Monday, March 21, 2011

Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous


Paula Wolfert is one of my favorite food writers. Her cookbooks—there are currently eight—teach us how to become better cooks. Wolfert’s area of expertise is Mediterranean food. Many consider Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco [1973] her classic. However, my favorite is The Cooking of South-West France [1983].

Wolfert spent over half a decade researching and writing The Cooking of South-West France. Her passion, scholarship and dedication to craft are evident on every page of the cookbook. She fills The Cooking of South-West France with “a unique touch—a truc, or secret, as the French like to say” or, as she prefers, “an element of finesse.” These secrets ground you in how things should be done thus elevating your ability to cook well.

The Cooking of South-West France was my second cookbook, purchased almost thirty years ago. To this day its recipes hold a deep allure: Rillettes de Saumon (Salmon Rillettes); Paillaisson de Pommes de Terre aux Poireaux (Straw Potato Cake Stuffed with Braised Leeks); Côtelettes d’Agneau à la Sauce d’Estragon (Lamb Chops with Port Wine and Tarragon); Fricassée de Rognons de Veau aux Artichauts (Fricassée of Veal Kidneys and Artichokes); and Tarte aux Noix à la Masseube (Walnut Cake from Masseube).

One of the first dishes that I tried from the book was Wolfert’s recipe for Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous or Chicken with Red Onion Sauce. Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous is emblematic of the recipes in The Cooking of South-West France: a direct, honest country dish rooted in place. (Wolfert calls this cooking true cuisine de terroir.) Many of the dishes in the book, including Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous, are a “Mother’s dish” or “Mother’s cooking”. In her introduction to The Cooking of South-West France, Wolfert writes: “If good country ‘Mother’s cooking’ can rival the finest bourgeois cuisine (and I think a strong case can be made for this), then sophisticated versions of ‘Mother’s cooking’ might be the very best cooking around.”


What drew me to first try Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous is its simplicity—Wolfert says its “utter simplicity.” Its few ingredients are (relatively) easy to find and straightforward: chicken and cured ham, onions and wine, and finally freshly chopped herbs. (You can find goose and duck fat for sale on-line and at many fine food stores.) As with most simple dishes, the highest quality ingredients yield the best results.
  • 1 chicken (3 ½ pounds), quartered
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons rendered goose fat, or substitute another poultry fat
  • 2 ½ ounces jambon de Bayonne, prosciutto, or Westphalian ham, diced (½ cup diced)
  • 2 pounds red onions, coarsely chopped (about 3 cups)
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon mixed chopped fresh herbs: parsley and chives

1. Rub the chicken with salt and pepper as soon as you bring it home; cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated. Before cooking, remove from refrigerator and allow to stand 30 minutes to come to room temperature.

2. Heat poultry fat in a deep 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken quarters, skin side down, and cook until browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side, shaking skillet to keep chicken from sticking.

3. Add diced ham, cover, and allow ham to soften, about 2 minutes. Add onions and cook, covered, over low heat 5 minutes, until they are soft but not brown.

4. Add wine and bring to a boil; stir to blend flavors. Cover tightly and cook over low heat 20 minutes, turning chicken once in the cooking juices. (Chicken can wait in the skillet with onions, partially covered, for 30 minutes before serving.)

5. 15 minutes before serving, preheat broiler. Remove cooked chicken quarters and arrange them skin side up in a shallow flameproof baking dish; set aside.

6. Meanwhile, slowly boil down onions and cooking liquid in skillet until thick but still saucelike. Adjust seasoning. Run chicken quarters under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes to reheat and crisp the skin; pour onion sauce over and glaze for 30 seconds. Decorate with fresh chopped herbs and serve at once. Serves 4.

Poulet aux Oignons de Trébous is comforting, satisfying, homey and, perhaps for many, wonderfully familiar. It is unlikely that you will find this dish in a restaurant. But countless variations on this theme—a chicken braise—can be found at Sunday night dinners across the country. My own mother-in-law made a similar dish that the family calls Grandma’s Chicken: section a chicken, dust with seasoned flour, brown in butter, add vermouth and fresh herbs, and slowly cook. No French prosciutto or onions (an inevitable difference between dishes from Nashotah, Wisconsin and the Landes département of Southern France), but the spirit is the same. Wolfert has done a great service by memorializing a classic French Mother’s dish for all to enjoy for years to come.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rosolio di limone


This is the first post in a series on homemade Italian liqueurs. We begin with a recipe for Rosolio di limone, a lemon liqueur featured in Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia - A Culinary Memoir [2008]. This aromatic rosolio has a sunny, round flavor that is slightly sweet and refreshingly bright. You can follow the steps used to make this rosolio to create a broad range of homemade liqueurs.

Rosolio di limone is the first of sixteen liqueur (or cordial) recipes in Ferrante’s book. Unlike many infused liqueurs that are made with a myriad of ingredients, such as fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, roots, barks and (historically) cochineal insects, Rosolio di limone contains only four ingredients: lemon zest, alcohol, sugar and water. Making Rosolio di limone is as simple as its ingredients: soak zest in alcohol, add syrup, filter and cure. From these simple ingredients and steps, countless variations exist: the number, variety and ripeness of lemons; the type and strength of alcohol; the duration of infusion; and the kind of syrup.

Which variation will appeal to you is a matter of personal preference—this is an art (of sorts) and not an exact science. However, Ferrante’s recipe for Rosolio di limone offers insights that can help improve the quality of any homemade liqueur. Here is her recipe:
  • Zest of 6 large freshly picked lemons
  • 1 quart alcohol [pure, distilled]
  • 5 cups sugar
  • 4 ½ cups water
In a tightly sealed bottle, soak the zest in alcohol for 48 hours. Occasionally shake up the contents of the bottle. In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the sugar and water. Boil for about 2 minutes then remove from heat. Allow the syrup to cool and then add the lemon-steeped alcohol. Stir to combine, then filter the liquid and pour back into a clean, dry bottle. Hermetically seal the liquid in the bottle and set aside for at least 1 week before serving.

Lemons

Ferrante’s recipe calls for “freshly picked” lemons. Many of the lemon varieties in Southern Italy are not readily available in the United States where Eureka and Lisbon lemons are the prevalent commercial crop. My experience is that a freshly tree-picked lemon of any variety produces a superior tasting liqueur than a supermarket lemon. Yes, different lemon varieties have different flavors and aromas, but the sooner you can get citrus zest from tree into alcohol, the better. A lemon’s essential oil is volatile and will quickly vaporize. Some Italian recipes suggest that slightly green (i.e., almost ripe) lemons have more oil and produce the best results.


Another way to improve your rosolio is to carefully prepare the lemon’s zest before infusing it in alcohol. When peeling the lemons remove only the zest without any pith. If your zest has any pith, carefully carve it away. A lemon’s white pith is unpleasantly bitter.

Alcohol


The type and proof of alcohol can also improve your rosolio. Ferrante’s recipe calls for “pure” alcohol. I read this to mean a high alcohol, neutral grain spirit. Because neutral grain spirits (e.g., Everclear) are often extremely high in alcohol, these flammable liquids are not readily available in the United States in their 190- or 151-proof versions. So then why use such a neutral grain spirit? Its danger is also its virtue: a high concentration of alcohol acts as an efficient solvent that extracts and carries certain flavors and aromas. If you do not have access to (or simply feel uncomfortable using) a neutral grain spirit, consider using 120-, 100- or 80-proof vodka.

Infusion

In Ferrante’s recipe the lemons soak in alcohol for 48 hours. This is a fairly brief time (perhaps because the recipe calls for “pure” alcohol) compared to many other rosolio recipes. If you like, you can soak the zest for an extra day or two. Four to five days is a common infusion period when using a neutral grain spirit.

Once you make and cure your rosolio, store it in your freezer. (Its alcohol content prevents it from freezing.) Bright, aromatic and cold, Rosolio di limone is most often enjoyed after dinner as a digestif.


You can use Ferrante’s recipe, with minor adjustments, as a master recipe to make other citrus-based liqueurs such as Rosolio di arance (using the zest of seven freshly picked oranges), Rosolio di mandarini (using the zest of eight freshly picked “but not extremely ripe” tangerines) and Rosolio di lima di Spagna (using the minced zest of eight Spanish limes).