pale green parts only) halved lengthwise and sliced 1/2-inch thick, may be substituted for the pearl or cipollini onions.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet Magazine March 2001)


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Paige said...

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