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Voulez-Vous Le Poulet? Try A French Chicken Classic

Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry

“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.

Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)

Haute cuisine standards

Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.

But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.

Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.

Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.

Poulet au Fromage

Prep time: About 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast

2 ounces butter

3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 cup chicken broth

3 sprigs parsley

2 shallots, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

2 small sprigs fresh thyme

3 leaves fresh basil

Salt and pepper

1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated

Directions

1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.

3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.

 Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry



Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock 'n' roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times' award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.

3 COMMENTS
  • bdcooks 1·27·15

    I’m puzzled by this recipe, which sounds good, but I can imagine simmer small squares of chicken breast for an hour. I’m thinking that the timing reverts back to the use of chicken on the bone? Wouldn’t a one-hour simmer of small squares of pounded chicken breast lead to something dry and rubbery?

  • Charles Perry 1·27·15

    In fact, the chicken has already been adequately cooked by frying when you start to simmer, and even more cooked when you put it in the oven. I would suspect that the recipe was meant for a more mature bird and this long cooking was for the same reason as in coq au vin, except that 1) the recipe does not call for an older bird and 2) the context is special-occasion food, which suggests more delicate meat. I imagine a shorter cooking time would work perfectly well, but I’d leave the pan uncovered so that the liquid can reduce.

  • Allana Elovson 3·7·16

    Charles,
    I’ve been searching, pretty much in vain how to contact you since we last saw you some years ago at CHLA meetings .I hope this works. I wanted to let you know about a great new SUNNIN restaurant, on Santa Monica Blvd (#525) by the daughter of the grand dowager on Westwood Blvd. She is a devoted and uncompromising cook and has opened an elegant and airy place about two weeks ago and we have scarcely stopped eating there since. I didn’t want you to miss out on it, and hoped you could perhaps give her a boost if you think she deserves it. I have no skin in this game, just for the record. I just want her to make it so I can eat there forever.If you want to figure out who I am, there’s 2 things that might help. About 100 yrs ago, we both gave a lecture for some group about Thanksgiving, and about 4-5 years ago I gave a presentation at the library about the Salone del Gusto. Perhaps you saw it. Anyway, look forward to hearing from you. Always admired your scholarly work.

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