Of all meat, chicken is possibly the delectable, probably the least expensive and certainly the most exploitable.
"Larousse Gastronomique" describes almost 360 ways of cooking chicken -- nearly enough to fill the days of a year. Of course you'd tire of it long before then, and some of the recipes in "Larousse" are impractical for a Washington kitchen.
I like to cook chicken in two basically related ways that aren't difficult and offer opportunities for endless improvising, depending on what you have on hand and feel like eating: Chicken saute and chicken fricassee.
Chicken saute is cooked in butter, or butter and oil in a frying pan, and no liquid is added in the process. You should serve it immediately when it and its sauce are done, since it dries out if kept warm too long or reheated. It's a cousin of that old staple, fried chicken, but really quite unlike it. Chicken fricassee is cooked in butter and liquid, takes kindly to keeping warm or being reheated and is an oh-so-distant cousin of stewed chicken.
To begin at the beginning, either method demands good chicken. Get farm chickens, not assembly-line chickens, weighing 2 1/2 to 3 pounds top. You can find them at the Bethesda Farm Women's Market and outside the Georgetown Market on Saturdays, as well as other area markets. Over the years we've run through a succession of chicken ladies at the Farm Women's Market -- Mrs. Dobson, Mrs. Bell and others. They keep retiring, to be replaced by another whose chickens are just as good.
Buy the chickens cut up, or cut them up yourself, which allows creative touches such as leaving small bits of breast meat attached to the wings, as the French do. The wing has an undeserved, below-the-salt reputation for dinner. Once you've tried it with an open mind, you'll discover it may be the most tasty part of the chicken. CHICKEN SAUTE (4 servings) 2 1/2- to 3-pound farm-fresh chicken, cut into pieces Salt and pepper Butter and oil for frying Sauce Portugaise: 1 small white onion, minced 5 or 6 sliced mushrooms (optional) 4 or 5 small fresh tomatoes, peeled (substitute canned) 1 clove garlic, pressed 1/2 cup white wine 1/2 cup brown stock Salt and pepper, to taste
Lightly salt and pepper chicken pieces. Brown them in about 1/8 inch of half butter and half oil in a large, preferably enameled, frying pan over fairly high heat. I use sunflower oil, which I consider hands-down the best cooking oil available. Fuss with the chicken, turning and nudging it with tongs so it browns to an even, golden tan.
Lower heat to medium, cover the frying pan, and cook the chicken until it's done (15 to 25 minutes, depending on its size). Turn a few times while cooking. Judging doneness is part of the creative challenge of sauteed or fricasseed chicken. After you've cooked it a few times, you'll become astonishingly precise. Some parts (breast, wings) cook faster than others. A way to compensate is to add or take out different pieces at different times. aThat's a lot of trouble. Instead, I keep quick-cooking pieces near the outside edge of the frying pan once they are browned, and it turns out just fine.
When the chicken is done, keep it warm on a serving platter while you make the sauce. Although it means turning on the oven, here's how I keep it warm: Heat the oven to 450 degrees for about 2 minutes and turn it off when you start browning the chicken. Then keep the cooked chicken in the stll-warm oven.
When the chicken is a few minutes from being done, add the onion and optional sliced mushrooms. After the chicken is removed, add tomatoes, garlic and white wine to pan. Boil them down, scraping and stirring until reduced by about half. Add stock, stir and taste for seasonings. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve. This is very tasty stuff. CHICKEN FRICASSEE (4 servings) 1 each medium carrot, celery stalk, onion 6 tablespoons butter 2 1/2- to 3-pound farm-fresh chicken, cut into pieces Salt and pepper 3 to 4 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup white wine 1 cup hot chicken stock (approximately) bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon thyme 2 or 3 sprigs parsley Sauce: 1/2 cup cooked button mushrooms 1/2 cup tiny white onions, chopped 1/2 cup cream 1 egg yolk (optional)
Thinly slice carrot, celery stalk and onion and cook in 4 tablespoons of butter over low heat for 4 or 5 minutes until tender. Push to one side of the frying pan, or take out and keep handy. Melt 2 more tablespoons butter. Add the chicken pieces. Salt and pepper lightly, raise heat slightly and put the vegetables back in if you've taken them out. Cook, turning several times, until the chicken turns yellow. Don't brown. Cover the frying pan, lower heat and cook for about 10 minutes, still not letting the chicken brown. Then sprinkle the chicken with 3 to 4 tablespoons of flour, turning and moving the chicken around to distribute evenly. Break up clots of flour. Add 1/2 cup white wine with enough hot chicken stock (about 1 cup) to almost cover the chicken, a bay leaf, thyme and parsley. Cover frying pan and simmer until done (a half hour or so). Remove chicken and keep warm.
Sauce possibilities are almost unlimited, since you have a bubbling, already thickened base at the end. Add 1/2 cup cooked button mushrooms, 1/2 cup tiny white onions and 1/2 cup cream. Simmer until you get a medium-thick sauce. Take the frying pan off the burner and beat in an egg yolk before serving, if you feel fancy. (Beat a little of the sauce into the yolk, then add to the rest of the sauce.) Pour the sauce and vegetables over the chicken and call people to the table.
The fun of chicken sautes and chicken fricasses is improvising. Once past the basic cooking stage, let your instincts take over. A teaspoon each of a couple of herbs -- tarragon, thyme, basil, sage -- is good, especially if fresh from your garden. A sqeeze of lemon never hurts chicken. Purists may shiver, but you can add partly cooked potatoes or vegetables if there's room and finish cooking with the chicken so they trade flavors promiscuously.
Move onward and upward from chicken roasted, stewed or fried. You already know that chicken is the world's premier leftover. Although at our house there seldom is any.