- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

One of the best-kept secrets of the restaurant world is the staff meal. Before guests start to arrive for lunch or dinner, everyone shares lunch or dinner back in the kitchen or at tables set up outside the kitchen door. The food is humble but delicious, prepared expertly by the chefs but using more humble ingredients than those served to guests.

I couldn’t have been older than 19 when, on a break from cooking at Maxim’s in Paris, I went to visit a friend who worked for legendary chef Paul Bocuse in Lyons, France. I arrived late in the afternoon. Invited to sit down to the staff dinner, I was impressed by my first meal ever out of the kitchen of Paul Bocuse.

They served poulet au vinaigre, sauteed chicken with vinegar sauce. I loved how the tanginess of the vinegar so perfectly complemented the poultry’s mild flavor. A few years later, when I was running the kitchen at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, I often put my own adaptation on the menu. All the sophisticated movers and shakers of Hollywood loved the rustic French peasant dish.

I like the fact that it gives vinegar the chance to star. Most of the time cooks think of vinegar as something you just use for salad dressings or pickles. But vinegar, and more generally any ingredient high in acidity - including citrus juices and wine - are essential elements of cooking.

Acidity is the backbone of any good sauce, contributing balance and complexity to every drop. Look at the way a classic French Bearnaise sauce depends on a good white-wine vinegar reduction to add flavor to its emulsion of butter and egg yolks. Consider how lemon juice blends so perfectly with melted butter to make an essential sauce for seafood or veal cutlets. Think about how the balance of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce gives so many Asian dishes their memorable flavor. You could also say, simply, that the acidity of vinegar opens up the taste buds to all the many flavors of a dish.

Try it for yourself in my version of that French favorite, which includes mushrooms for an extra dimension of robust flavor. (Serve with mashed potatoes to soak up the good sauce.) Use fresh shiitakes if your market has them, trimming off the tough stems before cutting the caps into 1/4-inch (6-mm) slices; or substitute regular white mushrooms, cremini mushrooms or portobellos. It doesn’t really matter what kind of mushrooms you use.

But the vinegar does matter. Don’t buy generic cooking vinegar. Instead, look for good-quality red-wine vinegar; or, for its appealingly earthy taste, Sherry vinegar. Feel free to experiment with other good vinegars to discover a new world of delicious flavors that you might just have been taking for granted.

SAUTEED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH VINEGAR SAUCE AND MUSHROOMS

Serves 6

6 large boneless chicken breast halves, skin left on

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

All-purpose flour

1 tablespoon mild-flavored vegetable oil

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

3 medium shallots, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves

1/4-cup (60 ml) red-wine vinegar or Sherry vinegar

1 cup (250 ml) dry white wine

3 cups (750 ml) good quality canned chicken broth

1 pound (500 g) shiitake, cremini, portobello, or cultivated mushrooms, wiped clean, stemmed and sliced

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

Season the chicken breasts all over with salt and pepper and then dust them lightly with flour. Set aside.

Heat a large, heavy saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter. As soon as the butter melts, add the chicken breasts, starting skin side down, and saute them until golden brown on all sides and just cooked through, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.

Drain the fat from the pan, reduce the heat to medium and add 1 tablespoon butter. Add the shallots and tarragon and saute for 1 minute. Add the vinegar and white wine and stir and scrape the pan with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits. Raise the heat, bring the liquid to a boil, and continue cooking until it has reduced in volume to about 3 tablespoons, about 10 minutes.

Pour in the chicken broth, bring it to a boil and continue boiling until the liquid is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer and, with a wire whisk, whisk in 8 more tablespoons of the butter, one small piece at a time, to form a creamy sauce.

Carefully return the chicken breasts to the pan. Without letting the sauce come to a boil, gently cook the chicken in the sauce over low heat until it is heated through, 5 to 7 minutes more.

While the chicken is heating, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over high heat in a large saute pan. Add the mushrooms and saute, stirring continuously, until their edges start to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Stir the mushrooms into the sauce with the chicken.

To serve, transfer the chicken, mushrooms and sauce into a serving dish or casserole. Garnish with chives and serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207.)

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