Chicken, Mushrooms, Potatoes, Random Thoughts

Autodidact.

Here’s a major peeve. The other day, I came across a piece on the internet (where else?) that explained the difference between a chef and a cook as follows:

“[T]echnically speaking, a chef is someone who necessarily obtains a professional degree and prepares food in a professional setting. A cook, on the other hand, may not be professionally trained and may or may not be working in a professional setting.”

It’s a good thing that the site includes a disclaimer that “The information is ‘AS IS, ‘WITH ALL FAULTS,'” because its definition of “chef” is a total load. Although the term “chef” has come to designate those who cook in a professional setting – whether or not they actually lead a kitchen brigade – formal culinary training culminating in a professional degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a chef. Thomas Keller never attended culinary school, nor did Ferran Adrià. Or Charlie Trotter, or Heston Blumenthal, or Pierre Gagnaire. Neither did most of the French chefs who trained in the apprentice system in France, like Jacques Pépin or André Soltner. Not that culinary school isn’t valuable – professional cooking involves a great deal of rigor and knowledge, and a formal educational setting makes for consistency and high standards. But it’s not true that culinary school is necessary to professional success. The alternative description for these chefs – as “self-taught” – isn’t any better, though. How do we learn to cook, if not in culinary school? We learn the same way – by eating other peoples’ food, by cooking alongside and trading knowledge with other cooks, by reading about food, by our own mistakes and successes in the kitchen. Bottom line: both formally trained and “self-taught” chefs learn to cook mostly by daily experience.

Last week, cleaning out a corner of our basement, I found a notebook containing my recipes from the early- to mid-1990s. If you’re learning to cook – professionally or for the home, formally or not – I strongly recommend keeping a journal of your recipes. If nothing else, it’s a great retrospective on your culinary life at a certain time. Looking through my own notes was pretty enjoyable, if in an embarrassing kind of way. My first efforts at cooking that didn’t involve a pack of ramen noodles or jarred spaghetti sauce were simultaneously grandiose and elementary, like wrapping chicken breasts and Gruyère in puff pastry. Sometimes they worked out, sometimes they didn’t. The chicken and cheese, uh, wellington was a crapshoot – sometimes the Pepperidge Farms puff pastry burst a seam and a mixture of melted cheese and the chicken juices gushed out onto the baking sheet. Other times, the puff pastry browned up, crisp and flaky, but the chicken within was pink and cool. When things turned out, it was like a pretty nice chicken hand pie. It wasn’t until I learned to pre-cook the chicken and cut a couple of slits in the pastry, though, that I could turn out that dish reliably.

Just before I went off to law school in 1990, two things happened: I got my hands on a copy of Pierre Franey’s New York Times Sixty Minute Gourmet, and discovered cooking wine. Like a certain type of amateur cook, I thought I could just read a cookbook as one would a novel, and then wing a dish based on what I’d read, “making it my own.” It’s arrogant and stupid, since there’s a reason Pierre Franey, and not yours truly, was tapped to write those recipes back in the day. Hint: he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t. Once I set aside my ego and started cooking the recipes as specified, things improved dramatically. Anyway, here’s a dish from the early hubris-filled days, when I thought I could come up with awesome recipes out of thin air. I changed a few things to comport with proper cooking technique, but otherwise left it unchanged.

Chicken with mushrooms and potatoes

This dish had several inspirations. First, I was really into mushrooms. One summer during college, I visited China with my family. I was a picky eater, and China is no place to be picky. One afternoon, at a luncheon with Communist Party types, I realized that I was going to starve if I didn’t try something, and reached out for the braised bok choy and mushrooms in a light brown sauce. I wound up eating most of the communal plate, so there you go.

Second, I read the Pierre Franey cookbook practically every night and admired a couple of recipes – one a roast game hen with potatoes and mushrooms (bonne femme) and another a chicken fricassée. (By “admired” I mean “appreciated the idea of” – I hadn’t really cooked or eaten either dish at that point, but I thought the descriptions sounded great.) I didn’t like heavy cream, and I wasn’t sure where to get little hens, so I tried to employ a fricassée technique with bone-in chicken breast, but with a flour-thickened sauce instead of cream.

I made three changes to the original recipe. The original recipe called for cooking a skin-on chicken breast en blanquette – without browning – because Franey’s fricassée recipe really is a blanquette. The thing is, the blanquette doesn’t work for skin-on chicken, because the skin becomes rubbery after stewing. So either brown the chicken breast, or brown it well before proceeding.

Initially the dish also called for sprinkling the flour over the bubbling liquid after the chicken had cooked nearly through, to thicken the sauce just before serving. Sometimes that sort of worked and sometimes it really didn’t. Well, if you know anything about gelation of starch, you know why I was totally wrong – adding starch to a hot liquid causes it to clump together as it immediately forms a sticky gel. And another thing: the raw flour taste never really cooks out unless you toast the flour first, or fry it in oil as in a roux. That’s why, when making velouté sauce or gravy, we whisk flour into hot fat before adding any liquid. I changed that part of the recipe. These days I rarely make flour-thickened sauces other than béchamel, but that’s neither here nor there.

I also substituted regular dry white wine for the original cooking wine, which is an abomination. Anyway, welcome to Amateur Night circa 1990. Take a trip back in time, and enjoy!

two chicken breasts – bone in and skin on
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all purpose flour
one small onion, small dice
2 c chicken stock
1/2 c dry white wine
one large russet potato, scrubbed and diced 3/4″
half pound cremini mushrooms
vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Season the chicken on both sides. Place a sauté pan over high heat and, when hot, add enough oil to film the pan. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown well. Turn the chicken over, reduce the heat, and cook en blanquette – don’t let it color. Remove to a plate.

Add the butter to the pan. When the butter bubbles, add the onions and sweat. Add the flour to the pan and whisk, incorporating thoroughly. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook the mixture for about five minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Add the wine and whisk well to incorporate thoroughly. Bring to a simmer. Add the chicken stock slowly, whisking; bring back to a simmer and continue to cook for about 5 minutes.

Half-assed velouté

Return the chicken to the pan, skin side-up. Surround with the potatoes. Cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms, stir into the sauce, and cover the pan again. Cook another 5-6 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the pan. Season the chicken and the potato-mushroom mixture with salt and pepper and serve with the chicken.

Amateur night circa 1990.

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