Marisa Renwald: Honest Abe liked simple, hearty food
Marisa Renwald February 13, 2012 3:30PM
Updated: March 16, 2012 8:05AM
Life just north of the Ohio River in the frontier of Indiana didn’t come with a whole lot of luxuries.
For a 9-year-old boy, splitting wood and nursing a mother with milk sickness on her deathbed made frontier life that much more cruel. Peace came in short bursts when the afternoon sun hid for a moment behind the great elm trees, and a boy could enjoy his milk and biscuits alone.
Looking out from the front porch of a log cabin, the vast expanse of the great Midwest’s frontier looked beautiful in those instances. A boy could dream of greater things, a future that could be molded at the tips of his fingers.
When Abraham Lincoln took the presidential office in 1861, his kitchen disclosed the simple tastes of a great man. Honey cakes and lemonade. Apple pie and peach jelly. Biscuits and chicken fricassee — his favorite meal. Quiet and subdued, a chicken fricassee meal with herbed biscuits bespoke Lincoln’s Midwest roots: a wiry rooster pecking in the front of his tiny cabin, a few fresh vegetables from the garden, a half-full bottle of cooking sherry on a bare cupboard shelf. So simple, yet so delicious; it brought him back to a time when the world was at his beck and call.
A classic chicken fricassee hasn’t changed much in the days since Lincoln dined in the White House. Falling in somewhere between a chicken sauteed dish and a stew, pieces of a whole chicken are braised in butter before cream and wine or sherry is added. The flavor should come from the chicken itself. The browning butter brings out its true essence, but some recipes call for little hints of herbs; although herb overload can take away from the pure American flavor.
The following recipe is very loosely adapted from Julia Child’s French chicken fricassee recipe, although there isn’t really anything French about it.
Editor’s Note: In last week’s recipe for cinnamon caramels, the first sentence of the instructions should have read, “In a heavy 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, melt together the butter and sugar and corn syrup, stirring constantly.” The sugar and corn syrup weren’t mentioned in the published instructions.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
31/2 to 4 pounds chicken pieces with skin and bone
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
1 thinly sliced carrot
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon each,
thyme and tarragon
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup whipping cream
Pat chicken dry and sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chicken in two batches, skin side down first, turning over once, until browned, 10 to 12 minutes total per batch. Transfer to a plate.
Pour out oil and add butter. Cook the shallots, bay leaf and carrot slowly in the butter for about 5 minutes, or until they are softened. Add wine and bring it to a boil. Stir in cream and broth and herbs. Increase the heat slightly and add the chicken, skin side up. Let simmer, covered, for about 20-25 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Turn chicken every few minutes to ensure uniform cooking.
Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Discard bay leaf.
Arrange the chicken in a clean casserole and pour the sauce over it. The fricassee can be warmed in the oven at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes.
Source: Adapted from Julia Child’s Chicken Fricassee (Fricassee De Poulet A L’Ancienne), “Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1,” Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.