Thursday, December 27, 2012

Search for a Great Poule au Pot

My wife J and I love poule au pot (chicken in the pot), especially in winter, and recently I have been seeking out a good and simple recipe for a French, as opposed to Jewish, version.

First I tried a slow-cooker version, served with a garlic aioli. The method was pretty good, but the vegetable profile was boring: it needed parsnips or fennel to perk up the muddy onion-turnip-leek-carrot melange. The aioli helped a lot.

With that experience fresh in mind, I received the January-February 2013 issue of Cook's Illustrated, and found a recipe for "French Style Chicken with Stuffing," essentially poule au pot with sausage stuffing. Their insights: use chicken quarters rather than a whole chicken, and stack them in a prescribed way that speeds up cooking and permits the breast and dark meat to be done (but not overdone) at the same time, and brown the chicken first to create a fond that will enhance the flavor of the broth. Thus, vegetables and potatoes are placed in the bottom of the pot, with broth to almost cover, followed by the leg quarter and the stuffing (sausage, bread and herbs processed and made into rolls in parchment) and, finally, the breasts.

Poule au Pot made from Cook's Illustrated recipe
The method worked and we had a good, but not great, result. My fault, I think: I started with a whole chicken and used the wings, back and neck to make a rich unsalted stock without vegetables or aromatics. This resulted in a broth that was rich but missing the complexity that I was hoping for. If I use this method again, I will make a more complex stock and add something to impart umami flavor, probably tomato paste.

Finally, it dawned on me that I should seek the wisdom of my idol, Jacques Pépin, who has been making poule au pot for more than 60 years.  Indeed, I found a recipe in his Essential Pépin, and this proved to be what I was looking for: great broth, interesting vegetables and flavorful chicken. Jacques gently boils the chicken, then removes the flesh and boils the chicken bones some more, and finally adds the vegetables only for the last 20 minutes, resulting in a supercharged rich broth.  The final dish is served with passed fleur de sel, toasted baquette slices with comté or similar cheese, cornichons (gherkins) and hot mustard. (Those knowledgeable in French food will recognize this as a pot au feu made with chicken instead of beef.) I made it in Paris, where excellent chicken and vegetables abound, and J and our guest loved it, as did I. Here are pictures with all the accoutrements.

Jacques Pépin's Poule au Pot
I have not written off the slow cooker and Cook's versions, but it's hard to see how I can beat the Pépin version of this French classic.

Bobby Jay

No comments: