Back to School Dinner: Chicken Fricassée

Why is August always in such a hurry to get to September? Every year is the same. Maybe because I’m an Aoutienne, and generally take my holidays in August?

The beginning of September sounds the end of summer and marks La Rentrée in France, as elsewhere. Or Back to School time, which doesn’t have the same ring to it and is difficult to put into English sometimes. The “end of the summer holidays would be another one. Because La Rentrée goes beyond school, it’s like France “goes back” to whatever it was doing before the 8-week plus Grandes Vacances. Although not everyone goes on holiday for 8 weeks. But it’s the main event.

The run-up to La Rentrée starts back mid-Grande Vacances with the annual shop for shiny new school supplies, to the bonheur of supermarkets which go all out on their displays, plus ads on TV for excerice books. French kids have to buy everything for school. And then stuff it in their cartables, which end up weighing an average of 8.5 kilos the evening news will tell you, as getting ready for going back to school takes over from the how-heavy-is-the-traffic-on-a-Friday-night report.

I used to love it though, getting a brand new rubber and fountain pen, shiny new pencil case, the obligatory protractor and compass in a metal tin. Exercise books were supplied though.

My school was all girls, and also a boarding school. I lived locally and escaped every day however. We had a strict uniform, green (we looked like trees in winter with brown tights) with a tie and Startrite lace-up shoes and A-line skirt. Until the school taught me how to use a sewing machine and the skirt lost a lot of its excess fabric. And ripped when getting on the bus. I dealt with the shoes too, still brown but rather less chunky. Not with a sewing machine, thanks to Dolcis shoe store.

The school in itself was not unlike Harry Potter’s, lots of corridors and dark wooden panelling, with oil paintings all over the place, mainly still lifes of bowls of fruit but sinister looking. One corridor with a roof led from the main building to the dining hall, and I spent almost my entire time at the school thinking it was called the Cupboard Way, when it was actually called the Covered Way.

We had typical School Dinners of course. What were your favourite and detested dishes?

I brainstormed which school dinner I could revisit with my mother and brother, who thought of shepherd’s pie, fish pie, a hot pot, the roast beef dinner – slightly leather like finely sliced roast beef with insipid gravy and the wet cabbage that gave the hall its distinctive permanent odour, with roast potatoes that lost their roast sitting in the huge vats waiting to be served…

But the one that stood out for me, as much for being not too bad, was chicken fricassee. The chicken fricassee I remember was pieces of chicken in a slightly gloopy white sauce with chunks of carrot (which I didn’t like) and mushrooms, and if you didn’t eat fast enough (I was always last), a skin would form on the sauce.

Ultimately I managed to drop school dinners and start having lunch, packed. A Marmite sandwich and a Penguin biscuit, a much better combo.

The Larousse Gastronomique (English, 1967) states that “In modern French usage, the word fricassée applies almost exclusively to a method of preparing poultry in a white sauce”. But that “(to this day in English-speaking countries), the terms denotes various kinds of stew…made with white or brown stock and made not only from poultry but from meat, fish and vegetables”.
Guess we had the French one at school then.

I looked up several recipes for chicken fricassée, and none of them were the same. Some had wine in, some carrots, some mushrooms, some even finished with egg yolks. Some cook the veg first, others the chicken first, some flour the chicken, others not. To me the flour must be key in thickening the sauce. Some cook in the oven, others not. Having absorbed all that I did it my way, a simple version taking bits from all methods.

And although I’m sure our school cooks would not have added bottles of white wine, for the 2011 adult version, I decided to use it.

For method I decided to brown the vegetables first, remove them then brown chicken pieces gently to seal in the flavours. Then remove and flour and season them, add stock, wine and bouquet garni, and finish with thick creme fraîche.

Chicken fricassée

Serves 4

– 1 tbspn butter
– 2 tbspns olive oil
– 2 shallots, chopped
– 1 small branch of celery, finely chopped
– 20 average white mushrooms, sliced
– 4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces (my taste, chicken thighs or other pieces of chicken on the bone can be used)
– 3 tbspns of flour
– 200 ml chicken stock
– 200 ml white wine
– 1 bouquet garni
– 4 tbspns crème fraiche

Rice to serve

1. Heat the butter and oil in a deep frying pan or large casserole.
2. Brown the shallots and celery. Remove to a plate.
3. Brown the mushrooms until they start giving off their juice.Remove to the plate with the vegetables.
4. Brown the chicken in the pan. Remove to a plate and sprinkle all over with flour. (Remove to the plate with the vegetables.)
5. Add the stock and white wine to the pan with the bouquet garni
6. Add back the vegetables.
7. Add back the chicken.
8. Cook covered for about half an hour (keep an eye out that it doesn’t dry out. If it does, add a little more white wine or stock).
9. Remove the bouquet garni.
10. Stir in the crème fraîche and leave to warm for a couple of minutes.
11. Serve over rice.

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