Sunday, October 4, 2009

Poulet au Pot

Phew, what a refreshing break! Thanks everyone for being patient, and coming back to read some more.

After the rather exotic coeur du porc last time, I decided to go with something a good deal more familiar and homey, and what better than poulet au pot--that is, chicken-in-a-pot?

Poulet au pot, as I discovered from the magic that is google, is a recipe that dates back over 500 years, and is a Sunday Staple in the French countryside. It's basically a stuffed chicken stewed in a pot with veggies, and served with crunchy cornichons, salt and mustard in its own broth. The internets even report that Henry IV declared that every French family ought to be able to have poulet au pot once a week, the start I suppose of that great political promise "a chicken in every pot."

I made sure to wake up extremely early on Sunday, so to take the best advantage of the farmer's market's bounty (particularly the whole chickens from Smith Meadows Farms, which are snapped up very quickly in the mornings). I got there so early, actually, that I had half an hour before the "starting bell" and had to grab a coffee at (uch) Starbucks to bide my time. It turned out to work well, because I was able to scope out which stands had the veggies I needed for the stew, and could map out the best route through the market in order to maximize my take. Farmer's market strategies... I don't know whether that's uperyuppie or megahousefrau.

I stopped first at Smith Meadows and asked for the biggest chicken they had (Tony's recipe calls for a 6 pounder; the biggest I could get was 5 lbs) and a pound of chicken livers. Only--disappointment--they had no livers that day. I'm beginning to think there's some kind of Smith Meadows conspiracy against me, where they don't have precisely the thing I need each week (because of course all farms must cater to my needs at all times). Oh well, at least I got the chicken. Next I stopped by the Cedarbrook Farm stall to pick up some sausage for the stuffing. They were out of "country rope," but did have loose sausage stuffing outside of the casing--perfect! I thanked them for the heart, and reported that it tasted like roast beef. They looked at me like I had sprouted two heads, but tried to be polite about it. I guess the thought of cooking pig heart is just a little too much crazy at 9:00 in the morning, even if you are a farmer. It's going to be fun when I ask them for pig livers for the upcoming pate....

Then I loaded up on veggies and hauled my take home. Next to Whole Foods for cornichons, livers, cream and bread while the chicken and sausage defrosted in the refrigerator.

In addition to the chicken-in-a-pot, I decided to go with the "pot" theme and make salted caramel pots-de-creme from a recipe I found on Tastespotting at the blog "A Bowl of Mush" and have been dying to try. I need to get on some of the desserts that are actually in the book, but they're so few, while the main courses are so many, I'm trying to space them out. So as a bonus, I'll tell you about my experience with this recipe, even if it doesn't exactly go with the theme.

After getting back from Whole Foods, I started the dessert by melting sugar, sea salt, and a little water in a pot til it got caramelized and liquidy. The recipe calls for stirring constantly, but I found that by leaving the sugar alone, then stirring it up a bit and leaving it alone again, the caramelization process went faster, but still didn't burn. Then I took the caramel off the heat to add the cream. This proved troublesome, as the caramel immediately turned rock-hard and stuck to the bottom of the pan, refusing to mix with the cream at all. I had to allow the cream to heat slowly and melt the caramel in order to incorporate.

While the caramel melted into the cream, I started preparing the stuffing for the bird. First I mixed a cup of bread cubes with some more heavy cream, then added parsley and shallot. Next I chopped up a half pound of chicken livers into a liver-y mush, and added them plus the pound of sausage meat to the mix. The stuff looked a bit slimy thanks to the livers, but I bucked up and stuffed the mess into the bird. There was a good bowlful of stuffing left over, even after I crammed the chicken to the breaking point, so I baked it in the oven as dressing.

Raw stuffing. Yup that red gobbety stuff is chicken liver and possibly blood. Mmm.

Tony calls for sewing the chicken's butt up with a trussing needle and thread, but by the time I'd overstuffed the thing to the point of livery stuffing oozing out of its cavity (nice mental picture there, right?), there was going to be no sewing, that was for sure. Also, I couldn't find a needle and thread at the Whole Foods. I figured once I got the stuffing in and propped the chicken up inside the pot, the stuffing would stay reasonably intact.

Finally, I chopped up the veggies (carrots, parsnips instead of turnips, celery, garlic, onions), and added them and a bouquet garni to the pot, and set them to simmer for two hours.

Chicken and veg simmering together

Back to the custards. By now, the cream had melted the caramel sufficiently so that I had caramel infused cream instead of rock hard caramel sitting in a pool of cream. I cooled the caramel cream and added it to a mix of egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla. The mix filled four ramekins reasonably well (enough for Husband J, Neighbor C, Friend I and me), so into the oven it went for about 50 minutes to bake.

By this time the chicken stew was smelling amazing, bubbling away on the stove, and the extra dressing had come out of the oven sizzling, and filling the kitchen with a rich meaty aroma. Husband J, Neighbor C and I all had bites, and the stuff was really out of this world.

Cooked dressing, glistening with delicious fat.

After the chicken simmered for two hours, I threw in a chopped up head of cabbage and a couple of red potatoes, and let the stew simmer for another 30 minutes. Then the pot came off the heat, the chicken came out of the pot, and I carved it up, giving everyone a chunk of white meat, a chunk of dark meat, a spoonful of stuffing, and some veggies, and some broth on top. Cornichons, salt and mustard went into the extra ramekins on the table for everyone to spoon out as much as we liked.

The result was better than I could have imagined. I'm always skeptical about boiling food, coming from the Irish tradition of "chuck it into the pot and boil it till it's grey" school of cooking by ancestry, but poulet au pot makes for one spectacular chicken. The meat was super tender, falling off the bone, but the breast meat was not at all dry. The stuffing inside the bird spilled out in a nice, well-cooked pile, adding some meaty richness to the dish. The veggies were all cooked to perfection, especially the very delicious cabbage and potatoes. All of it went wonderfully with the briny mustard and cornichons. Husband J feels that it is the chicken stew equivalent of a pastrami sandwich, with the meaty goodness nicely balances with the tart mustard and sour pickle. In fact, he liked it better than the poulet roti, because the meat was so tender and soft in this dish, and the combination of veggies and condiments were perfect. Everyone ate a big plateful, barely saving room for dessert (the dish is surprisingly filling).

The caramel pots de creme were again the big hit of the night (notice how everyone loves desserts best?) with everyone cooing over their salty caramely goodness. I topped them with whipped cream and a sprinkle of sea salt, and it was the perfect end to a great meal. The caramel cream was an even bigger hit than the fruit tarts if you can believe it.

Uh, and sorry about the lack of photos on this post. The dishes got snapped up before I could really take a camera to them. I'll definitely be making this dish again, so I might try to supplement this post with future poulet au pot photos.

Lessons learned: Sometimes chucking it into a pot and boiling it is the best way to cook. No matter what, everyone loves dessert best. Anything tastes good with mustard, salt and pickle. Chicken livers are pretty freaking tasty.

Next week: Frisee aux lardons (BACON SALAD, an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) and Coquilles Saint Jacques avec Champagne (sea scallops in champagne sauce). But what for dessert?

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