Cook the Book: Is Julia Child’s Chicken Fricassee Worth All the Effort?March 23, 2017
In Cook the Book, we test whether iconic recipes, old and new, work well today and with ingredients available locally.
We’ve covered a fair amount of classics here on Cook the Book, but we could not truly take on this column without featuring Julia Child—the woman who revolutionarily demystified French cuisine, bringing it closer and making it more accessible to home cooks in America and the world over. Her first (and best-known) literary work is 1961’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, where Child manages to fit in a full range of classic recipes into an almost 700-page masterpiece.
Though she is credited with making French cuisine more approachable, Child is not one to take shortcuts. In a recipe she would utilize two, three, four (or more) pages a recipe as needed, going to lengths to explain the proper pans, visual signs to look out for, and recipe variations (which also points to the fact that much of French cooking is, in fact, rooted in a number of core recipes and fundamental techniques). And while the book harbors markers of its culinary zeitgeist—obscure dishes like poached eggs in aspic, unrestrained use of butter and cream—the know-how from the book remains relevant to this day.
Here we take on her Chicken Fricasee—a dish that toes the line between a sauté and a stew, with chicken that is first cooked in butter, simmered in broth and wine, then served with a sauce made from the cooking liquid itself. The recipe itself (which, in typical Child fashion, spans four pages, not counting the recipes for the stewed mushrooms and stewed onions which—pardon my language, but for fxck’s sake—she has you prepare separately) isn’t difficult per se. But it does require a number of shortcut-free steps and attention to the dish at hand. Thankfully, she meticulously describes what to look out for in a way that makes it feel as if she were watching you cook right over your shoulder.
A few parts of her method might go against our modern-day tendencies. When sautéing the chicken for example, Julia describes advises you not to let the chicken go past a light golden yellow—a tip we found hard not to rebel against given our love for crispy skin. While simmering, she has you pull out more pans and cut up even more butter to cook the mushroom and onion garniture—and while these components can be prepared in advance, you’d wonder why these couldn’t just be stirred in directly into the stew given the similarity of their respective cooking liquids and the fact that everything is combined in the end.
Once the meat is cooked, it is set aside; the liquid is allowed to reduce and is further thickened with a mixture of cream and egg yolks, also known as a liaison. This calls for slowly tempering the yolk-cream mixture into the stew by gradually stirring the hot liquid into the yolk mixture and then pouring everything back into the pot and setting it back over heat to keep thickening. While the recipe explicitly calls for boiling the mixture for a minute, you’ll definitely want to be careful not to put it on too high a heat, too fast as it can curdle easily. Julia surprisingly doesn’t specify the exact consistency of the sauce, but we went for one just thick enough that it coats the tongue, but still liquid enough that it can be poured. We’ll admit we wish we left it slightly more liquified though, given that it firms up even more as it cools.
As long and as tedious as the recipe may appear, the key is to enjoy the very cooking process—not a difficult task with the aromas of thyme, parsley, bay leaf, white wine, and chicken stock permeating the kitchen as the mixture simmers over the stove. And in spite of our initial qualms with the consistency of the sauce, we took a note from Julia herself, who was a proponent of embracing one’s mistakes and not being afraid of failure in the kitchen. Besides, a bite was enough to quell our doubts: you get flavorful, succulent meat blanketed by a creamy pool of sauce that tastes surprisingly balanced, with just enough of a zip from the herbs and the white pepper (plus acidity from the lemon juice and wine) to cut through the richness of all the fatty dairy and bring out the best flavors of the chicken. The mushrooms and the onions retain their respective bite—alright, perhaps Julia was on to something by cooking them separately—which adds depth and dimension to an already-tasty dish.
Not that there’s no room for improvement: we’d streamline the cooking process in the future by cooking the onions and mushrooms along with the first batch of vegetables and taking them out before adding in the chicken, cutting down on the inordinate amount of butter (the recipe uses more than half a cup’s worth, in total!), and—for the love of browned bits and crisp edges—browning the chicken a bit further. But follow the rules before trying to break them. Is the original worth all the long steps and the multiple dirtied pans? One bite in and we can say: a deep, resounding yes.
Adapted From Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 by Julia Child
Yield: 4-6 portions
Time: 2 hours
- 2½-3 lbs chicken, cut up into pieces
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 carrot, thinly sliced
- 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
- 4 tbsp butter
- ½ tsp salt
- ⅛ tsp white pepper
- 3 tbsp flour
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup dry white wine
- small herb bouquet (2 parsley sprigs, ⅓ bay leaf, and ⅛ tsp thyme), tied in washed cheesecloth
Ingredients: white-braised onions
- 18-24 shallots, peeled
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbsp butter
- salt and pepper to taste
- small herb bouquet (2 parsley sprigs, ⅛ tsp thyme, and ⅓ bay leaf), tied in cheesecloth
Ingredients: stewed Mushrooms
- ¼ lb. fresh mushrooms
- ⅓ cup water
- ⅛ tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup whipping cream
- salt and white pepper, to taste
- drops of lemon juice
- pinch of nutmeg
Ingredients: Final assembly
- 1-2 tb softened butter
- Dry the chicken thoroughly in a towel.
- In a heavy casserole or skillet, cook the onions, carrots, and celery slowly in butter for about 5 minutes, or until they are almost tender but not browned. Push them to one side.
- Raise heat slightly and add the chicken. Turn it every minute for 3-4 minutes or until the meat has stiffened slightly, without coloring to more than a light golden yellow.
- Lower heat, cover the pan, and cook very slowly for about 10 minutes, turning the chicken once. It should swell slightly, stiffen more, but not deepen in color.
- Sprinkle salt, white pepper, and flour on all sides of the chicken. Turn and roll each piece to coat the flour with the cooking butter. Cover and continue cooking slowly for 4 minutes more.
- Remove from heat and pour in the chicken stock, shaking the pan to blend the liquid and the flour. Add the wine, the herb bouquet, and more stock or water, so the liquid just covers the chicken. Bring to the simmer. Check for seasoning, adding salt as needed.
- Cover and maintain at a slow simmer for 25-30 minutes. The chicken is done when the drumsticks are tender if pinched and the chicken juices run clear yellow when the meat is pricked with a fork. When done, remove chicken to a side dish, keeping the cooking liquid in the pan.
- While the chicken is cooking, prepare the white-braised onions and the stewed mushrooms.
procedure: white-braised onions
- Place onions in a saucepan or skillet with the liquid, butter, seasonings, and herb bouquet.
- Cover and simmer very slowly, rolling the onions in the saucepan from time to time, for 40-50 minutes. Add more liquid as needed. The onions should not color, and should be perfectly tender yet retain their shape.
- Remove herb bouquet.
PROCEDURE: stewed mushrooms
- Trim and wash mushrooms and slice lengthwise.
- Bring the water, salt, lemon juice, and butter to a boil in a saucepan.
- Add mushrooms and toss to cover them with the liquid. Cover and boil moderately fast, tossing frequently, for 5 minutes.
- Add the cooking juices from the onions and the mushrooms to the cooking liquid left in the pot.
- Simmer the cooking liquid for 2-3 minutes, skimming off fat. Then raise the heat and boil rapidly, stirring frequently, until it reduces and thickens enough to coat a spoon nicely. Correct the seasoning as needed. You should have 2-2½ cups.
- Whisk together the egg yolks and the cream in a separate mixing bowl. Continue beating and add the hot sauce by small spoonfuls until about a cupful has gone in. Beat in the rest of the sauce in a thin stream.
- Pour the sauce back into the pan. Set over moderately high heat and stir constantly, reach all over the bottom and sides of the pot, until the sauce comes to a boil. Boil for a minute, stirring.
- Correct the seasoning with salt, white pepper, nutmeg, and drops of lemon juice as needed.
- Strain the sauce through a fine sieve.
procedure: final assembly
- Arrange the chicken, the onions, and the mushrooms in a casserole. Pour the sauce over it.
- To prevent a skin from forming over the sauce, spoon over a film of cream, stock, or milk. Set aside uncovered.
- To reheat, set casserole over moderate heat and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer slowly for 5 minutes, until chicken is hot through, basting it frequently with the sauce.
- Off heat and right before serving, tilt the casserole, add the softened butter, and baste the chicken with the sauce until the butter has absorbed into it.
- Serve with rice or noodles and decorate with sprigs of fresh parsley.