One of the hallmarks of Italian cooking is its utter simplicity, and few dishes exemplify this quality as well as this one. As the named implies, this creamed chicken dish is essentially just chicken simmered in cream, the other ingredients do nothing more than provide a subtle enhancement for this heavenly marriage of flavors. Just reading the recipe, the dish might seem ordinary, but as soon as you take your first bite, you realize it’s a true masterpiece. Nothing is lacking, nothing superfluous. As Leonardo said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Serves enough for 3 or more as a second course, depending on the size of the chicken and appetites
- One young chicken, cut into parts
- 50g (2 oz, 1/2 stick) of butter
- 500ml (1 pint) heavy cream
- 1 shallot, peeled but left whole
- A sprig or two of fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Cut the chicken up into serving pieces, making sure that the leg is separated from the thigh, and that the breast is cut in half crosswise.
Melt the butter is a braising pan large enough to contain all the chicken pieces in a single layer. Add the pieces and whole shallot, and sauté over moderate heat until the chicken is very lightly browned, salting as you go. Be careful to regulate the heat so as not to allow the butter or chicken to darken too much.
Add cream, which should cover the chicken by about 2/3. Cover (leaving the lid slightly ‘ajar’ to allow for evaporation and avoid spillage) and let the chicken simmer in the cream for 30-45 minutes, or until the chicken is fully cooked through and the cream reduced to a thick, saucy consistency. The cream will probably have separated, which is perfectly fine. Taste and adjust for seasoning. You can remove the shallot, which by now will be very soft or, if you like, just mash up it into the sauce.
Serve immediately. If you like, you can top the chicken with some chopped parsley, or add it to the sauce just before serving.
With its extravagant use of cream, the dish may not seem very Italian, but creamed chicken is featured, among other places, in Artusi’s classic cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene. Artusi has a slightly different take, however; he tells you to roast a whole chicken, then cut it up and simmer it in cream to cover. The recipe given here follows more ‘normal’ modern Italian technique.
There is another Italian dish that goes by pollo alla panna, made with boneless chicken breasts, sautéed in butter then quickly pan roasted with a bit of white wine. The breasts are removed when done and the cream added to the skillet and reduced into a sauce that is poured over the breasts. It’s a pleasant enough every day dish but, if you ask me, has none of the genius of this one.
While the pure flavors are the real appeal of this for me, you could dress the dish up your creamed chicken with some sautéed mushrooms or peas or braised baby onions, added towards the end of the braise. Any of these would make for a fine contorno as well. Another, modern adulteration—but a nice one—would be to add a dash of curry powder or turmeric to the chicken pieces during the initial sauté.
Needless to say, with such simplicity, for a truly remarkable creamed chicken you need best quality ingredients, especially the chicken, which should have lots of flavor. That’s easier said than done these days, but try to find a free-range, organic chicken. If you’re using an ‘industrial’ chicken, you might just add a little bit of chicken bouillon to the cream. Heresy, I know, but desperate times and all that…