Technique in the cooking world can be highfalutin at times; gobbledygook confusing at other times.
In French cooking, to my way of thinking at least, technique seems less mysterious and more in the vein of “ah ha” common sense. To illustrate, poule au pot is a signature entree in the country French culinary tradition. This dish involves simple ingredients and relatively simple preparation, but a small nuance of technique makes a world of difference in the quality of the dish, according to Laurent Degois, head chef of the classically French bistro, Chez Renee.
“The chicken is poached,” he said. Turns out poaching and the way it is poached are critical to the finished quality of this delicious entrée. His description, sans heavy French accent: “I start with the (poaching) liquid cold. You can poach in water or in broth. I use vegetable broth for this dish, but I start with cold broth and cold chicken in the broth.”
This cold-start process takes a bit longer, of course, but it is essential to a good result, which is tender, moist chicken breasts. Anyone who has ever cooked chicken breasts may realize that getting the breast to be fully cooked and both tender and moist is an accomplishment. Put the chicken in hot or warm liquid to poach and the chicken poaches too fast, which results in a tougher, less juicy finish. If the item is brought to a boil, cooking quickly at high heat, it may be more on the order of an old penny loafer – dry and tough – instead of moist and tender. Doing the poaching over low heat from a cold start may add 10 minutes to the poaching process, but that extra time adds noticeably to the quality of this classic French “pot” dish. Makes sense to me.
After a gentle poach is complete, the dish is assembled and returned to the burner, Degois said. “It takes a long time (to cook), because it is at a low simmer – about two hours. I put in the herbs and spices for the flavor, and the vegetables, and then the pot is simmered at low heat.”
The vegetables in this poule au pot are halved carrot spears, celery, cabbage and potatoes. In addition, there is a layer of white rice at the bottom of the pot, which cooks along with the other ingredients, absorbing some of the broth and gaining flavor from the herbs and spices. So, when fully assembled, this country French dish is a one-pot meal featuring starch, protein and veggies.
Degois said that the poule au pot is an excellent winter meal, ideal for cold days when comfort food is most appreciated. But also, the dish is eaten throughout the year in France because it is not a “heavy” dish in the same way of some winter stews, soups and casseroles.
I agree! We tried the poule au pot, and along with a chilled dry Riesling, it perfectly fit the seasonal situation – mid-August, hot as blue blazes. The dish is an array of subtle flavors and delicate tastes. The chicken breast is sliced before serving and positioned over the other ingredients in the serving bowl. One distinctly tastes the flavors of the carrots, potatoes, celery and cabbage. I’m guessing that due to the rice in the dish, the broth takes on the consistency of a sauce with a thickness on the order of a béarnaise. French bread is a must, so that the diner may sop up the bits and sauce at the end. If you enjoy elegantly simple meals that allow flavors to shine, I’m betting you’ll love this dish as much as we did.
Before we tucked into the chicken, I enjoyed a true summer treat – vichyssoise. This is a soup that can be served chilled, as it is intended to be eaten, or hot.
“Many people who come here have asked me to make the vichyssoise for them, and so I did it. But many people who want to try it, they do not like the idea of a cold soup, so I heat it for them. But vichyssoise is meant to be served cold,” Degois said.
That is how I ordered it and was not disappointed. Having had gazpacho, a cold summertime soup from the south of Spain, I am a veteran of the cold-soup concept, so vichyssoise was a natural try for me. This soup, Chez Renee style, is made with onions, leeks and potatoes, cooked in a vegetable broth. After a puree of ingredients heavy cream is added to finish. Once chilled, it’s ready to ladle into bowls and serve. It’s both delicious and refreshing on a hot summer day, and especially when dining al fresco. Try it!
See you at Chez Renee!
Chez Renée French Bistrot
233 Main St.
Milford, Ohio, 45150