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.


Chez Panisse 40th: Duck with Olives (Canard aux Olives)

Bon anniversaire Chez Panisse! Today’s the day, 40.

Apparently this weekend they’ve been cooking Werner Herzog’s shoe again. Or rather a beautiful pair of pigskin shoes. Alice Waters literally cooked the original when Errol Morris finished his film, Mr Herzog having said he would eat his shoe if he did. Morris held him to his word.

Incidentally Chez Panisse was named after a character in Marius, Fanny and César, the trilogy of films by French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, set in a bar in the Old Port of my favourite bolt hole, Marseille.  As part of a Pagnol retrospective, they’re showing his The Baker’s Wife today.

I did not want to cook shoes for a Chez Panisse tribute menu main course, but a version of the dish served on the evening of August 28, 1971, exactly 40 years ago today: Canard aux olives, a bistro classic. (Former Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz has published some photos of the Chez Panisse menus over the years.)

Apparently Chef Victoria Kroyer spent three days on the sauce, making a fond brun which became sauce espagnole which became a demi glace (and no that’s not ice cream) yielding a superb sauce to be mixed with the olives, served over braised ducks. She had never made any of them before. (Me neither.)

As I was never going to spend three days making a sauce for this dish, I started looking around for a recipe for Canard aux Olives. Some were cooked on a stovetop, some in the oven. Some used stock, some didn’t. Some used fresh tomatoes or paste. Mine doesn’t.

To go with the duck, I love sautéed potatoes, and it’s great to sauté them in the duck fat you’ll pour off. That’s typical bistro style, just duck and potatoes, no veg, but serve some steamed broccoli or something if you’d like some.

To follow I served a mesclun salad for Alice, who loves to prepare a salad of young fresh salad leaves. (Note: Only add the dressing at the last minute, else the leaves will “cook”.)

It feels almost strange to think that I’m serving this meal to my French family, 40 years to the day Chez Panisse served it. And around a French heirloom table – one that leaves barely enough room to get your knees under, and that is so high you have to almost lift your cutlery up as if you’re conducting an orchestra.
I think Alice Waters would approve.

Duck with Olives (Canard aux Olives)

(adapted from a recipe by L’Atelier des Chefs, Paris)

Serves 6

– 3 large duck breasts (magrets) (or 6 small ones)
– 1 large onion or 2 small onions, roughly chopped
– 1 tbspn olive oil
– 200g green olives, stoned
– 3 garlic cloves, crushed
– 250ml dry white wine
– 1 bouquet garni
– 1 tbspn flour

Plus About 1.5 kg potatoes (Charlotte are good), sliced and parboiled, if you wish to serve sautéed potatoes with the duck.

1. Sear the duck breasts (skin side down), or pieces (all over) in a large casserole, about 10 minutes each side. Beware because they will spit and splutter and release a lot of fat, which will be hot.
2. Remove.
3. Pour out the fat into a frying pan to sauté the potatoes if serving.
4. Add a bit of olive oil and brown the onions.
5. Add the crushed garlic.
6. Add the olives and the duck.
7. Pour in the dry white wine.
8. Add the bouquet garni.
9. Sprinkle in a tablespoon of flour.
10. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
11. Sauté the parboiled sliced potatoes in the duck fat.
12. Remove the bouquet garni and serve the duck breast with the olives and sauce poured over with the potatoes on the side.

Chez Panisse 40th Menu: Shaved Fennel, Artichoke and Parmesan Salad to start

How do you turn a love of French food into a successful restaurant that celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend?

Alice Waters has the answer. After studying in Paris in the sixties she took home with her a love of French food, a love that she eventually planted and, with more than a little help from her friends, got to flourish as the restaurant Chez Panisse, in Berkeley California.

Who would have thought that a restaurant that started out serving just one three-course menu with no choice, every day, would be here forty years later? A three-course menu with a heavy French accent though, that changes every day, and uses the very best seasonal ingredients sourced and foraged locally as much as possible. Principles that Alice has nurtured, being recognized as the mother of Californian Cuisine and going on to establish the Edible Schoolyard project at a local school which multiplied elsewhere in the country, to set up the Chez Panisse Foundation, and become involved in the Slow Food Movement. Not to mention the collection of cookbooks she’s written.

I got engrossed in the story of Chez Panisse and Alice Waters (by Thomas McNamee) this summer doing my daily shuffle back and forth to work, and was astonished to realize that the restaurant is almost as old as me (I’ve got about six months on it at the time of writing). As the pages turned and the years advanced the story became less about the restaurant, and its changing face that somehow stayed the same, and more about Alice’s philosophy as it developed. It’s one we should just be adhering to, the world would be so much simpler.

The anniversary is being celebrated this weekend with numerous events, centered around the restaurant and with private dinners cooked in “Famille Panisse” homes, with all proceeds going to the Chez Panisse Foundation. Which should harvest a great amount seeing the prices.

Obviously I can’t go to any of the numerous celebrations this weekend, but I love to cook food with flavour for people, and a three-course menu à la Chez Panisse seemed a fitting tribute. It’s not quite the same menu as that served 40 years ago – paté was served to start, and the tart for dessert was plum and not almond, but the main course was duck with olives (canard aux olives), which will be served next.

Instead of the paté to start I foraged on the internet and was immediately inspired by this shaved artichoke, fennel and parmesan salad, a tumble of paperthin sliced vegetables dressed with truffle oil and lemon juice published in Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters.

Shaved Fennel, Artichoke and Parmesan Salad

From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (Harper Collins, 1996), via Epicurious

Serves 6

– 2 lemons
– 2 artichokes
– 2 fennel bulbs
– 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
– 1 to 2 tbspns white truffle oil
– Salt and pepper
– 1 small block of Parmegiano Reggiano parmesan cheese
– A few stalks of flat leaf parsley



Preparing the artichokes for slicing
First prepare a dish of water with lemon juice and a slice of lemon in it. The artichoke is like an apple when you cut it: it will start going brown quickly as soon as is exposed to the air.
Cut or break off as much of the tough leaves around the base as you can. Then keep snapping off the leaves – they’ll get easier to snap as they get thinner – until you get to the furry choke. It feels and looks a bit like a shaving brush.
You need to “pluck” the “hair” of the choke out; a serrated grapefruit spoon or similar works well, pinching them between the spoon and your thumb. You need to work fast, it goes brown quickly – rub occasionally with the slice of lemon (I didn’t work fast enough!).
Pare all around the base of the artichoke, leaving the stalk but stripping the outer layer off.
Put the base in the lemon water until you’re ready to finely slice it.

Preparing the fennel bulbs for slicing
Choose fennel as white and fresh as you can find. I find the taste intensifies the older it is.
Cut around the top, removing the stalks and fronds, and cut off the base.
Remove the outer layer.

Preparing the salad
1. Finely slice a layer of fennel onto a large plate, or individual plates for a more formal dinner. A mandolin is really the best for getting a micro thin slice. I use a Microplane handheld mandolin that’s adjustable, with a dial you can turn to set the fineness of the slice, which I left barely open to slice it as paperthin as possible.
2. Dress it with a drizzle of the olive oil and truffle oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, a sprinkling of fleur de sel and a twist of the pepper mill.
3. Do the same for a layer of artichoke.
4. Continue alternating the fennel and artichoke, dressing each layer.
5. Make shavings of parmesan with a vegetable peeler, or the mandolin, and scatter them over the top.
6. Scatter the parsley over the top.
7. Finish with a final drizzle of oil and lemon juice.

Don’t delay in serving! (It’s too good!)

Thai Fruit Salad and Mango Chocolate Mousse Dip

“You like cooking,” observed the man sat next to me in the plane on the way home to Paris after my dad’s birthday and FBC11, as I’d spent the flight reading the Feel Good Food magazine in the FBC mega-goody bag. “Oui,” I said, “And I’ve just been to a food blog conference.”

Although the magazine was in English, he spoke to me in French, with a heavy Thai accent. He cooks in a Thai restaurant in Clermont Ferrand.

“Hey I just cooked a Thai meal for my father’s birthday last week – Som Tam papaya salad and a Thai green curry. But deciding on the dessert had not been easy. Being bold I asked, “Can I ask you what dessert would be very Thai?”

He told me that tapioca cooked in coconut milk and served with mango would be typical. And it’s true that a lot of desserts on Asian menus are very Asian in taste, brightly coloured noodles made with sticky rice flour or a variation on Tapioca.  The glueiness of the tapioca turns the coconut milk into a solid flan-like dish, with the tapioca pearls imprisoned in the coconut milk. Not my father’s cup of tea at all. And it doesn’t have chocolate in it.

Fruit salad is what he likes. So instead of tapioca I had thought a fruit salad with an exotic twist would be a nice light and summery finish to the Thai-themed meal. With a ridiculously simple mango chocolate mousse of sorts used as a dip for the fruit. Kind of like a cold fondue but nice and decadent thanks to the use of calorific mascarpone. Not so Thai maybe, but you can’t have a birthday with chocolate. Or at least I can’t.

Thai Fruit Salad and Mango Chocolate Mousse Dip

For the fruit salad:

Serves 6

– 1 ripe papaya
– 1 mango
– 1/2 pineapple
– 1 banana
– 3 passion fruit
– 2 limes

1. Peel the papaya, cut it in half and scoop out the black seeds. Slice across, and cut the slices into cubes. OR Cut in half, scoop out the black seeds and scallop out the flesh with a spoon.
2. If you have a mango splitter: peel the mango and use the mango splitter. Cut the sides into cubes. OR, Cut off each side of the mango, score the flesh of each one diagonally to make diamonds and turn inside out. Cut off the diamonds that pop up.
3. Cut the pineapple into cubes (leave the core and tough outer skin).
4. Slice the banana.
4. Divide the fruit into 6 bowls.
5. Cut the passion fruit in half and spoon half a passion fruit onto one bowl.
6. Slice the lime in half and juice it. Spoon a spoonful or two over each bowl.

For the mango chocolate mousse dip

Serves 6

– 160g dark chocolate
– 1 ripe mango
– 200ml coconut milk
– 4 tbsps (about 100g) mascarpone

1. Melt the chocolate over a bain marie or in the microwave (start at 1 minute and continue at intervals of 30 seconds).
2. Chop up the mango according to one of the methods above and put it in a mini chopper or food processor.
3. Add the coconut milk and mascarpone.
4. Add the melted chocolate.
5. Whiz for a minute or so.
6. Spoon into 6 bowls.
7. Put in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
8. And have fun dipping the fruit into it!

NB. if you don’t have a mini chopper or food processor you can try a hand blender or blender.

You can’t have a birthday without birthday cake either…

Thai Green Curry and a birthday

“Sauce” was the only criteria in my father’s choice of a birthday meal. “What would you like to have as a birthday meal Dad?”, “Well I like something with a bit of sauce”. Make that drowning in sauce, and it’s true if it doesn’t have sauce he’ll add some. Maybe of the thick red kind.

And as my dad likes his sauce and curry, rather than go to the Indian restaurant there happens to be in the not so little anymore Somerset village I grew up in, I offered to cook him a meal as I was lucky to be in England on the day. But not a red curry, a Thai green curry. (And come to think of it, I also made it last summer for 14 of Pierre’s family, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, son, mother…at the second home in Corrèze, which we ate by moonlight and candlelight).

This is a great dish for making an impression when you have people around, and even with just some paste from the freezer and a tin of coconut milk and fish sauce from the storecupboard, you can use whatever you have in the fridge vegetable and protein wise. The trimmings make it all the more authentic. Continue reading