I grew up on Julia Child. Other than nonna Angelina herself, no one inspired my love affair with cooking more. While other kids were eating milk and cookies and watching cartoons, I ran home to make rice and cheese and sit down to the latest instalment of The French Chef. And I practically memorized my Mom’s original 1963 edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking while I was still a teenager living at home. So when I saw Julie and Julia with my folks, I broke out my own well-worn, dog-eared, nearly-falling-apart-at-the-seams 1986 edition, purchased when I was living in New York after law school, and starting reacquainting myself with an old friend. But the dish I was yearning for was not boeuf bourguignon. As much as I love that dish, my favorite dishes from Mastering were the chicken fricassées. And this is one is perhaps the most sumptuous of all—fit for a lovely Sunday dinner: fricassée de volaille à l’ancienne, or “Old Fashioned Chicken Fricassee with Wine-Flavored Cream Sauce, Onions and Mushrooms”, on page 258.
As Julia says, this is not a difficult dish to execute. But it does involve a fair number of steps, so plan on spending a good hour and a half or even two hours, depending on how fast you work in the kitchen. The good part is, it can be made entirely ahead of time and finished off just before serving. Here is my (somewhat abridged) version of Julia’s recipe:
Cooking the chicken:
Step 1: To begin, sauté a sliced onion, carrot and celery stalk in 4 tablespoons of butter (I substituted 2 Tbs. of butter and 2 Tbs. of canola oil) over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, until almost soft but not browned, in a large braiser:
Step 2: Push the vegetables to the sides of the dish and add a frying chicken that has been cut up into pieces. Raise the heat to medium and turn the chicken pieces often until they have stiffened slightly without coloring more than a light golden yellow—about 3-4 minutes. Lower the heat and cover the braiser and cook the chicken very slowly for 10 minutes, turning the pieces once. The chicken should swell slightly and stiffen a bit further, but it should not brown:
Step 3: Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and white pepper, then with 3 Tbs. of flour. Turn so that the flour is coated with the cooking butter. Allow to cook slowly for 4 minutes, turning once.
Step 4: Then add enough hot chicken stock to almost cover the chicken pieces, then enough white wine to just cover the pieces. Insert an herb bouquet of parsley, fresh thyme and half a bay leaf inside a small cheesecloth ‘bag’. Cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes:
Preparing the garnish:
Step 5: While the chicken is simmering, make some white-braised pearl onions and stewed baby button mushrooms (see Notes below).
Making the sauce:
Step 6: When the chicken is done, remove the pieces along with the herb bouquet from the braising pan. As the liquid continues to simmer, skim off the fat from the surface. Then raise the heat and allow the liquid to reduce until it is thick enough to coat a spoon nicely. Correct the seasoning.
Step 7: In a bowl, whisk together two egg yolks and 1/2 cup of heavy cream. As you continue whisking, add the hot cooking liquid to the bowl by spoonfuls until you have added about a cup. Then add the rest of the liquid in a thin stream (or by ladlefuls) and mix as you go. Pour the liquid—now a sauce—back into the pan and bring it to a boil for about a minute, adding the cooking juices from the onions and mushrooms. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve, to eliminate the vegetables and sundry small particles, back into the bowl. (By the way, don’t throw out the vegetables left in the sieve; it’s the cook’s privilege the eat the vegetables, which are absolutely delicious!) Grate in a bit of nutmeg. (Here Julia calls for a few drops of lemon juice—presumably to mimic the taste of crème fraîche—but I found that the wine had already given the dish enough acidity, so I omitted it. And since I did not seem to have quite enough sauce, I thinned it a bit with more cream.)
Step 8: Arrange the chicken pieces, onions and mushrooms in a clean casserole (or, as I did, you can clean out the braising pan). Spoon over the sauce to coat the contents evenly. If you are making this ahead, Julia suggests spooning over more cream or milk to prevent a film from forming.)
Finishing the Dish:
Step 9: Just before you are ready to serve, bring the dish back to a simmer and allow to simmer, covered, for about 5 minutes, until the dish is fully reheated. Off heat, add a tablespoon or two of butter to enrich the sauce (!) and baste the chicken pieces wth the sauce until the butter has completely melted into the sauce. Serve the fricassée in its casserole, sprinkled with some finely chopped parsley.
The vegetable garnishes for this dish are made as follows: The pearl onions are simmered in butter and chicken stock until they are quite soft, but have not lost their shape. Most of the liquid should have evaporated but the onions should not brown. In Mastering, Julia says that this will take around 50 minutes, but I find that 30 is more like it. You can save yourself a great deal of time and trouble by using frozen, peeled pearl onions. The mushrooms are simmered in water, lemon juice and a pinch of salt for about 5 minutes. (Here I find 10 minutes is better.)
Julia suggests serving fricassée de poulet à l’ancienne with buttered noodles or steamed rice. We had it with some steamed baby potatoes, which was lovely. We preceded this rich dish with a salade frisée aux lardons and followed it with a bowl of fresh fruit. A lovely Sunday dinner.
Julia explains that a fricassée a hybrid cooking method combining both dry and wet heat. A chicken dish that is cooked entirely by dry heat (eg, in butter or oil) is properly called a sauté, while a dish cooked entirely by wet heat is properly called a stew. The more observant readers will have noticed that this fricassée is actually a close cousin to coq au vin and a distant cousin of boeuf bouguignon. The cooking methods are, in fact, quite similar, and the two dishes share the same garnishes. The main difference lies, of course, in that this dish is ‘white’ and the others ‘brown’. In ‘white’ dishes, the cook studiously avoids browning the ingredients, the wet ingredients include white wine, and the sauce is finished off with egg yolks and cream. In ‘brown’ dishes, the meat and other ingredients are browned, the wet ingredients include red wine and the sauce is thickened with a beurre manié. But, in the end, they are all manifestations of the same basic techniques.