09 September 2011

Elizabeth David's Poulet à l'estragon

There's a lady who has been around the bases a few times. Good grief, her bio reads like a racy romance novel, and I'm sure she'd take umbrage at that, but tough. She came from a properous English family that bankrolled her early jaunt through Europe dodging Nazi invasion, drinking and carousing with actors, writers, and libertines. She finally married some Schmo (I say this facetiously) and when things got dicey, she moved back to England and shacked up with some other Schmo. Man, oh man. That seems to have been her mantra. 

There! The racy stuff is out of the way. In between all that libidinous putzing about, she developed a taste  and skill for cooking the French and Mediterranean flavours. In post-war England, she championed a return to flavour - olive oil, garlic, the herbs of southern Europe, simple rustic treatments for vegetables and meats that would bring back to life a beleaguered post-war kitchen. Of course, there was other stuff in there - writing books on cuisine, doing magazine articles, co-owning a kitchen store that marketed pottery, pots and pans, and all manner of gadgetry, developing a kitchen 'lifestyle' look that became stylish during the 60's  ... you know, the usual kitchen diva stuff. For these actions, she has made the Gourmet Live List of 50 Women Game-Changers ... #14 on the list.

I'm sure there's more to say about Elizabeth David, but I think this is enough. 

To live life with a lust for all the senses ... that might not be such a bad thing. To do it discreetly and not talk about it excessively is even better. Leave it to the biographers and magazine hacks. Good on you, Devil-May-Care Elizabeth.

Simplicity is my mantra for this evening ... à la Elizabeth David.

A rustic French treatment for a small chicken ... only six ingredients, a piece of jute string, and a hot oven. A bit later, dinner is served with a sauté of garlic, onion, sweet red peppers, and broccoli florets. This is how it's written from a site I found on Elizabeth David's recipes -

2lb chicken, teaspoon of chopped tarragon leaves, half a clove of garlic, salt and pepper, "a good ounce of butter", olive oil plus brandy, cream and Madeira

Like the majority of the dishes in French Provincial Cooking, this recipe is simplicity itself. Knead the tarragon, garlic and seasoning into the butter and spread inside the chicken, "which should be well coated with olive oil". (In the Britain of 1960, this blithe direction would have involved trotting along to Boots the Chemist for one or two tiny bottles of medicinal olive oil.) The bird is roasted on its side "in a pretty hot oven" for 25 minutes before being flipped over for a similar period.

The result is beautifully moist (which explains the flipping) and imbued with tarragon (that's why you need a small chicken). This heavenly marriage of fowl and herb is perfect for picnics or a chicken salad, but David doesn't stop there. "Heat a small glass of brandy in a soup ladle, set light to it, pour it flaming over the chicken." Hmm. Flaming brandy in a soup ladle, eh? In order to avoid possible conflagration, I used a small saucepan. Once the flames have guttered out, the chicken is returned to a low oven to cook any remaining alcohol. "At this point, you can, if you like, enrich the sauce with a few spoons of rich cream." Yes, I liked very much indeed.

"And at La Mère Michel's Paris restaurant," David adds, " from where this recipe originally came, they add Madeira to the sauce. Good though this is, it seems to me a needless complication." Since La Mère Michel sounds exactly where I would like to eat, I splashed in the Madeira. The result was a richly sensual, potentially seductive sauce that elevated a simple dish into something memorable. It was an example of the fine bourgeois cooking you always hope to find in French towns (the old advice was to follow a fat man heading for lunch) but seldom can.

So, I got my 'little chicken' - a 4 lb bird (nowhere, could I find a 2-lb bird!) and pulled the excess fat from the the cavity and around the trimmed edges, washed it and dried it, and slathered that tarragon/garlic butter inside the cavity and between the skin and breast meat. I massaged it with olive oil and trussed it up with the jute string and roasted it as suggested by turning it back up, breast up, and back to back up for about 1 hour at 375°F.

Unfortunately, I had no Madeira, so I bypassed all the boozey falderal and just plopped the finished bird into a shallow pasta bowl with the vegetables, poured some white wine, ripped off a hunk of dark wheat bread, and knoshed dinner. Leftover chicken and the carcass will go into a soup ... because that's been on my mind to make, too! 

The rest of my blogging cohorts can be found through links on Mary's blog, One Perfect Bite. I'm anxious to see what everyone else has come up with ... there are so many great Elizabeth David recipes out there!


  1. Great post! I think I'd enjoy the addition of Madeira.

  2. This certainly seems like the ultimate decadent roast chicken. All the rich layers of flavors do sound great, but I'm sure I would have skipped the flaming ladle myself!

  3. Elizabeth David did live a colorful life, although it seems quietly until it was written about. Lovely writeup and nice simple elegant meal to remember her by.

  4. I adore Elizabeth David, her writing style is so evocative of a lost time... both bitterly ascerbic and comically sweet. Great chicken too!

  5. Devaki @ weavethousandflavors9/9/11 12:26 PM

    This chicken makes me want to curl up with an M C Beaton novel, Susan :) I confess , I do not know Elizabeth David so it is wonderful reading about her from your perspective.

    chow! Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  6. You'r4e right Susan this would have been delicious with the Piedmont Peppers:D

  7. I know! I am so intrigued by this woman...I can't wait to read more about her in the future when I get some "free" time. That could be farrrrr in the future, but...hey. This chicken looks like it makes a lovely meal :)

  8. I always love a good roast chicken - this looks fabulous :)

  9. Love your Elizabeth David write-up! This chicken looks divine.


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