Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jun 2, 2014
03:51 PMSmall Dishes
Chicken and the Egg
It’s absolute magic when the mere recollection of a meal or dish unleashes a flood of memories. I was looking through The Gourmet Cookbook, Volume I, published in 1950 by Gourmet Magazine. When I was growing up—yes, I read cookbooks—this was my bible. As far as I was concerned, Joy of Cooking and my mother’s favorite, The Boston-Cooking School Cook Book, were for amateurs. The Gourmet Cookbook was for serious chefs. Today, its recipes sometime seem obtuse if not dumb—the ingredients aren’t even listed separately from the instruction! The color photos that I once drooled over are now downright unappetizing. Taste does indeed change.
Regardless, I came across a recipe for Chicken Marengo, something I haven’t thought about or eaten in years. It was like discovering a long lost friend. Chicken Marengo was at the center of my first authentic European dining experience. At that time, “continental cuisine”—the likes of Caesar Salad, Steak Diane and Cherries Jubilee—was the epitome of upscale American dining, but little resembled what I actually found in Europe.
I was a junior in college and abroad for the first time. After an unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons) seventeen-hour flight on an Icelandair turboprop with a fuel stop in Reykjavik, my arrival on The Continent was at the inauspicious gateway of Luxemburg. Following a harrowing bus trip all over Belgium, our driver finally lucked out and stumbled upon our destination: Bruges.
My twenty-five fellow collegians and I were hostelled in former monastery. Granted, my first meal in the Old World was actually breakfast there. All I recall about it, though, was the out-of-the-ordinary copious amounts of beer included—surely an omen of better things to come.
For anyone who hasn’t been there, Bruges is a fairytale place with its cobbled lanes, swan-speckled canals and medieval Flemish buildings. Being there off season, the streets were benevolently free of the tourists that cram them in summer.
It’s often said that Belgian cuisine combines German quantity with French quality, and I would soon learn the truth of that. Our first night dining out was influenced by a recommendation from Arthur Frommer's Europe on $5 a Day. As students economy was paramount but local color important as well—and for me, good food. I don’t remember the name of the cozy, little place down an alley off the Markt, but the specialty was Chicken Marengo served family style. No doubt a deciding factor in ordering it was the accompanying bottomless platter of pommes frites.
At that time, all I knew about Marengo was that it was a toll plaza on the Illinois Tollway. I would learn that the name comes from the battle at Marengo (just south of Turin, Italy) where Napoleon defeated the Austrians. According to legend, afterward his chef foraged the countryside to come up with ingredients to make this celebratory dish.
I thought I had already experienced chicken fried, baked, boiled and broiled with every gravy and sauce imaginable. This would be the first time I’d ever seen chicken topped with a fried egg and boiled crayfish. But it had lots of garlic and was irresistible. Despite trying to replicate the recipe many times, it would never taste as good as it did that night. I learned long ago that nothing tastes as good as nostalgia.
I haven’t seen Chicken Marengo on the menu in Madison, but you will find many authentic European chicken specialties that would have been just wishful thinking in 1969.
At Sardine, the chicken comes Parisian bistro style—a roasted half-chicken with a frisée salad and frites on the side.
For many, chicken is synonymous with Sunday and that’s when it’s featured at The Old Fashioned. Scandinavian-style—rubbed with cinnamon, juniper and cardamom—it’s flame-grilled and served with sausage and currant dressing, potatoes, parsnips and carrots.
Think schnitzel and veal comes to mind, but it’s also made with pork and chicken. The Essen Haus features crispy Hühner Schnitzel with a marsala wine sauce, German fried potatoes and sauerkraut.
From Lombardino’s comes an ancient Italian specialty, pollo al mattone—chicken cooked under a brick. This roasting technique makes it extra crispy and juicy.
Pastetli means “meat pie” and is a specialty all over Switzerland and at the Glarner Stube. A delicate puff pastry shell encases a combination of chicken, veal, pork and mushrooms in a savory cream sauce.
The pasty is a meat pie whose popularity spread worldwide—including Wisconsin—thanks to immigrant Cornish miners. Beef was the traditional filling, but now almost anything and everything is included even in Cornwall. The chicken variety at Myle’s Teddywedgers is a chicken pot pie that doesn’t need a fork.
RECIPE: Chicken Marengo
This is an updated version from the Gourmet Cookbook. The dish is rarely garnished with crayfish anymore. Alas, the fried egg is often omitted as well. Many recipes include olives but this and the version I enjoyed in Belgium did not.
1 frying chicken, cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Flour for dredging
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1/4 cup cognac
2 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
12 small white mushroom caps
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Croutons fried in butter
4 eggs fried in olive oil
Chopped black truffles (optional)
Boiled crayfish or shrimp (optional)
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the butter. When the foam subsides, add the chicken pieces. Cook, turning frequently, until golden brown. Transfer the chicken to a heavy casserole with a lid.
Add the garlic, thyme, wine, cognac and tomatoes to the casserole. Cover, and place over high heat until it comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook for another 10 minute or until the chicken is tender. Add the parsley.
Garnish each serving with a fried egg and croutons (and truffles and shellfish if desired). Serve with French fried potatoes.