Over the years, favorite poultry dishes have come and gone from our repertoire. One that Jackie and I hadn’t made in years is a wonderful Burgundian-Lyonnais chicken saute with vinegar. We first ate it decades ago on one of our early trips to France.
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.