Thursday, 9 February 2012

Creamy Dijon-Tarragon Chicken

I went to Paris a few years ago and fell head-over-heels in love with that city. I know it's a huge cliche, but there really isn't any place in the world quite like Paris. Most people who have been there tell me they found it noisy and smelly. I think that can be said of any big city during tourist season, but I was lucky enough to be there is May, when there were few tourists and blooming lilac trees everywhere (lilac is my favorite flower). Paris was at it's best for our first meeting! The small crooked streets, the museums, the history you can just breathe as you are walking around...

I've been longing to go back to Paris ever since my plane landed back here, and when the aching gets too strong, I have 2 cures: I either watch Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (which he made just for me, even if he doesn't know it) or I cook a traditional French bistro meal.

My paternal grandfather was from Angouleme, a small town not far from Poitier. He was in the merchant navy, and during the Great War, he met a lovely French-Canadian nurse. He ended up settling down not very far from Rimouski and opened an inn. I haven't been able to get my hands on any of his recipes (what a treasure trove that would be!), but when I read Patricia Wells' recipe books (especially "Bistro Cooking" and "The Paris Cookbook"), I like to think this is the sort of stuff grand-papa Pierre would have cooked.

This recipe reminds me so much of the sort of simple yet incredibly elegant dishes I sampled in Paris. The delicate creamy sauce makes something as ordinary as a chicken breast (or supreme de poulet as French chefs call it) taste luxurious and fancy. It is ze dish to serve to impress guests or if you feel quintessentially French... or if you are just in the mood for tender and juicy chicken in a rich, tangy sauce.

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small bunch scallions, finely sliced
1 package cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
Sea salt and ground pepper
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 cup cooking cream
2 to 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

A few hours before cooking, season the chicken with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, and spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard over the meat. Let rest until ready to cook (and please note that this step is entirely optional). Melt the butter and heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the scallions and the mushrooms in the skillet until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken breasts to the pan and brown on both sides. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and continue cooking 15 minutes, or until the juices run clear. Set the chicken aside and keep warm. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and when it has reduced a bit, stir in the cream. Mix in the mustard and tarragon. Cook and stir 5 minutes, or until thickened. Return chicken to skillet to coat with sauce. Place the chicken on plates and drizzle with remaining sauce.

I like to scallop the chicken for this recipe, as it makes it cook more evenly in the skillet. You can buy scalloped chicken at the grocery store, or simply wrap ordinary chicken breasts in a dish towel and beat them flat with a meat tenderizer (or if you are really bad-ass, with the bottom of a cast-iron pan). Obviously, this is a rich sauce, so I usually try to select smaller chicken breasts, but depending on the size of your pan, you may be only able to cook 2 chicken breasts at the time. If you are in a hurry and want to whip it up in one big batch, you can cut the meat in cubes and sauté it. It looks less impressive and elegant, but it's just as tasty!

I've also tried marinating the chicken in 2 cups of white wine mixed with the juice of 1 lemon instead of coating it in mustard. The wine always makes the chicken very tender.

One quick word about dosing the mustard: real Dijon mustard has quite a bite. Start by mixing 2 tablespoons of it in the sauce, taste it and wait a few seconds. The taste will creep up on you, so adjust it very carefully so that you don't find yourself making funny faces through the meal. The trick is to taste the sharpness of the mustard, but not let it overwhelm the sauce.

Asparagus and steamed potatoes are my favorite veggies to serve with this (they taste lovely smothered in the sauce!) but a bed of wild rice also makes a great side. Serve it with a fruity white wine; I like Les Jamelles' sauvignon blanc.

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