I am incredibly grateful for my long career in food journalism. Along the way I’ve been privileged to learn about life and cooking from myriad talented and kind culinarians. A long-ago lunch with Daniel Boulud comes to mind as one of the highlights.
Boulud is a French chef and restaurateur with restaurants in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Palm Beach, Miami, Toronto, Montréal, London, and Singapore. He is best known for Daniel in New York City, which has two Michelin stars.
Many consider him one of America’s greatest chefs. Kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers have dined in his restaurants.
On a sunny day in Santa Monica, we shared a long lunch at Michael’s restaurant.
Our conversation covered a wide variety of topics, but at the heart of our chat was his then-current book “Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook” (Scribner, $35). I didn’t have a copy of the book with me because an after-hours’ thief had nabbed it from the skyscraper-style stack on my desk in the newsroom. Graciously, Boulud gave me a second book. It was a blissful scene that even the good-taste thief couldn’t dampen.
Cafe Boulud (both the eatery and the book) pays homage to Boulud’s family restaurant of the same name in St.-Pierre-de-Chandieu—Boulud’s hometown outside Lyon, France. A young Boulud first honed his culinary skills in the kitchen there.
Many of the recipes in the book took root in the original Cafe Boulud, especially the dishes in the first section, La Tradition (traditional dishes of French cooking). I asked Boulud to suggest a menu for a cozy fireside dinner.
The cold-weather meal he proposed centered on his grandmother’s irresistible chicken fricassee, Chicken Grand-mere Francine.
A fricassee is basically a dish in which meat is browned in fat and then cooked slowly in liquid, developing rich, deep flavors in the process. Coq au vin (chicken in wine sauce) is one example.
Chicken Grand-mere is delectable, bubbling with small potatoes, cremini mushrooms, cipollini onions, fresh thyme, small potatoes, and bacon alongside the browned chicken parts. Skin-on garlic plays a role in the irresistibility. The dish is served with crusty French bread; the caramelized garlic is meant to be squeezed from its covering onto the warm bread.
He explained that as a child he ate this concoction at least once every two weeks, revealing that guinea fowl or turkey could be substituted for the chicken. He recounted the original ingredients, talking about the quality of the chickens that were used, as well as the tasty rose des pres pink field mushrooms, that looked similar to white mushrooms, but had a delectable flavor like cremini.
Since our lunch together in 1999, I’ve prepared his Chicken Grand-mere almost every winter, on a day that is cold, preferably rainy. As he suggested, I often include a frisee salad napped with a perky vinaigrette.
I remember the generosity of this celebrity chef, who during this pandemic crisis is busy helping to feed New York City’s people in need. He created beautiful memories that are rekindled every time I get a whiff of that scrumptious chicken.
Chicken Grand-mere Francine
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 cipollini onions, peeled, trimmed; see cook’s notes
4 shallots, peeled and trimmed
1 head of garlic, cloves separated but not peeled
3 sprigs fresh thyme
4 small Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks or 6 skin-on Baby Dutch Yellow potatoes
2 small celery roots, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
2 ounces slab bacon or thick-cut bacon, cut into short, thin strips
12 small cremini or oyster mushrooms, trimmed and cleaned
2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
Optional: 1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
For serving: warm crusty bread
Cook’s notes: The easiest way to peel cipollini onions is to make a shallow cut to remove the root end (don’t cut too deep – you want it to stay together) and boil them for 30 to 60 seconds. Drain and refresh with cold water. Peel – grabbing the skin with a paring knife if needed.
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Working over medium-high heat, warm olive oil in large ovenproof sauté pan or casserole (choose one with high sides and cover). Season chicken pieces all over with salt and pepper, slip them into pan and cook until well-browned on all sides, about 10-15 minutes. (I don’t include the back of the chicken – that goes into my “stock-making container” in the freezer – the 12-inch casserole I use has just enough room to accommodate 8 chicken pieces.) Take your time — you want nice, deep color and partially cooked chicken. When chicken is deeply golden, transfer to platter and keep warm while you work on vegetables.
2. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from pan. Lower heat to medium; add butter, onions, shallots, garlic, and thyme. Cook and stir until vegetables start to color, about 3 minutes. Add potatoes, celery roots and bacon, and cook 1-2 minutes, to start rendering bacon fat. Cover pan and cook 10 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes.
3. Add mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and return chicken to pan. Add chicken broth, bring to boil and slide pan into oven. Bake, UNCOVERED, in preheated oven 20-25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. (I like to add fresh chopped tarragon and put the lid on for about 2 to 3 minutes.) Spoon everything onto warm serving platter or into attractive casserole. (I bring the enamel-coated casserole that I cooked in, to the table – it’s easier that way and I think it looks pretty, too.) Fish out the thyme stems and discard them. Sprinkle with fresh parsley.
4. Serve plenty of crusty bread to sop up sauce and spread with soft, sweet, caramelized garlic from the sauce, easily squeezed out of its skin.
Source: “Cafe Boulud Cookbook” by Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan (Scribner, $35)
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”