Cooking Off the Cuff: Welcome back, poulet


Chicken in vinegar sauce, revisited. (Edward Schneider)

Actually, authentic recipes for poulet saute au vinaigre vary so wildly that it would be better to say there is a whole class of such dishes. Looking at regional French cookbooks, and cookbooks by chefs with roots in those regions, I found quantities of butter (for one chicken) ranging from a trifle more than 2 ounces, to a scant 4 ounces, to 6 ounces (most of which gets thrown away, but which in that recipe is replaced by 2 cups of cream, which seems as odd to me as it might to you). Quantities of vinegar ranged from 1/3 cup to about 1 1/4 cups, and cloves of garlic from 3 to 15.

Last time we had a craze for this dish, I spent quite a lot of time tinkering with it and found proportions that worked well. Plus, I took to using a rich-tasting, slightly sweet Spanish white wine vinegar made from muscat grapes, which seemed to marry with the flavor of the chicken. I use the Unio brand, but there are several others available. Whatever wine vinegar you use, make sure it’s a good one — not something concocted with an industrial chemistry set.

My current favorite chickens are Pennsylvania-raised and locally slaughtered. They’re deeply flavorful, perfect for roasting or poaching where you want the taste of little else but chicken. At the same time they stand up to a more invasive set of ingredients such as garlic and vinegar. I went to the butcher to buy something else, but came away instead with one of those chickens; on the way home, I remembered this dish and couldn’t wait to cook it.

So I did.

For four nice portions, I cut the 3-1/2-pound chicken into eight pieces, which I dried, seasoned with salt and pepper and put in the refrigerator to improve (they’d get even tastier from the salt, and the skin would dry a little, making it easier to brown). The cut-up carcass and neck (annoyingly, there was no gizzard or heart) went into a pot with some vegetables and water to make stock, some of which I’d use in the dish.

When dinner was in the offing, I measured out a full cup of my delicious vinegar. I took a shallow braising pan (or was it a deep skillet?) with a lid and set it over medium heat. I dried the chicken pieces with paper towels then browned them in a couple of tablespoons of butter until golden – a total of maybe 10 minutes for both sides. I dropped the heat to medium-low, added 10 or a dozen medium-size cloves of garlic, lightly crushed with the flat side of a knife, along with sprigs of fresh parsley and tarragon, three tablespoons of wine vinegar and 1/4 cup of chopped tomato (canned would be a good idea at this time of year). If I hadn’t had tarragon, I’d have used thyme.

I left the lid slightly ajar, creating a steamy environment for the chicken yet allowing liquid to evaporate. Every five minutes for 20 minutes, I added another two tablespoons of vinegar and turned the chicken in the juices. After the final (for now) addition of vinegar, I left the pan uncovered and let the juices reduce. At this point, the white-meat pieces were done — if they hadn’t been, I’d have just continued to cook — and I transferred them to a serving platter loosely covered with foil and put it into a 150-degree oven. If there had been a grotesque excess of fat, I’d have spooned some of it off at this point, but there wasn’t.

To finish the dark meat and the sauce, I added the rest of that cup of vinegar (yes, it’s a lot, but it gets balanced out with stock, seasoning and butter), a cup of chicken stock and a tablespoon of tomato paste. I increased the heat to medium, keeping the lid off the pan, and simmered until the dark meat was done. That might take five, six or seven minutes. I removed the remaining chicken pieces and put them in with the white meat to keep warm.

I strained the sauce into a saucepan, pressing the garlic cloves with the back of a spoon to extract flavor and some of their soft, aromatic pulp. After reducing the sauce a little more, until it really tasted like a sauce, I added chopped parsley and tarragon. To finish, I swirled in two or three tablespoons of butter, checked for salt and pepper, and poured the sauce over the chicken.

All that vinegar, and no harshness at all, just flavor — much of which came from the chicken itself.

I served it with a simple rice pilaf made with the same chicken stock, somewhat diluted. I just can’t think of a better accompaniment; couscous might do, or perhaps rosti potatoes — but the latter sounds like a lot of last-minute work to accompany a main course that already calls for a certain amount of attention.

When you revisit a dish years later, you never really know whether it will still be to your taste. But when it is a great classic like this one, its appeal endures.

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