Monday, November 1, 2010

Chicken Fricassee & the Ingratitude of Youth - Cooking Italy 12

Chicken Fricassee 2,edited

Sometimes I wonder how it all went so horribly wrong.  When I was growing up chicken was something that we had only on very special occasions - my birthday, my brother's birthday, Christmas and Easter.  I can't remember if we also had it on Mum's and Dad's birthdays - maybe not - as only parents can, it's entirely possible that Mum and Dad went without so Geoff and I could have a real treat on our birthdays.

You see back then chicken was something of a luxury - I guess that was before someone discovered that if they did horrible, unmentionable things to chickens (instead of letting them run around naturally, and grow at a normal pace), they could churn them out by the thousands, thus making them incredibly cheap and we could afford to dine on them every night of the week.  Somewhere along the way, we turned into such an "I want it, and I want it now" kind of society, driven by greed rather than need, that it became okay to eat chicken five nights a week regardless of the consequences.  Yes, the price on that Gladwrapped packet at the supermarket is cheap, but it doesn't reflect the many other environmental and social costs that you are paying in other ways and don't even notice.

Now I could turn this into a whole post about the virtues of organic, free-range chicken, but ... enough said for now, you can obviously tell where I'm coming from on this subject.  That was a little bit of a digression, so back to the point, which was about chicken being something special and reserved for celebratory meals.

Roast chicken was always my birthday treat - it was my stand-out, altogether, most favourite meal and I used to look forward to it all year (along with the cherry cake that Mum also always made for my birthday).  Then, one year I sat down to the dinner table on the evening of my birthday, quivering with anticipation, when ... horror of horrors ... I was presented with some kind of chicken casserole.  I thought my whole world had come to an end - instead of the burnished, golden, crispy-skinned bird I expected to see before me, I witnessed pale, shredded up bits of chicken, floating around with carrots and onions (blech - two least favourite things in the world at that age) in a pale, insipid, creamy white sauce (blech again!).  To this day, I have no idea what possessed my mother, since she knew I hated anything stew or casserole-like, especially anything with carrots and onions in it, and she also knew that plain roast chicken was my favourite meal.  What an earth she was thinking goodness knows, but she had obviously discovered a new recipe somewhere and thought she was making a special treat.  Of course, with all the cruelty and heartlessness that only a child can muster, I remember having a complete tantrum and telling my mother that she had completely ruined my birthday, and "it was the worst birthday of my whole life"!!  A cook myself, now, I can reflect on how horribly hurtful my lack of gratitude must have been after she had spent several hours slaving away in the kitchen.

No doubt, Mum forgave me (as mothers do), and to her credit she did deliver on the cherry cake, but the memory of that chicken casserole has lived on.  I had a vague recollection that she called it French Chicken Fricassee.  Even though the palate of that ungrateful little wretch has matured considerably over the years, I can tell you that I was still less than enthusiastic about our assignment for the Cooking Italy group this week, which just happened to be Chicken Fricassee.

As you know, we are cooking from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking".  On looking up the recipe, which incidentally happens to be on page 332 if you have the book, I was relieved to discover no creamy, white sauce, no onions and no carrots - instead I find chicken pieces which are firstly lightly browned and then simmered with porcini mushrooms, tomatoes and white wine.  Perhaps I could like this version of Chicken Fricassee after all.

I made a few minor changes to the recipe - firstly, Marcella suggests cutting a chicken into four pieces and cooking the whole dish in a large skillet.  Well, I don't have a skillet big enough for that, so I cut my chicken into smaller pieces (8 pieces actually), and after browning the chicken pieces I actually cooked the whole dish in a large deep pan (more like a Dutch oven).  The other small change I made was that the recipe called for 1/4 cup of tinned tomatoes, chopped, and their juice - I'm sorry, but I'm not measuring out a 1/4 cup of chopped tomatoes for anyone - if I'm opening the tin, the whole lot is going in.  So, I probably ended up with rather more liquid than the original recipe intended, but what's wrong with a bit of extra sauce?!

My final verdict on this one - personally, I found it a little bit bland.  Whilst the porcini mushrooms had nice flavour, I did find them a little bit chewy - maybe that would be different if you had access to fresh porcini as opposed to dried ones.  My partner, on the other hand, loved this dish, and I can imagine it would be a great dish to serve on an occasion when you might not be entirely sure of your guests' tastes, or to feed those who don't have particularly adventurous palates.  In short there is nothing in this dish that is going to offend anyone.  To suit my own tastes, I think that next time I would put a bit of garlic and some fresh herbs in here to boost the flavour a bit;  a bit of pancetta might not go astray;  and I think that I would use a smaller quantity of porcini (enough to give a hint of flavour), but pad it out with some fresh mushrooms which I think will give better texture.

Chicken Fricassee with Porcini Mushrooms, White Wine & Tomatoes
Adapted from Marcella Hazan's
Serves 4
Click here for a printable copy of this recipe

1.5kg (3 lb) free-range chicken, cut into 8 pieces
(alternatively 8 bone-in chicken thighs would be great)
2 tablespoons olive oil
flaky sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
30g (1 oz) dried porcini
2 cups barely warm water
400g (15 oz) tin Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
1 tablespoon butter

Firstly soak the dried porcini in the warm water to rehydrate for at least 30 minutes.

Chicken Fricassee 5

Remove the porcini from the water, squeezing out as much water as you can, and set the porcini aside.  Strain the soaking liquid through a sieve, lined with a paper towel, into a clean bowl and reserve.

Put oil in a skillet over medium high heat, and once the oil is hot add chicken pieces to the pan, skin side down.  Brown well, then turn over and brown the other side.  Season with salt and pepper and set aside.  You will probably need to do this in batches.

Chicken Fricassee 4, edited

Once all the chicken pieces have been browned, add the wine to the pan to deglaze.  Allow it to bubble briskly for about 30 seconds, all the while using a wooden spatula to loosen all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

Now add the porcini mushrooms, the reserved soaking liquid, the chopped tomatoes and their juice.  Bring to a boil, return the chicken pieces to the pan, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer.  Partially cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and continue to simmer for 40-50 minutes until the chicken is very tender.  Turn the pieces of chicken occasionally during that time.

Once cooked, remove the chicken pieces from the pan and transfer to a serving platter.  Tilt the pan and skim off as much of the fat as you can.  If the pan juices are very thin, turn the heat up to high and boil to reduce.  Then swirl the butter into the pan juices, keep stirring until emulsified, and then pour the entire contents of the pan over the chicken.  Serve immediately.

Chicken Fricassee 1, edited

I served this with rice and a salad, but it would be equally good with polenta or pasta.

Do visit my Cooking Italy page to learn more about the group (maybe you'd even like to join in - you don't have to have a blog to join the group and cook along with everyone else), find links to other members of the group, and links to all the Cooking Italy recipes I've cooked so far.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking 

I'm also submitting this post to Cookbook Sundays, hosted by the lovely Brenda at Brenda's Canadian Kitchen.  She's worth a visit any day of the week, but why not head over there right now and see who else has dusted off their cookbooks - you'll almost certainly find some great recipes, and maybe you'll discover a new book you'd like to add to your collection.

cookbook sundays


  1. Great post Sue. I remember when Joe and I were first married, almost 30 years ago, that chicken was definitely not something that was eaten on a regular basis. It was a treat! I also remember making chicken fricassee way back then. It's one of those recipes that just disappeared, lol. I haven't made it in years and have no idea what happened to the recipe. I have to say, yours sounds a lot better than my old recipe, from what I can remember. Thank you so much for sharing this with Cookbook Sundays!

  2. I totally agree with your view about chicken. I still try to do this and only eat it when I can afford to buy a good one (i.e. free range and organic) rather than the spooky unmentionables. Chicken fricassee - thanks for the reminder of an old but well loved blast from the past.

  3. Too funny--my Mom's chicken fricassee was/is still my favorite b-day dish. It is of the creamy gravy variety but no chunks of anything like carrots or onions. With some mashed potatoes it is true comfort food.

    This one does look good--but I am with you--bring on the garlic! ;-)

  4. Ah, the chicken, rara avis of my childhood!They were bigger, with longer legs, a bit tougher and did not roast in 45 minutes.
    I still get a chance to eat one of those when I go back to Serbia:)
    Every culture has a dish similar to this. We had Chicken Paprikash, influenced by neighboring Hungary. To this day, one of my favorite dishes. And I am happy to say the kids love it, too!
    I have never had a Fricasse, but cannot say I blame you for wanting to elevate the taste in the future, especially if that includes the addition of garlic and pancetta.
    ASs for ungrateful little offspring - nothing can hurt more, One of the reasons I write my blog is to tell my mother how much she means to me (and did since I've been aware of my own existence).

  5. Hi Brenda - yes, I think Chicken Fricassee was one of those dishes that was kind of popular back in the 70s, and then went out of fashion.

    Hi Sally - I eat chicken much less often since I only started buying free-range organic chicken, as it is very expensive here, but the taste is infinitely superior and I am happy knowing that the chickens have had better lives and are not taking their toll on our health and damaging the environment.

    Hi Deb - I love chicken with mashed potato. I knew you'd agree with the garlic :-)

    Lana - thanks for visiting. Oh yum Chicken Paprikash - I must look that one up. I make a dish that I call Paprika Chicken, which I posted a while back - definitely one of our favourite meals around here. I wonder if it's similar. I cringe when I think now of how horrid I was at times to my parents at the time.

    Sue :-)

  6. Well it LOOKS delightful even if it was only not offensive. I'm with you on the chicken, meat's a treat for me too.

  7. Great post, Sue!...both the recipe and the mini-rant. I couldn't agree more. I've been working very hard over the past couple years to add at least a few fully vegetarian meals to the menu each week. My daughter is thrilled. My husband is always gracious (even if he snacks more after dinner!). My step son - not so much. Apparently meat is often on the menu at Mom's.... and he feels a little put upon to dine on so many healthy dinners. Someday maybe he'll come around :)

  8. I'm with you on measuring canned tomatoes. Everything gets a whole can, no matter what!

  9. my mom still cannot remember for the life of her that I'm not really a mushroom fan, nor do I particularly like clam, oysters, or any shellfish. If she made any of htese on my birthday, I would NOT be surprised. I'm glad you stepped out of your comfort zone with this dish though! i think it's important to keep trying the things we think we don't like, as tastes do change over time!

  10. Too bad I am a vegetarian but I can tell it is really very well brother loves chicken n he will definitely gobble it up :)
    Regarding your question- I don't think you could replace kasoori methi with curry leaves. They have very different taste profiles. You would probably be better off just leaving it out.

    US Masala

  11. Thanks Sasa - oh, I'm definitely the same with meat - a once in a while treat - apart from bacon which seems to feature pretty regularly around here, but then I think of bacon as a "seasoning" :-)

    Hi Michele - thanks. I like to eat vegetarian probably at least 4 or 5 times a week, not always easy with a partner who likes a bit of animal with a meal. But often I just make a huge salad, give him a chop or something to go with it and I just have the salad. It's a bit more challenging though when I want to make a vegetarian dish that he probably won't eat, but in that case I usually make something that's reheatable that I can then have for a couple more nights.

    Yep, Pam, that's it in a nutshell - the whole tin or no tin :-)

    Joanne - you are right - it is amazing how our tastes change over time. I still don't love carrots though - unless they are roasted, in which case I adore them :-)

    Aipi - hope you get a chance to make this for your brother. Thanks also for letting me know about the the kasoori methi. I'll leave them out if I can't find them.

    Sue :-)

  12. Completely agree with chicken, sadly i come into the categories of eating chicken couple of time a week, it wasn't the same when i was in India, where we were feed with healthy veg and lentils every days and chicken used to be weekend treat, but in Finland with coldness around me i need chicken or say more something hard to bite all the time Sigh! But the chicken looks super good :)

  13. I enjoyed reading that story and you know what, I have also thought about the mass productions so we may grab any amount of chicken from our grocery store meat section. I try and buy free range….chicken is so cheap these days, it makes it easy to put it on the table. BUT, your recipe looks pretty good to me. I am off to check out your Cooking Italy page!

  14. I loved your story - I seem to remember a similar tantrum over who knows what. The dish looks good, though, too bad about the lack of flavor, but I agree, a bit of garlic can make a world of difference.

  15. Ananda - thanks for visiting - I imagine your eating habits in Finland would be very different to what you previously enjoyed in India. I think you definitely need more animal protein and fat in a cold climate.

    Pierce - thanks so much. Yes, I've found that although you definitely pay a premium for free-range and organic chicken, it is often on special - I tend to buy it up at those times and freeze it.

    Hi Louanne - thanks - I will for sure be adding the garlic next time - a little bit does make a big difference.

    Sue :-)

  16. Changing a tradition takes courage and doesn't always work. One Thanksgiving Day the modern housewife next-door (we all adored her) decided to make stuffed pork chops. Her teenage daughter, who was in and out of our house all the time and felt comfortable there, showed up for Thanksgiving dinner. She was aghast at her mother's non-traditional meal, she knew you had to have turkey and knew where to get it. Many decades later, it is one of our fondest memories.

  17. Clare - you're so right - it does take lots of courage to change a tradition. I love your Thanksgiving pork chop story - that is hilarious and I can just visualise the scene :-)


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