Today I make Fricassee de Volaille a L’anciennce, Riz Pilaf, or the English translation, Old-Style Chicken Fricassee with Rice Pilaf. And I’m struck by the term l’ancienne. “Old-style” for this American conjures up images of Grandma’s cooking from the early mid-century. But what is “old-style” in the French culinary repertoire? Maybe before the Revolution, early 1700’s?
It’s not long into the demonstration that Chef shares with us that this dish was the favorite of Enri-cat. Hmm, who was Enri-cat? It takes about 15 minutes until my brain realizes that he’s speaking French: he means Henri Quatre–King Henry IV. Yes, the King of France from the late 1500’s who married Marie de Medici. The same King whose grand wedding was recorded by Peter Paul Rubens and is enshrined in an entire room in the Louvre.
Marie de Medici
This same King, called Good King Henry, wanted the best for his people. It was he who coined the phrase “A chicken in every pot.” What does one cook for such a King? Chicken, of course–cooked in a pot!
Interestingly, the ingredients are all white: chicken, mushrooms, onions, butter, cream and rice. This seems to break the mold of French cuisine where color and texture play a large part. But if this recipe has been around for 500 years, there must be something amazing to it.
The method, though simple enough in the ingredients, is very strong in technique. I realize that if you are serving the King, you would want to display not only the best products and flavor, but the best techniques as well. The chicken is expertly cut into eight parts, given a French trim, then cooked in chicken broth. The pearl onions are cooked separately and then glazed with sugar and butter. The mushrooms are cooked in another pot and one final one is turned to a beautiful design. The sauce, silky but supple, is finished with butter and cream. The entire dish is served with buttered rice.
Old-Style Chicken Fricassee with Rice Pilaf
It’s hard to express the beauty and the complexity of the flavors. It’s rich, it’s full of chicken flavor, the sweet onions help to cut the cream, and the rice balances the flavors. The chicken is toothsome and moist, and the rice and mushrooms have soaked up the chicken cream sauce. It’s royal or Bourgeoise Cuisine at it’s best and I get to make it!
The next morning, I arrive inspired and ready to perform. However, I underestimate how complicated the dish is. Each technique is new and takes time and attention. And because there are so many steps for each ingredient, my work station is quickly piling up with dirty dishes. Organization is key today, but I am too focused on the various techniques and the time. At one point, I realize that my station is becoming a hazard zone as strainers are precariously piled upon bowls, ladles and spatulas. I am rather shocked at how fast the mess multiplies. I worry that if I wash the dishes, I’ll have even less time for cooking.
I fight the urge to ignore the mess and counsel myself that the most efficient thing to to do is stop, take a breath, wash, dry and get on with the cooking in a clean station. And just as I come to this realization, but before I can act on it, Chef comes by and comments on my lack of organization. Yes, he’s right, but did he have to notice now?
Learning to turn mushrooms
Chef has a busy day today too, for part of his role is attending to every injury. The time pressure is affecting everyone, and for the first time, many of my classmates were injured. While trimming the chicken, I hear the word that always brings chills down my spine, “Press!” which is what Chef says to the person who has been cut. Today I hear it more than once.
Additionally, we have another danger point, which is the pan in the oven. Today is the first time we continued to cook on the stove top in a pan that had already been baking in the oven. The mettle handle is very temping to grab, especially if you’re in a hurry and working with four pots at the same time. In today’s rush, many of us reached for the handles of these pans and received strong burns on our palms. I suffered a minor burn as I reached to stabilize my chicken pan; others were not as lucky.
In the end, it looked and felt like we were the chickens running around with our heads cut off. Time was running out for everyone and I could feel the pressure. Our normally quiet, calm kitchen was loud with bowls clanging and pots ringing. And with just minutes left, sauces need to be reduced and rice needed to be cooked.
With two minutes to spare, I bring my all-white dish to Chef. The chicken has been cut well, the rice nicely cooked and buttered, the sauce reduced to the right consistency, the onions sweet and glazed, the mushrooms well-cooked and one final one turned on top. A dish for a King.
But as I return my dish, starting to feel the burn in my palm, I couldn’t help thinking about “Enri-cat”. What were the kitchens of the 1500’s like? How difficult it must have been to cook for a royal entourage of hundreds. And not just one dish! I bet they wanted desserts, appetizers, and maybe a midnight snack too. What were the work conditions like before gas ranges and electric stoves? The pressure on Chefs to perform must have been enormous.
In the midst of this frightening reverie, I remembered something that made me giggle. In college, one of my favorite dinners was a frozen meal by Lean Cuisine called Chicken a la King. Yes, the same dish–microwave, boil in the bag and 10 minutes later, voila! Dinner. And so, the ancient kitchens have given way to modern microwaves. And still, the people are getting a chicken in every pot!