Poulet Sauté Chasseur (1932)

The front door of Villa Sebastian in Hammamet, Tunisia, where chef François Rysavy once ruled the range.

Last month I immersed myself in one of my intense, periodic obsessions about style and design. This time around my focus was Villa Sebastian, a vast, early 1930s house of some modernist importance, located beside a snow-white beach in Hammamet, Tunisia. You can read more about its history on my other blog, An Aesthete’s Lament (click here).

The owners of that extraordinary house, Romanian-born George Sebastian and his American wife, the former Flora Stifel, not only commissioned a much admired winter retreat, they maintained a high standard as North Africa’s leading hosts during their relatively brief marriage. Part of this success was due to the couple’s canny hiring of François Rysavy, a chef they met in Paris on their honeymoon and made the star of their Tunisian kitchen. There, for several years, he produced all manner of delectable dishes for the Sebastians and their glamorous guests, from Greta Garbo to W. Somerset Maugham to the future Duchess of Windsor. As Wallis Simpson, the last-named visitor spent a holiday with the Sebastians in 1932, joined by her second husband, Ernest. One of the dishes made for the Simpsons by Rysavy—who went on to serve as White House chef during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—was a French favorite, Poulet Sauté Chasseur, or chicken with mushrooms. It happened to be one of the Sebastians’ preferred plats.

My interest piqued by the chef’s association with the Sebastians, I swiftly hied myself to Amazon.com and acquired a copy of Rysavy’s culinary memoir, A Treasury of White House Cooking (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972). My husband and I have been greatly entertained by its recipes, as well as Rysavy’s tittle-tattle about his presidential employers, though it came as little surprise to learn that Mamie Eisenhower had a delicate stomach, leading her to ban garlic and goulash. (The First Lady did, however, love mint and caramel.) Pat Nixon, on the other hand, was a fiend for chicken in any form, especially enchiladas, while Jacqueline Kennedy, Rysavy explains, “would have been almost incapacitated in her social life if she could not serve veal in its many succulent forms or lamb.” President Nixon loved tacos, even ordering them for his 30th wedding anniversary celebration, though he did have an amatory reason: tacos reminded him of his honeymoon, which had been spent south of the border.

But I digress. A few weeks ago my husband took on Rysavy’s Poulet Sauté Chasseur and made it the centerpiece of a triumphant family dinner. Moistened with an unctuous sauce composed of brandy, wine, mushrooms, and chicken stock—which gave a far richer flavor than the recipe’s called-for consommé—this chicken creation turned out to be one of the finest dishes ever to come out of our kitchen. No wonder the Sebastians craved it, and, yes, found it fit for a future royal duchess. As Rysavy points out, Jacqueline Kennedy loved it too, serving it at Mount Vernon during a state dinner for the president of Pakistan in 1961.

François Rysavy's Poulet Sauté Chasseur, with a side of asparagus.

POULET SAUTE CHASSEUR
SOURCE: A Treasury of White House Cooking by François Rysavy, as told to Frances Spatz Leighton (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972)
SERVES: Four (4) persons

INGREDIENTS
Salt and pepper to taste
1 3-pound fryer, cut into 8 pieces
¼ pound [unsalted] butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound raw mushrooms, sliced [NOTE: We used presliced baby portabellas.]
3 shallots, finely chopped
1 cup chicken consommé [NOTE: We used boxed chicken stock.]
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons brandy
¼ cup tomato paste
½ teaspoon chopped tarragon
Parsley (chopped, for garnish)

DIRECTIONS

1. Salt and pepper the pieces of fowl, and sauté them in a large skillet with the butter and olive oil until brown.

2. Take the pieces of chicken out of the skillet and set aside on a platter or dish. Sauté the mushrooms and shallots in the skillet, using the now-chicken-intensified butter/olive oil mixture. When they begin to turn a golden color, pour in the consommé, white wine, and brandy. Let simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by about one-third. Then add the tomato paste and tarragon, and immediately return the chicken to the pan.

3. Simmer the chicken, covered, until tender—about 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Place the chicken on plate or platter, cover with the sauce, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve.

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Chicken à la King (Elsie de Wolfe)

A bit messily presented: Chicken à la King from "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining" (1934).

Anyone who reads this blog knows I have a weakness for creamy foods. There just something about the texture of a recipe incorporating butter and cream that is terrifically fulfilling, both emotionally and gustatorially—the richness, the aroma, the calories. Since my family doesn’t devour such ingredients every day, I don’t mind serving one extravagant dish a week. Last night it was Chicken à la King from Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934).

The origins of this dish are obscure, and numerous stories about its invention abound. Some sources date the creation of this chicken, cream, and sherry concoction to the 1880s or 1890s, either at Claridge’s in London or Delmonico’s in New York City, where it was reportedly known as Chicken à la Keene, after its honoree, a wealthy American. One site states the likeliest genesis story is that it was invented around 1900 at the Brighton Beach Hotel at Brighton Beach, Long Island, New York, and named for the hotel’s owner, E. Clark King (the original recipe from that source is published here, right below de Wolfe’s version). Yet another source, a 1912 advertisement in Good Housekeeping magazine for Purity Cross canned chicken à la king, gives credit to the chef at the Ritz in Paris, who reportedly prepared it for Edward VII of Great Britain, using the monarch’s own recipe.

Whatever the truth, as Calvin Trillin once noted, chicken à la king (or Keene) was eaten a lot by “rich people of the sort who were listed in the social register.” Good Housekeeping, in 1916, called it “a very aristocratic and delectable supper dish.” It didn’t take long, however, for it to become a staple at women’s clubs, mess halls, and board luncheons all across the United States. And for good reason—it’s simple to prepare, is a great use of leftover chicken or turkey, and is one of the world’s finest comfort foods. Somewhere along the way cayenne pepper crept into the ingredients, though usually specified as “a few grains,” which really doesn’t do much. I gave Elsie de Wolfe’s Chicken à la King recipe a couple of healthy shakes of cayenne pepper, which gave it a welcome kick that was deemed acceptable by all, even our usually spice-averse daughter. I did not, however, garnish it with sliced truffles. Alas, I was fresh out of that particular fungi.

CHICKEN A LA KING

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

6 [white] mushrooms

1 green pimento [I used red, since it was all I could find at the grocer]

2 ounces unsalted butter

White meat of a cooked chicken, cut into good-sized dice

2 tablespoons sherry

1/2 pint heavy cream, plus 2 teaspoons

1 egg yolk

Salt

Pepper

Cayenne

4 slices white bread, toasted and buttered

1 truffle, thinly sliced [I didn’t have one of these around for garnish]

DIRECTIONS

Slice the mushrooms and pimento into thin, long strips. Place in sauce-pan with butter. Cover the pan and cook over a low flame for 5 minutes. Add the chicken, sherry, and 1/2 pint of cream. Cook for 5 more minutes. Mix the yolk with the 2 teaspoons cream and add at the last moment of cooking, stirring it in thoroughly. Do not allow the mixture to boil after the egg has been added. Remove from heat, season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste, and serve over slices of hot buttered toast.

CHICKEN A LA KING

SOURCE: The New York Times, 14 April 1980, an article by Craig Claiborne citing a circa-1900 brochure from the Brighton Beach Hotel.

“Melt two tablespoons of butter and add one-half of a green pepper shredded and one cup of mushrooms sliced thin. Stir and cook five minutes and then add two level tablespoonfuls of flour and a half teaspoonful of salt. Cook until frothy and then add one pint of cream and stir until the sauce thickens. Put this all in a double boiler, add three cups of chicken cut into pieces and let stand to get very hot. In the meantime, take a quarter of a cup of butter and beat into the yolks of three eggs, one teaspoonful of onion juice, one tablespoonful of lemon juice and one-half teaspoonful of paprika. Stir this mixture until the eggs thicken a little; add a little sherry and finally  shredded pimento before serving on toast.”

Chicken à la Lord Berners

British composer Lord Berners in the drawing room of Faringdon, painting a portrait of his favourite horse, which had been brought into the room for the occasion.

Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, led an exceptionally interesting life. A composer whose works included several ballets as well as the music for the 1947 movie “Nicholas Nickleby”, this bald British bachelor (1883-1950) also painted more than 100 landscapes, wrote six novels, two memoirs, and was a leading light of Britain’s aesthetic world between the wars. As his friend Osbert Sitwell observed, “Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms … he moved … a sort of missionary of the arts.” As for the musical compositions he wrote for so many years, a modern critic took a  jaundiced view not long ago, calling Berners’ oeuvre “exquisite musical chintz”.

The famous fantail pigeons of Faringdon House, which Lord Merlin began dyeing brilliant colours in the 1920s; they continue to be brightened thusly to this day with vegetable dyes. Nancy Mitford called the fluttering birds "a cloud of confetti in the sky."

His Lordship also was a poker-faced practical joker, fond of pranks and silly signs. “Mangling Done Here” was written on the sign which hung on his front door. He also famously coloured the fantail pigeons at his country seat, Faringdon House, brilliant shades of pink, blue, and lavender, using vegetable dyes. It is no wonder that with such eccentric behaviour as a guide that Nancy Mitford fictionalized Berners as Lord Merlin in her comic novel The Pursuit of Love.

When it came to food, however, Lord Berners was a masterful host, and his meals, whether at Faringdon or his London residence, were considered superb, even overwhelmingly luxurious. There was no Monty Python-style trickery when it came to Berners’s table, though at least remembrance recalls mayonnaise dyed blue. One of Lord Berners’ best known dishes, Roast Chicken in Cream, was reprinted in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros, 1954), that immensely entertaining memoir cum recipe compilation. After adapting the somewhat vaguely written original recipe into more accurate terms, I made it two nights ago and was mightily impressed by its rich flavour and handsome presentation. My husband called it “moist, with a lovely onion-flavoured sauce.”

NOTE: Owned by writer Sofka Zinovieff, the Athens-based granddaughter of Lord Berners’ lover, Robert Heber-Percy, Faringdon House is available to rent on a monthly basis. Contact the Faringdon Estate Office, Faringdon, Oxfordshire, England (01367 240240) for details. To read more about Berners’s life, pick up a copy of “Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric” by Mark Amory (Chatto & Windus, 1998).

ROAST CHICKEN IN CREAM

SOURCE: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954)

INGREDIENTS

2 large yellow onions

3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil

1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds

Heavy cream

Juice of 1 small lemon

1/2 cup sherry or Madeira

Parsley

Salt

Pepper

DIRECTIONS

Rub the chicken with salt and pepper, inside and out, and set aside.

Cut the onions in half and then slice into half rounds. Brown the sliced onions with butter or olive oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy pot. When done place the chicken in the pot, breast side up. Cover the pot tightly, and cook over a low heat until done.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and place it on a platter or cookie sheet in low oven (250 degrees Fahrenheit) until needed.

Add heavy cream, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and sherry or Madeira to the pot of onions and chicken juices. Let the sauce reduce over a medium heat until it begins to thicken, stirring frequently.

Remove the chicken from the oven. Carve it into pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Pour the thickened sauce through a fine strainer over the chicken, covering the meat thoroughly (you may need to gently press the onions with the back of a spoon to force the sauce through). Garnish with finely chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Chicken in “Vogue”

From the Age of Aquarius to the druggy days of disco, Maxime de La Falaise (1922-2009, shown above) wrote a lively cookery column for American Vogue. Fashion designer, writer, former model, daughter of a celebrated British portrait painter, and ex-wife of a French count, she was a spirited Anglo-Irish beauty who became a high priestess of the international bohemian set. She appeared in Andy Warhol films, had affairs with Surrealist artist Max Ernst and British diplomat Duff Cooper, and posed for Cecil Beaton. La Falaise could cook up a storm too, and tales of her culinary triumphs (as well her social debaucheries) have been passed on to me by a few of her friends.

In the 1 September 1972 issue of Vogue La Falaise addressed the topic “How to be a Good Cook … Without Really Slaving.” The centerpiece of the featured menu was Herbed Roast Chicken Legs. Last night our cupboard was pretty bare but we did possess most of the ingredients outlined in the lady’s brief recipe—chicken legs, herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, and olive oil. No cardamom, alas; turns out we used it up making a curry last week. A few seconds’ worth of Internet sleuthing, however, turned up one cook’s reasonable facsimile of this fragrant Asian spice—she conjured a mock version by mixing equal amounts cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, and ginger, all of which we have.

Chicken is pretty much a vehicle for other flavours, in any case, and as my family observed after cleaning their plates, La Falaise’s herbed drumsticks did not disappoint, cardamom or no cardamom. On the side I served mushrooms cooked in cream, a splash of white wine, and sprinkled with chopped parsley.

HERBED ROAST CHICKEN LEGS

SOURCE: Food in Vogue by Maxime de La Falaise (Doubleday, 1980)

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

1 tablespoon butter, softened

8 chicken legs

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons mixed dried herbs, preferably an imported Provençal mixture

1 tablespoon ground cardamom

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Butter a shallow casserole, arrange the chicken legs in one layer. Brush them well with part of the olive oil. Sprinkle with half the herbs and cardamom and season with salt and pepper. Immediately turn the legs over, brush on the remaining oil, and repeat seasoning.

Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes, turning once. [NOTE: We found this directive woefully inadequate. After 30 minutes, the drumsticks were still too pink inside, so we increased the cooking time to nearly 50 minutes, which helped.]

Two-Step Chicken

Pulled and Grilled Chicken, one of the culinary specialties served in the 1920s and 1930s at Polesden Lacey, the country house of British hostess Mrs Ronald Greville.

Maggie Greville (1863-1942) was a nasty piece of work. The famous chatelaine of the glorious English country house Polesden Lacey had several strikes against her as she started her ascent up the social ladder. She was short, plump, and brunette in an era that idolized stately golden-blonde pulchritude, and she was a bastard, the recognized but illegitimate only child of a Scottish beer millionaire William McEwan, whose celebrated ale, McEwan’s, is still made today. As a consequence of these drawbacks, she grew up rich and defensive, with a tart tongue to match and a fearsome intellect. Her words could be so wounding that one of her contemporaries said, “Maggie Greville! I would sooner have an open sewer in my drawing room.” Chips Channon, the gossipy Member of Parliament, looked upon this feared society figure and political insider with wonder, writing, “There is no one on earth quite so skilfully malicious.” Even her friend Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, called her “amusingly unkind.” Cecil Beaton called her “a galumphing, greedy old toad” while Harold Nicholson dubbed her “a fat slug filled with venom.”

That being said, the mondaine Mrs Ronald Greville, wife of one of Edward VII’s best friends, was a superb hostess, greeting the high and mighty in the sumptuous rooms of Polesden Lacey, which had been decorated in high-Edwardian Francophile style by the architects of the Paris Ritz. Very often what was served on milady’s Sèvres porcelain, while she herself was swathed in a necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, was a slightly complicated but tremendously pleasing chicken dish, Pulled and Grilled Chicken.

How complicated? Though it really isn’t that difficult to produce, let’s just say I won’t be making this every week by any means. But its combination of devilled dark meat and velouté-sauced white meat was delectable and surprising.

Mrs. Greville’s pulled and grilled chicken, plated on old Wedgwood, and served with tomatoes and a medley of pearl onions and green peas.

PULLED AND GRILLED CHICKEN

SOURCE: Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991) and adapted from the original recipe published in English Country House Cooking by Fortune Stanley (Reader’s Union, 1974)

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

4-pound chicken

Velouté Sauce

1 ounce butter

2 tablespoons flour

7 fluid ounces chicken stock

3 fluid ounces single cream

Sea salt and white pepper

Devil Mixture

3 tablespoons chutney, not too sweet

2 teaspoons English mustard [we made it by following the directions on a canister of Coleman’s double super-fine mustard powder]

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

For Coating the Dark Meat

1-1/2 ounces dry white breadcrumbs

1/4 ounce butter

DIRECTIONS

Boil or roast the chicken as usual. Remove the white meat from the breast and wings, place it in a mixing bowl, and pull the meat into coarse shreds, using two forks; set aside. Carve the legs into four neat joints and set aside. [Set oven to 400-degrees Fahrenheit for future use.]

Make the velouté sauce by mixing all the ingredients together in a sauce pan. using some of the chicken stock if you have boiled the chicken. (If you choose to roast it, make a little stock in advance from the neck, wing tips, et cetera. You only need 7 fluid ounces.) Place the pan on the stove, over a low heat and stir frequently. Keep the sauce warm while you devil the brown meat.

Make the devil mixture: mix the chutney with the two mustards and the Worcestershire sauce. Make small slits in the outside of the brown-meat joints, through the skin, and rub all over with the devil mixture, then coat with crumbs. Dot with tiny bits of butter and [roast in preheated oven] until golden brown, turning to colour evenly.

To serve, stir the pulled meat into the velouté sauce and reheat [gently until relatively hot; use your judgement on this]. Pour into the center of a shallow dish and lay the grilled joints around the edge.

Scottish Barbecued Chicken

Barbecued Chicken à la Mrs James Young. It looks an axe murder but trust me—it truly is delicious. But the chicken should have been carved before the sauce was poured over it.

Back in the 1960s the wife of eminent soldier-diplomat Sir Fitzroy Maclean, a spectacularly lovely woman named Veronica (1920-2005), published Lady Maclean’s Cook Book (Collins, 1965), a classic which I have dipped into from time to time. Charmingly illustrated with woodcuts and simulacrums of aristocratic notepaper, its 234 pages contained a compilation of typed and handwritten recipes contributed by Lady Maclean and her friends, a heady crew ranging from Nancy Lancester (Nettle Soup) to Pandora Astor (Pâtés Vertes, Watercress Soup) to the Duchess of Devonshire (Chocolate Cake) to Lady Birley (Devilled Sardines). Even Elizabeth David, the woman who changed British cookery with her adventuresome tastebuds and matchless joie de vivre, was part of the bunch, as was Sir Fitzroy, whose offerings included a fantastic hot pudding called Whisky Bananas.

One individual who supplied recipes for many favourite dishes was Phyllis Young, wife of Colonel James Young of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; they owned The Portsonachan Hotel near the village of Dalmally in Argyllshire, Scotland. I haven’t tried all her entries but Mrs. Young’s Barbecued Chicken is delectable, even if our production of it looks a bit messy as seen in the photograph above. The introduction to the recipe is charmingly practical: “We find this a good way of roasting chicken which has been deep frozen and is rather lacking in flavour.” Sign me up—what store-bought chicken doesn’t share these characteristics?

“It doesn’t look very appetizing,” my husband said once the platter was carried to the table, “but we really should have carved the chicken as directed—I didn’t notice that part of the recipe.” As for the taste, he noted, “It was wonderful. Not really barbecue-like, more tomato-like, with a tang.”

We turned the leftover meat into a chicken salad for the next day’s luncheon, binding it with a bit of mayonnaise and mixing in thinly slice celery and a dash of fennel seeds. The leftover sauce was added to the chicken bones, mixed with water, and turned into a broth for risotto.

BARBECUED CHICKEN

Recipe by Mrs. James Young of The Portsonachan Hotel, Argyll, Scotland

SOURCE: Lady Maclean’s Cook Book by Veronica Maclean (Collins, 1965)

SERVES 4 TO 6 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

1 roast chicken [about 4 pounds]

1 teaspoon any mustard

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoonful salt

Ground black pepper

2 ounces unsalted butter, melted

1 onion

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Tomato sauce [4 ounces or to taste]

HP sauce [order it from Amazon here]

Tomato purée [10-ounce can]

1 clove garlic

DIRECTIONS

[Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.]

Chop onion finely and sauté in the butter, then add garlic, and all the liquids. Cook for half an hour [over a low to medium heat] and strain.

Put the chicken in a roasting pan. Mix the dry mustard, ginger, salt, and pepper together and rub well into the chicken and place the roasting pan in a hot oven and cook for 20 minutes. Pour the basting sauce over it and baste every 15 minutes until cooked [about 1 hour]. [Be sure to baste as directed, otherwise the barbecue sauce will burn.]

Carve the chicken and arrange on a platter. Skim fat from the sauce and reduce a little on top of the stove. When thickened pour over the carved chicken and serve.

A Barbecue-Chicken Alternative

Poulet au Vinaigre, placed on an old Limoges platter.

Chicken is a staple at our house. It is rustic, easy to cook, and our daughter loves it. So we typically have chicken at least twice a week—fried, roasted or sautéed. But this basic fowl can be boring, frankly. Often I crave barbecued chicken but it’s impossibly messy, staining napkins and rendering fingers sticky.

There is a chicken recipe in Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion 1961) that has a barbecue appearance and flavour but without the mess I associate with it. Poulet au vinaigre, or vinegar chicken, is cooked in a heavy covered pot instead of on a grill. The sumptuous sauce incorporates several ingredients that one finds in traditional barbecue sauce, such as tomato purée. But instead of being slightly sweet, as so much barbecued chicken often is, the dish is infused with a subtle but sprightly tang of vinegar. (A reader recently commented that the balance between acid and sweet reminds him of Indonesian cookery.)

Our daughter agreed and proceeded to speedily devour both drumsticks, saying it was “the best barbecued chicken I have ever had.” As for my husband, he is sold on the splash of vinegar, which, he observed, brought “an intense dimension I didn’t expect.” He is also increasingly sold on preparing chicken in a pot on top of the stove, which cooks the meat quickly and in this instance richly caramelized the skin.

POULET AU VINAIGRE

SERVES 4 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

2-1/2 or 3-pound chicken

6 tablespoons butter

5 teaspoons white wine

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic

3 teaspoons French mustard

4 teaspoons tomato purée

4 teaspoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Choose a chicken that is not too fat. Have it cut in pieces and cook it in a covered heavy pan with the butter and unpeeled garlic, salt, and pepper for 25 to 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked.

Meanwhile mix in a bowl the mustard, tomato purée, and white wine.

When the chicken is cooked, add the vinegar. Cover the dish and cook until the chicken is almost dry. Remove the chicken and keep hot on a serving platter. Pour the mustard mixture into the pan and cook down a little without a cover. Add the cream and the Worcestershire sauce. Stir well and pour over the chicken. Serve immediately.