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Real Entertaining

A Modest Bird Becomes a Party Animal

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 18, 2009; Page F01

The sky would fall before many people would serve chicken to guests. It's not fancy enough, and besides, why make something for company that they can easily eat at home?

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Now more than ever, I disagree. I say chicken is the new rib roast.

Few dishes are as noble, satisfying or just plain beautiful as a lovingly prepared chicken in a pot, an incredibly versatile dish that can straddle the seasons for a late-winter dinner party. The process involves little more than browning a chicken on both sides in a casserole, adding aromatic vegetables, covering the lot with foil and baking the bird slowly, essentially in its own juices. What results is succulent meat and about a cupful of intensely flavored liquid gold.

If you think that's not stylish enough for entertaining, take a cue from the French. Poule au pot is a standard of every French cook's repertoire; just as a Frenchwoman can sport the same skirt and blouse all week but never wear the same outfit twice, she knows how to dress up a chicken in myriad delectable ways.

The key is that the core element should be simple, beautifully crafted and inconspicuous, whether it's an outfit or a chicken. Classic is always in good taste; adding accessories is the way to change things up.

What is essential here is that you start with a good bird, and I don't mean the bleached-out, tasteless mass-market type that is responsible for chicken's dull reputation. If the core element of even one dish is of inferior quality, the whole meal is doomed to fail.

The French swear by their Bresse blue-foot chickens, for good reason. Everything about the birds, including where they're raised, what they eat, how long they roam free and how long they remain in wooden cages (in darkness, by the way, to turn their flesh white), is strictly regulated by the government. Bresse chickens are sold only whole, with the neck and feet intact and tags attached that verify the provenance. They can cost over $10 a pound, but the French consider the benefit -- they taste like chicken -- worth the price.

I had my own chicken revelation last summer at the Locke Country Store in Millwood, Va., where I splurged on a frozen bird from the justifiably famous Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va. After thawing the chicken, I brined it, smeared it with spice rub and smoked it, but then regretted covering up its natural attributes, even though they still managed to shine through. Lesson learned? Keep it simple.

I applied that lesson to my March dinner menu. Once I had settled on poule au pot, I decided to keep things mostly French throughout the rest of the menu, too, and then added embellishments to the basic elements.

A first course of blanched green beans served in a vinaigrette is always reliable. It is simple, to be sure, but can be easily upgraded by, say, lining a salad plate with smoked salmon or prosciutto and topping it with dressed salad mix and the beans and a garnish of hard-cooked egg (for the salmon) or shaved Parmesan cheese (for the prosciutto). Instead of garden-variety green beans, I used delicate haricots verts, tossed them in basil vinaigrette, placed them on spring salad mix and topped them with Gorgonzola crumbles and crisp bacon bits. [Recipe: Green Bean Salad]

I also put a fresh face on my poule au pot (using a variation in the recipe at right) by supplementing the chicken's aromatics with fennel stalks, saffron and plenty of lemon and orange zest. Two side dishes -- thinly sliced fennel steamed with saffron and turmeric; green-black, peppery French lentils du Puy -- pulled the outfit together. [Recipes: Saffron Fennel and French Lentils]

For dessert, I went American: a warm cobbler made with peaches frozen in August at the pinnacle of goodness, a welcome reminder that the winter doldrums are ending and summer's delights are within reach.

The cobbler's peaches, which came from an orchard near Carlisle, Pa., were good enough to stand on their own, but spicy bits of crystallized ginger, bursts of dried apricot and creamy dollops of honey ice cream added elegant flourishes. [Recipes: Peach-Apricot Cobbler]

I tested the meal on friends by inviting them over for dinner during the Academy Awards broadcast. As a further testament to the meal's versatility, I decided at the last minute to serve a buffet rather than a plated meal so my guests could check out the red-carpet gowns while eating. I served the salad on a large porcelain platter, took the chicken to the table in the same Le Creuset casserole I had cooked it in, and placed bowls of the caviar-like lentils and bright yellow fennel next to it.

But rather than serve the chicken whole and expect guests to hack away at it, I pre-carved it. That got the mess and cleanup of the task out of the way, allowed my guests to avail themselves freely throughout the evening and let me control portion size. (See a description of the carving technique.)

Plates were cleaned after second and third helpings, but my friends managed to find room for dessert. There was much debate over which gown was tops in Hollywood, but in my living room, a chicken took the award for best dressed.

David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at food@washpost.com. His Real Entertaining column appears monthly.


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