Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Paula Peck's (revised) chicken breasts al vermouth, 1963

We know my feelings about recipes for braised chicken; this is another one which I must revise because, while its ingredients are tasty, to fry and then to simmer (or in this case, bake) chicken pieces, in my experience, only leads to a platter of overcooked, rubbery, thick-skinned, grayish-brown disappointment. Actually, here it might have led to a platter of vastly undercooked, rubbery, thick-skinned pink terror. Our authoress tells us to sauté briefly 6 seasoned chicken breasts and then finish baking them at 300 F for eight to ten minutes. Meanwhile, make the sauce, etc. She gives exactly the same time and temperature directions for Chicken Breasts Niçoise on the opposite page of her book. Call me a ninny, but eight minutes to bake six chicken breasts? I think not. Chickens must have been incredibly small in 1963, to warrant such perfunctory exposure to a heat source. At least thirty to forty minutes at 350 F, surely, are required for today's chesty, hello-sailor! birds, and do use a meat thermometer to insure the pieces' internal temperature is 165 F before offering them to kith and kin.

Come to think of it, in this hot weather you might also grill a chicken, cut up or whole, outdoors, using that handy chimney starter that a friend suggested you buy. Consulting the internet, post purchase, for information and videos on how to use a chimney starter will be, as Bertie Wooster would say, the work of a moment. Only be careful about letting the coals burn too long in the starter. Ten minutes is enough, though many of them will still look black and cold at that point. Longer than that, and half the coals uselessly burn away their heat before you have tumbled them -- carefully -- into the grill. As with the disappointments of braising, this is the voice of personal experience. Also, don't stand your chimney starter, burning, directly on the concrete of your driveway. The intense heat can cause the concrete to explode. This, I am glad to say, is not the voice of personal experience. Learning it was the work of a(n internet, bless it) moment.

There. Let's say you are well advanced in cooking a chicken, baked or grilled, whole or in pieces, as you prefer. What you really want, from all braising recipes like this one, is the sauce. Thus Paula Peck, and her "Chicken breasts al vermouth" from Paula Peck's Art of Good Cooking (Simon & Schuster, 1963). Have I properly introduced her yet? My bad. After meeting her, you will need:
1/4 cup (half a stick) butter
1 to 2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3 scallions, minced
1/2 cup dry vermouth
2/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup pitted green olives, cut in half
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the scallions, salt to taste, allspice, and cinnamon. Let the scallions soften a little. Stir in vermouth and cream, and simmer gently for perhaps ten to fifteen minutes, to allow the flavors to meld and the liquids to reduce -- to "less than half," Paula says.

As much as we dislike the technique of braising, what we would have wanted to flavor the sauce at this point would have been the delicious meat juices that cooked into it -- if at first we had browned the chicken in the butter, per Paula's instructions. Lacking these rendered juices, we could now pour half a cup of chicken broth into the pan of spiced cream-and-vermouth, or even better we could add the defatted drippings from a chicken that has slowly oven-roasted while we work. Remember how we learned to use a bulb baster to siphon these from a roasting pan, pump them into a Pyrex cup, and then handily withdraw the best of them from beneath the layer of fat we see through the glass?

So you might do that. My revisions and quibblings, siphonings and substitutions, Pyrex cups and chimney starters might seem to idiotically complicate what is probably a simple 30-minute recipe in Paula Peck's capable, retro hands. (Perhaps you can follow her directions and braise it all to perfection. Incidentally, her granddaughter Megan blogs at Megan Peck Cooks.) Perhaps I got giddy about the whole thing because the combination of chicken, cream, vermouth and warm spices -- and then olives, so unusual -- is so good that I hate to forego it with an "I hate braises" shudder. Perhaps I got giddy also because now that I've got an air conditioner in the house while the temperature outside soars to 100 degrees again, the kitchen has cooled off and I am ready to assemble something besides sandwiches for dinner, from now until the fall.

Giddy or not, just before serving your chicken -- however prepared -- stir those green olives into the sauce al vermouth. Then ladle it into a gravy boat and sprinkle on the parsley. Have you got a side dish, or some good bread or grilled vegetables to go with? And do pour a simple, cool summer wine. Why not get away from California and Australia and France and all the other very important places, just for a moment, and sip instead Wisconsin's Wollersheim Winery's Prairié Fumé? The grape is Seyval blanc, the taste, fresh, slightly sweet, bracing and delightful. Retail, about $12.

Image from Wollersheim Winery


  1. Thanks for posting my grandmother's recipe and for linking my blog!

  2. You're welcome, and how pleasant to meet you, in a virtual sort of way.


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