Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Andre Simon's French Cook Book" & "French Menus for Parties" - a Bastille Day Celebration - Chicken Marengo and Tomatoes Provencale

Date I made these recipes:  July 14, 2013 (Bastille Day)

Andre Simon’s French Cook Book, New Edition Revised by Crosby Gaige
Published by:  Little, Brown and Company
© 1948; 1938
Recipe:  Chicken Marengo – p. 42-43

French Menus for Parties by the Chamberlains – recipes by Narcisse Chamberlain (recipes by Narcissa Chamberlain; photographs by Samuel Chamberlain)
Published by:  Hastings House
© 1968
Recipe:  Tomatoes Provencale – p. 40

The month of July is just so much fun with parties and events galore!  First we have the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, then we have Bastille Day, France’s version of our Independence Day and for three weeks in a row, we have the Tour de France, the great bicycle race that brings bicyclists through the French countryside and French mountaintops, ending this coming Sunday, July 21, in Paris on the Champs-Elysees. 

Since I missed out on celebrating the 4th of July with appropriate 4th of July food (I was so busy that week that the day came and went), I was determined to make something for Bastille Day and so I did in the form of Chicken Marengo and Tomatoes Provencale (Tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, bread crumbs).  C’est tres bon! (It’s very good.)

According to Andre Simon’s French Cook Book, Chicken Marengo was “supposedly invented by a desperate chef in the field the night before the battle of Marengo for his hungry boss, Napoleon.”  Since I am not up on my French history or Napoleon (the man or the delicious French dessert), I did an internet search and discovered that the Battle of Marengo was fought on June 14, 1800 between France (under Napoleon) and Austria (although the battle was fought in Piedmont, Italy).  The Austrians lost that battle but went on to become a mean competitor against France where it counts the most – the pastry department. I mean come on, Austrian sachertorte anyone?

Although there were plenty of desserts in both of these cookbooks, I went with my standard selections of main and side dishes because with the weather heating up, turning on my oven to bake anything was out of the question.  Out of the two dishes, Chicken Marengo and Tomatoes Provencale, my favorite was actually the tomatoes, possibly because there were fewer steps involved but also because it was more flavorful than the chicken.  The chicken dish was okay but I’ve said this before:  most chicken no longer has any flavor.  Seriously, I bought two large chicken breasts from Whole Foods, known for all their organic and farm-fresh items and they were just bland; if not for the sauce, I would have been crying.  Consider this:  Chef Andre Simon was born in 1877 and died in 1970 (I don’t know why it was so shocking to see that 1970 date but it was) when people were definitely in a “grow your own” phase and I am willing to bet that his chicken tasted like chicken should when he was cooking. 

Chef Andre’s version of Chicken Marengo is fairly simplistic compared to others I’ve seen but simple is a good thing.  I liked his addition of some white wine and brandy although in all likelihood, the alcohol burned off in the cooking.  Bummer, that (so be sure to supplement the recipe with a lovely glass of wine).  And as is typical of this time, recipes and ingredients are included in the narrative which makes reading them a challenge – for example, we get a bit of the history and then in the middle of the paragraph, the text reads “Buy a pair of broilers…”  Okay, then—good thing I didn’t get too invested in reading about Napoleon and his battle!

And then we have the Chamberlains – Narcisse (author), Narcissa (mom and recipe developer) and Samuel (dad and photographer) who spent years writing and editing cookbooks and food articles as well as photographing them. Their names might be familiar to cookbook aficionados as Narcissa and Samuel authored the Clementine in the Kitchen, published in 1943.  The Chamberlain family lived in France for many years and traveled much of Europe before heading back to the states in 1943 so Sam could teach at M.I.T.  Daughter Narcisse enjoyed an illustrious career as a book editor before passing away in 2008 at age 83. 

Now, I want to note that whenever I read about this type of family, the type that can just up and move to Paris and live there and travel all of Europe, I get ever-so-slightly jealous because how fabulous, right?  Talk about a cocktail conversation starter:  “Yes, I grew up in Paris…you?” But then I have to stop and remind myself that I was one lucky gal growing up, traveling most of the United States and a good portion of Canada before I turned 18.  When my parents did road trips, they did ROAD TRIPS.  We’d take on a slew of states at a time as we winged our way from Michigan to Florida or Michigan to California and our annual trips to visit grandma in New Jersey sometimes led us through Canada, just for a change of scenery. 

Today’s youth on the other hand, is more accustomed to airplane travel and seem to have bypassed visiting most states for the opportunity to go to Europe, something I didn’t do until I was almost 30. When I did land on French soil, I spent some time in Paris before heading off with a friend to Provence and the French Riviera and was quite pleased to see that the photos that I took then look very similar to the ones taken by Samuel Chamberlain 20 years earlier.  There’s progress and then there’s preservation, something the French seem to take very seriously.

As to the recipes, although every culture upgrades its food to modern times, I am fairly certain that most French dishes – at least the staples like Boeuf Bourguignon - remained the same between then and now. Europeans have long embraced the concept of “farm to table, buying food only when needed and only if absolutely fresh.  If anything, my guess is that I’d likely have found far better tomatoes, used in the Tomatoes Provencale recipe, in France than in the U.S. where we have often sucked the taste right out of our animals and produce.   But one works with what one has and what “one” had wasn’t bad.  As expected, the chicken tasted more flavorful after it sat a day and although the tomatoes could have been a bit riper, they still tasted pretty good.  So there you go – some history, some recipes, and some thoughts on protein and produce to boot!  Bon appétit everyone!

Chicken Marengo (serving size not indicated but you’ll be using 2 broilers weighing 2.5 pound each – that’s a lot of chicken!)
5 pounds chicken (broilers recommended)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots (Ann’s Note:  the recipe doesn’t say what to do with them but I’d go with “mince” – same with the garlic.  I diced the tomatoes into small pieces)
1 clove garlic
1 ½ cups sliced mushrooms
6 medium-size tomatoes
½ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon brandy

If necessary, cut up your chicken into pieces and fry them in olive oil until lightly colored, turning so all sides are done evenly.  Lower the flame and cover for a scant 10 minutes; then remove the chicken from the oil.  Put in its place the shallot, garlic, mushrooms and tomatoes.  (See my note above.)  Let these ingredients cook in the oil till the mushrooms are done.  Add the white wine and brandy and blend till the liquid is reduced about a third; then return the chicken, cover, and let cook gently for perhaps 15 minutes, till you are sure the chicken is completely tender.  Serve in the sauce.

Tomatoes Provencale – Serves 6
6 small ripe tomatoes (cut in half, seeded, seasoned with salt and pepper)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
Chopped parsley (generous amount)
3 tablespoons coarse bread crumbs.

Cut the tomatoes in halves, shake out the seeds, and season tomatoes with salt and pepper.  In a large skillet cook them lightly on both sides in 4 tablespoons of hot olive oil.  Add 2 minced cloves of garlic and cook the tomatoes another 2 or 3 minutes.  Remove them to a heated platter and sprinkle them with plenty of chopped parsley.  Add 3 tablespoons of coarse bread crumbs to the juices remaining in the skillet, sauté them for a minute or two until they are brown and sprinkle them over the tomatoes.  (Ann’s Note:  I needed to add a bit more olive oil to the skillet to crisp the bread crumbs.)