Monday, March 21, 2011

Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous

Paula Wolfert is one of my favorite food writers. Her cookbooks—there are currently eight—teach us how to become better cooks. Wolfert’s area of expertise is Mediterranean food. Many consider Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco [1973] her classic. However, my favorite is The Cooking of South-West France [1983].

Wolfert spent over half a decade researching and writing The Cooking of South-West France. Her passion, scholarship and dedication to craft are evident on every page of the cookbook. She fills The Cooking of South-West France with “a unique touch—a truc, or secret, as the French like to say” or, as she prefers, “an element of finesse.” These secrets ground you in how things should be done thus elevating your ability to cook well.

The Cooking of South-West France was my second cookbook, purchased almost thirty years ago. To this day its recipes hold a deep allure: Rillettes de Saumon (Salmon Rillettes); Paillaisson de Pommes de Terre aux Poireaux (Straw Potato Cake Stuffed with Braised Leeks); Côtelettes d’Agneau à la Sauce d’Estragon (Lamb Chops with Port Wine and Tarragon); Fricassée de Rognons de Veau aux Artichauts (Fricassée of Veal Kidneys and Artichokes); and Tarte aux Noix à la Masseube (Walnut Cake from Masseube).

One of the first dishes that I tried from the book was Wolfert’s recipe for Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous or Chicken with Red Onion Sauce. Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous is emblematic of the recipes in The Cooking of South-West France: a direct, honest country dish rooted in place. (Wolfert calls this cooking true cuisine de terroir.) Many of the dishes in the book, including Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous, are a “Mother’s dish” or “Mother’s cooking”. In her introduction to The Cooking of South-West France, Wolfert writes: “If good country ‘Mother’s cooking’ can rival the finest bourgeois cuisine (and I think a strong case can be made for this), then sophisticated versions of ‘Mother’s cooking’ might be the very best cooking around.”

What drew me to first try Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous is its simplicity—Wolfert says its “utter simplicity.” Its few ingredients are (relatively) easy to find and straightforward: chicken and cured ham, onions and wine, and finally freshly chopped herbs. (You can find goose and duck fat for sale on-line and at many fine food stores.) As with most simple dishes, the highest quality ingredients yield the best results.
  • 1 chicken (3 ½ pounds), quartered
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons rendered goose fat, or substitute another poultry fat
  • 2 ½ ounces jambon de Bayonne, prosciutto, or Westphalian ham, diced (½ cup diced)
  • 2 pounds red onions, coarsely chopped (about 3 cups)
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon mixed chopped fresh herbs: parsley and chives

1. Rub the chicken with salt and pepper as soon as you bring it home; cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated. Before cooking, remove from refrigerator and allow to stand 30 minutes to come to room temperature.

2. Heat poultry fat in a deep 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken quarters, skin side down, and cook until browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side, shaking skillet to keep chicken from sticking.

3. Add diced ham, cover, and allow ham to soften, about 2 minutes. Add onions and cook, covered, over low heat 5 minutes, until they are soft but not brown.

4. Add wine and bring to a boil; stir to blend flavors. Cover tightly and cook over low heat 20 minutes, turning chicken once in the cooking juices. (Chicken can wait in the skillet with onions, partially covered, for 30 minutes before serving.)

5. 15 minutes before serving, preheat broiler. Remove cooked chicken quarters and arrange them skin side up in a shallow flameproof baking dish; set aside.

6. Meanwhile, slowly boil down onions and cooking liquid in skillet until thick but still saucelike. Adjust seasoning. Run chicken quarters under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes to reheat and crisp the skin; pour onion sauce over and glaze for 30 seconds. Decorate with fresh chopped herbs and serve at once. Serves 4.

Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous is comforting, satisfying, homey and, perhaps for many, wonderfully familiar. It is unlikely that you will find this dish in a restaurant. But countless variations on this theme—a chicken braise—can be found at Sunday night dinners across the country. My own mother-in-law made a similar dish (here) that the family calls Grandma’s Chicken: Section a chicken, dust with seasoned flour, brown in butter, add vermouth and fresh herbs, and slowly cook. No French prosciutto or onions—an inevitable difference between dishes from Nashotah, Wisconsin and the Landes département of Southern France—but the same spirit. Wolfert has done a great service by memorializing a classic French Mother’s dish for all to enjoy for years to come.