A Chicken Saga
BY MARK MIDDLEBROOK
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
Michael Wild, executive chef and founder of the Bay Wolf, was on a roll. I’d expected him to wax poetical about duck, for which the restaurant is renowned. Instead, he was riffing on chicken: “People love chicken. I love chicken. I like chicken when it doesn’t taste like chicken. I like chicken when it does taste like chicken. I like the texture of it. I like chicken salad. I like chicken and bacon sandwiches. I poach chicken, I steam chicken, I roast chicken. Chicken is something I can eat a couple times a week. Roast chicken and a big chopped salad… that’s my perfect meal.”
The Bay Wolf’s chef de cuisine Louis Le Gassic agreed: “Chicken works well with a lot of different techniques. You can sear it, bread it, fry it, steam it. We all know what chicken tastes like. It’s forgiving and it’s inexpensive. You can play around. At home, I like to braise chicken in a lot of white wine. I eat a lot of chicken at home-to the point where I probably should have a few in my back yard.”
Michael Wild added, “and chicken really lends itself to cooking in the toaster oven. I cook it with the heat above and heat below and it comes out perfect. Other meats don’t come out perfect.”
So during a recent visit to the Bay Wolf with my favorite wining and dining partner, Farid Nabavi, I decided to forego duck in favor of coq au vin, the classic Bungundian dish of chicken braised in red wine. The menu described it as “chicken braised in red wine with bacon, mirepoix vegetables and crispy potatoes.” Michael and Louis called it “a deconstructed coq au vin.” As Louis explained, “at home, you usually take the whole bird, chop it up, and cook it in red wine. We can’t do that in the restaurant. Instead, the best thing to do is give everyone legs [and thighs]. It’s the tastiest part.” They roast the combined leg-and-thigh and finish it in a partially reduced chicken and red wine sauce. Each of the vegetables in the mirepoix gets cooked separately in order to control doneness. As Farid commented of the dish, “it was kind of like soul food; but at the same time, it was fine.”
Rívoli chef and owner Wendy Brucker, whose early cooking experiences included making fried chicken at home, also knows how to straddle the soul food and fine food divide. “I love using chicken. Both at home and at the restaurant, some of the most interesting dishes that I make are chicken.” In the restaurant, Wendy goes out of her way to make her chicken dishes sound and taste interesting, often by presenting different parts of the chicken two different ways on the same plate. One of her first “chicken two ways” offerings was chicken legs confited in duck fat, and breasts cooked saltimbocca style (pounded thin, stuffed with prosciutto, sage, and cheese, and then sautéed). These days, she often starts with a grilled breast, using variations in spices and sauce. Then she experiments with cooking another part of the chicken until she finds something interesting that completes the plate. For example, she might braise the thighs and stuff the meat into a boned chicken, or she’ll braise the leg with allspice and peppers in a Piemontese-style preparation.
Until these recent conversations, I never suspected the affection of Bay Area chefs for chicken. My own interest in our most ubiquitous of birds was nearly nonexistent. Oh sure, I regularly roasted a chicken in my cast iron dutch oven, rubbing the bird with spices and tossing in some small potatoes and a head or two of whole garlic cloves left in their skins. But the chicken roasting ritual was largely an excuse to use the carcass and other leftover bits to create stock for more interesting dinners (risotto, paella, soup…). The most delectable result of the roasting operation was a plate full of slow-roasted garlic bathed in chicken drippings, ready to be squeezed onto bread or directly into one’s mouth.
My reconsideration of chicken started earlier this year, while observing a trio of manically inventive, young chefs from New York and Cataluña. Not long after, I ate a simple yet celestial chicken dish cooked by a grandmother in Piemonte, Italy. And that experience led me to experiment with a recipe that legend says celebrated Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Marengo, a town in Piemonte near that grandmother’s house. Along the way, I learned a little about the sustainably raised chickens that we can buy in the Bay Area.
NAPA: CHICKEN SOUS-VIDE
It started in August, when I attended the Global Chef’s Council at Copia in Napa, an event organized by the multinational flavor and fragrance company Givaudan. According to Givaudan’s Web site, they aim to be “the Essential Source of Sensory Innovation for customers.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but the opportunity to observe eight top chefs from around the world cooking and talking about their approaches to flavor-and to taste the results-was not something to pass up.
My enthusiasm was tempered upon learning that the afternoon task Givaudan had set before these chefs was to cook chicken. The assignment seemed akin to bringing together eight gifted painters from the corners of the globe and asking them to make paintings using only white and brown-certainly possible and perhaps interesting, but hardly an inspiring palette.
Some of the assembled chefs prepared deeply flavored traditional dishes, but the guys who made me begin to see chicken differently were the “molecular gastronomists”-chefs who combine traditional cooking techniques with laboratory science-like experimentation and a penchant for re-envisioning traditional recipes.
A ubiquitous technique of these gastronauts is sous-vide cooking, and you couldn’t turn around that afternoon without bumping into chicken parts vacuum-packed in plastic bags. In case you’re a Bay Area simple-and-traditional-food-preparation-is-best naïf like me, sous-vide (“under vacuum” in French) is a cooking technique developed thirty years ago by George Pralus at the Restaurant Troigros in the Loire Valley of France. It involves cooking vacuum-packed food in a precisely controlled, relatively low temperature water bath (around 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for many hours in order to achieve an evenly cooked, succulent consistency with no loss of flavor or nutrients. For its proponents, which include Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, and Charlie Trotter, sous-vide is simply a first step in a complex recipe that usually involves other, later forms of cooking, such as searing or sautéing (not to mention the requisite complement of sauces, foams, purées, and/or garnishes).
I learned just how complex these recipes get while watching Wylie Dufresne from the restaurant wd-50 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His first dish was a deconstructed version of the French bistro plate of chicken terrine accompanied by cornichons, capers, pickled onions, and hard-boiled egg. He started with half a boned chicken and folded the breast inside the leg and thigh in order to preserve the breast’s succulence during a later cooking stage. The resulting chicken-yoga-balls were cooked sous-vide and later seared to give the surface more texture. The chicken endured perhaps the least amount of transformation of all the parts of the dish; Wylie turned the capers into an oil, made an emulsion of the cornichons, dehydrated the onions, constructed slabs out of egg yolks, and made fries from mashed potatoes. Oh, and there was tarragon in there somewhere.
Amidst the flurry of technical discussion about sous-vide and other space age cooking techniques, Wylie found time to talk about the importance of the bird itself. He uses chickens from a small producer in upstate New York who slaughters specifically for the restaurant.
The stars of the Givaudin show, however, were Jordi and Josep Roca from the famous Catalan restaurant El Celler de Can Roca. After sous-vide chicken thighs made with four preparations of citrus, followed by sous-vide chicken breast with a Kalamata olive sauce, mango sauce, and rosemary flowers, they pulled out all the stops. They cooked chicken breast sous-vide, sliced it into precise cubes, dipped them in a reduced and gelatined shrimp stock the color of mahogany, wrapped them in torch-melted chocolate caramel wafers made with three kind of sugar, and sprinkled them with coarse salt. Yes, Mexican cuisines have molé, but this was different. It was chicken dipped in really chocolaty chocolate, not a sauce that happened to have chocolate in it.
By now, you’re probably wondering how all of this molecular gastronomical stuff tasted. Wylie Dufresne’s dishes were delicious in ways that were both gustatory and intellectual. The references to classic dishes, such as a French bistro plate or matzo ball soup, combined with a genuinely pleasing variety of flavors and textures. The Roca brothers worked more directly with pure flavor. They created surprising and often superb combinations with no reference to any culinary traditions that I’m aware of. We see very little of either kind of cooking here in the Bay Area, and that strikes me as a shame. I’m not planning to spend several thousand dollars on a sous-vide setup (or $170 on the definitive book, Sous Vide Cuisine, written by Jordi and Josep’s brother, Joan, with a forward to the English edition by Wylie Dufresne). But I sure wouldn’t mind eating this kind of cuisine a little more often.
However, I have to admit that I don’t specifically remember the flavor of the chicken in any of these dishes. No doubt it was there as an element, but mostly as a palette for stronger, more memorable flavors. To find pure, unforgettable chicken flavor, I had to get on a plane.
PIEMONTE: CHICKEN ALLA CAROLINA AND CHICKEN ALLA MARENGO
A month later, I was picking wine grapes in the Piemonte region of northwest Italy and enjoying the home cooking of my hosts’ wives, mothers, and girlfriends. One of those mothers was Carolina, whose son Mario Roagna is proprietor of Cascina Val del Prete in the Roero sub-region south of Turin. Carolina still lives in the family farmhouse and winery, directly above Mario’s barrels of aging arneis, barbera, and nebbiolo.
One afternoon during my visit, Carolina caught, killed, plucked, and cut up one of the chickens scratching around outside her window. She cooked the pieces in white wine-Mario’s Roero Arneis, of course-and served it as a secondo piatto after an equally stupendous primo of risotto al nebbiolo. I was too consumed by the joy of eating Carolina’s cooking that evening to ask her for preparation details, but the details probably wouldn’t help me re-create anything remotely as good as what I ate there. That chicken reflected the magic of la materia prima, the right raw ingredients, and in particular those very chickens that scratch outside of Carolina’s window.
Nonetheless, after returning to the Bay Area, I e-mailed Mario’s daughter Federica to seek clarification. She spoke to her grandmother and reported back:
“The chickens aren’t of any specific breed. They’re just our chickens. They are ‘free range’ chickens [in the original sense]; that is, they run around free outside and eat insects that they find in the ground and grain that grandma gives them. Since they aren’t given artificial feed, they don’t get very large.
“In order to cook one of them you need, besides the chicken, an onion, some garlic cloves, and a small rosemary branch. After you have removed all the feathers from the chicken and cut it up, heat a little oil in a large pan. Add the diced onion, the rosemary, and the garlic. Fry everything for a bit and then add the chicken. Cook over low heat, bathing everything in white wine (grandma uses Roero Arneis).
“The name of the dish is ‘Pollo Arrosto’ [Roast Chicken].”
The description and what Carolina served seems to me more like sautéed and/or braised chicken, but I didn’t see how much wine she used, and besides, who am I to argue with an Italian grandmother?
At the end of this same visit, I spent time with Armando Gambera, the author of a remarkable cookbook called La cucina delle Langhe del Barolo: I menù della memoria (Loosely translated, “The cooking of Barolo in the Langhe hills: Menus passed down from yesteryear”) The book includes a traditional Piemontese recipe for pollo alla Marengo (chicken Marengo), a dish that has multiplied into as many versions as there are legends about its role in Napolean’s victory in 1800 at the battle of Marengo, a town east of the Roero and Barolo sub-regions where I was staying.
Armando’s traditional version, which I include here, is not too far from Carolina’s “Pollo Arrosto.” Armando uses nutmeg instead of rosemary for seasoning, and he combines stock with the wine for braising. At the end, he adds lemon and flour to make a thickened sauce from the reduced braising liquid.
I also tried a version of Chicken Marengo from Matthew Kramer’s excellent cookbook, A Passion for Piedmont: Italy’s Most Glorious Regional Table. His version uses Madeira wine instead of ordinary white wine and calls for dried porcini mushrooms, with the soaking water getting added to the Madeira and stock to make a more powerful braising liquid. It also includes nutmeg.
When I queried Armando about the differences in the two recipes, he responded, “you’re right: one of the recipes that’s more in vogue calls for a fortified, aromatic wine like Madeira, but you can use Marsala or Sauternes. Nonetheless, the old recipe doesn’t use Madeira.” I liked both versions, but the more modern one seemed to me to be more about the porcini and intensely aromatic wine. Armando’s traditional recipe highlighted the flavor of the chicken more; the lemon juice at the end focused the chicken flavor and made for a brighter, lighter dish. Of course, for this kind of preparation to work, you need good, flavorful chicken. On the other hand, Madeira and porcini will make just about anything, including a lackluster bird, taste flavorful.
Outside of Piemonte, Chicken Marengo became a staple at French bistros. The bistro version typically substitutes Cognac for wine and includes mushrooms and tomatoes. The more extreme versions top it off with crayfish and a fried egg. One version of the Marengo legend is that Napoleon’s chef, Dunand, had to improvise a meal with what he could scrounge after the battle. The ingredients that came into the hands of this prototypical Iron Chef were a chicken, some mushrooms, tomatoes, eggs, crayfish and Cognac from Napoleon’s flask. I have trouble imagining a chef splashing around in a stream looking for crayfish after a battle, but Napoleonic legends, like Italian grandmothers, probably are not meant to be questioned.
THE BAY AREA: LA MATERIA PRIMA
Back in the Bay Area, I asked the chefs at Rívoli and the Bay Wolf about their sources for chickens. Both use Fulton Valley Farms chickens from Sonoma County (www.fultonvalley.com). Wendy Brucker described these chickens as “natural but not organic; they aren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics.” (Fulton Valley Farms does offer organic whole chickens and parts as well.)
My local butcher, Enzo’s Meat & Poultry in the Rockridge Market Hall (www.rockridgemarkethall.com), carries Rocky Range chickens and Rosie Organic Free Range chickens, both from Petaluma Poultry (www.petalumapoultry.com). Rocky is free-range, while Rosie is free-range and certified organic. Both are sustainably farmed. I got together with a group of friends one night and made two renditions of chicken Marengo from Armando’s recipe, one using a Rocky and the other a Rosie. The first thing I noticed was how large both of these birds are: over five pounds each. I ended up cutting the breasts in half in order to make manageable braising- and serving-sized pieces out of them. The results from both chickens were tasty, but most of us at the table preferred Rosie, who seemed more toothsome and flavorful, with a hint of gaminess in the dark meat.
To be fair, the one Italian guest at the table thought that Rocky “tasted more like real chicken.” Also, Michael Wild prefers Rocky, because he finds Rosie too tender and lacking in “bite.” I preferred Rosie precisely because it retained more of a “bite” in our comparison. Perhaps there’s variability in individual birds that’s as important as any categorical difference between the two types of birds.
The other chickens that came up in several conversations but that I haven’t tried yet are from Hoffman Game Birds (www.cuesa.org/markets/farmers/farm_46.php). Wendy Brucker mentioned that she buys them at Magnani Poultry, 1576 Hopkins Street, Berkeley. She also pointed out that she notices more of a difference among different types of chickens when she roasts them than when she’s doing other types of preparations, such as braising.
I’m still experimenting. Carolina’s chicken remains the benchmark, but I’ve been pretty happy with some of the chicken dishes that I’m making at home and eating in East Bay restaurants. Like Louis Le Gassic, I’m starting to wonder whether I shouldn’t have a few chickens scratching around in my backyard.