Of all the delicious food we ate in Paris, I was probably most bowled over by the simplest: Brasserie Lutetia’s succulent poulet fermier de Challans roti a l’ail rose et au thym and its silky pommes purees. This was comfort food raised to the level of art.
Ever since we’ve been home, I’ve been trying to recreate this elegant dish, an exercise in humility if ever there was one. Those silky mashed potatoes remain elusive. I’m getting closer, but in the meantime B is happy to devour the ones I’ve been serving—all that forbidden butter! They’re not perfect, but we’re learning to live with a few lumps.
Do you want to try the recipe? Here’s the shopping list: Chicken, canola oil, fresh thyme, garlic, potatoes, butter, milk, salt. Basic, you’re thinking. You probably have everything on hand, except maybe the fresh thyme.
But wait: The dish might seem simple, but it takes stellar ingredients, a few kitchen trucs (tricks), and of course, inviting presentation to lift chicken and potatoes to the level of the Brasserie’s luxe preparation.
Is this the moment to confess that no sooner had we stepped off the plane from Paris, than I ordered the darling little cocottes that were too heavy to carry home? Maybe later…
Let’s start with the main ingredients.
The Chicken: The chicken served at the Brasserie came from Challans, in the Vendee, a department along France’s Atlantic coast. Challans has been the “duck capital” for centuries, ever since the salty marshes were drained so that ducks could wander happily through the ooze—at least until the dinner bell rang. Today’s producers also raise “rustic” breeds of chicken, in particular the poulet noir or black leg variety, that are free-ranging. Not as gamy as the famed poulet de Bresse, Challans chicken is prized for delicate, translucent skin that becomes crispy when roasted, and a full flavor that ordinary birds can’t even aspire to.
Back in North Carolina, I discovered Poulet Rouge Fermier, a small, slow-growth, free range chicken, raised without antibiotics and hormones, which at maturity weighs just under 3 pounds—the perfect size for two people. Raised in Piedmont NC, the breed is said to be similar to Challans chickens, which in France are certified under the Label Rouge quality program. Other small organic poultry producers around the country are also raising Label Rouge and other heritage breeds. Check to see what the farmers at your local market have for sale. (Please note: Tyson’s Red Label chicken “products” do not apply.)
How best to cook such a delicacy? After a few false starts, I dredged up an old clipping from The New York Times in which Jacques Pepin recommends roasting a small chicken at 425 degrees, first on one side and then on the other in order to keep the juices in the breast. It’s then roasted lying on its back, breast up, for a final 10 minutes. This method worked beautifully, although I did reduce the temperature slightly for the last 10 minutes. The chicken was flavorful, tender and juicy, with a delicate golden brown skin, and it was easy to carve the leg and breast off the carcass. (The clipping was part of a 1989 article, “The Chicken Dinner, Both Humble and Noble.”)
The Garlic: At the Brasserie, the roasted ail rose, or pink garlic, that accompanied the poulet, oozed out of its papery husk like liquid velvet. Its flavor was sweet and nutty, without a hint of pungency. This may well have been l’ail rose de Lautrec, a delicately flavored garlic that is grown in southwest France and, like the chicken, has Label Rouge quality certification. If I’d had more time to spend at the marches in Paris, I would have searched for a kilo or two to take home.
But on our return, rummaging in the pantry, I discovered a head of garlic labeled “Tarne, Red Southern France” that I had ordered from Corti Brothers, the marvelous Sacramento grocer, as part of a 2011 garlic collection we’ve been sampling. Like l’ail rose, it has a beautiful lavender pink husk and, though marked “pungent,” a sweet, mild flavor that was perfect for this dish. Tarn is the same department in which Lautrec is located…could the garlic be a relative of l’ail rose?
Wherever you live, you might troll your farmer’s market for mild garlic with plump cloves. In truth, slow roasting garlic in its husk will mellow the flavor of all but the most pungent allium, so you can probably use what you already have.
The Potatoes: The silky pommes purees have been my stumbling block, and I am (temporarily) admitting defeat. But the creamy potatoes in this recipe are actually quite delicious, even if they do have a few little lumps. (The Brasserie’s had none at all.) Here’s what I’ve discovered:
1. Like the Brasserie’s chefs, I’m partial to the flavor of yellow-fleshed potatoes. The Carola potatoes I tried had the most delicious taste, even before I added butter and milk. But even using a food mill fitted with a finely perforated plate, some tiny lumps came though. Yukon Gold potatoes produced a smoother pureed potato, although with a slightly grainy texture, but seemed to drink up a lot more butter before reaching the desired flavor. In both cases I left the skin on when boiling.
2. Instead of using a potato masher, force the boiled spuds through a potato ricer or food mill using the plate with the smallest holes. Either will squeeze the soft flesh of the potatoes through the perforations, breaking up lumps and producing a fairly smooth puree, while leaving the skin behind. It’s not perfect, though: in the case of the Yukon Golds, a few tiny bits of the skin made it into the puree, and in the case of the Carolas, a few little lumps.
3. If you are striving for perfection, look into a tamis, a traditional French drum sieve covered with fine metal or nylon mesh. You place the tamis over a bowl, put the potatoes on top and press them through the mesh with a scraper or pestle.
4. Do not, under any circumstances, try to get rid of the lumps by whizzing the potatoes in a food processor. It’s a recipe for making glue.
The Butter: This is not the time for Land O’Lakes. Either get the best small dairy butter you can find, or try an imported butter such as Irish Kerry Gold which is sold at upscale food stores and also by Amazon. You can also go to sites like gourmetfoodstore.com and order the imported French AOC butters like Beurre d’Isigny. But I didn’t work at it that hard: I used a lightly salted butter made with fresh cream by Maple View Farm a few miles away, and it was fine.
The important thing is to leave the butter at room temperature for at least an hour before you get ready to use it. Beat it into the potatoes while they are still very hot, before you add the milk, so that it is more easily absorbed. Then add warm milk so that the potatoes take on a looser, creamier consistency. Always serve the potatoes hot: The texture will be smoother and silkier that way.
The Salt: Sea salt, please. Sprinkle the chicken inside and out before you roast it. Also add it to the potatoes after you’ve beaten in the butter and milk.
As for presentation, I confess to an obsession with the little cocottes—red oval Le Creuset models—in which the Brasserie served the poulet and pommes purees. So bright and cheery, and whisking off the tops, as our waiter did, is great theater. But even though I found them at Le Bon Marche—and discovered that Dehillerin sells the classic round black Staub cocottes (for 75 euros each…ouch!), I couldn’t imagine hauling even two of these cast iron heavy weights home.
Still obsession being what it is, I found myself ordering two one-quart oval Staub cocottes in classic black almost the moment I stepped off the plane. So far I haven’t cooked in them, but they are great for serving and keeping food warm. You can arrange the chicken, potatoes and roasted garlic in each one and pop it into the oven for 5 or 10 minutes before bringing it to the table. And I love whisking the tops off in a sort of “Ta-Da” moment.
“These are a whole league up,” marveled B as he was rinsing the dishes last night. Ahem. Yes, they are.
Sans cocottes, you could also arrange the chicken and other ingredients in a large covered serving dish and whisk off the top for a similar moment of revelation. And there’s nothing wrong at all with simply serving the chicken and potatoes on individual plates, as long as they’re hot.
Roast Chicken with Thyme, Garlic and Almost Silky Mashed Potatoes
This is a perfect dish for two people to share, and there will be leftovers for the next day. The method for carving the chicken is adapted from Daniel Bouloud’s instructions at the end of “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Roast Chicken”, a 1999 New York Times article by Amanda Hesser.
6 fat cloves unpeeled garlic (l’ail rose, red Tarne, or any other mild variety)
1 whole chicken, Poulet Rouge Fermier or other heritage breed, no more than 3 pounds
Sea salt to taste
12 sprigs fresh thyme
2-1/2 pounds small to medium yellow potatoes (Yukon Gold, Corolla) or other flavorful variety
12-16 tablespoons good quality butter, to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup whole milk, warm
1. Roast the garlic ahead of time. Slick 4 unpeeled cloves with a little canola oil, place them in a small terracotta garlic roaster and cover. (Or wrap them loosely in aluminum foil, but take care to seal edges of the packet tightly.) Place the garlic in a cold oven and turn the temperature to 300 degrees. Roast for 40 minutes, then turn the oven off and let the garlic sit undisturbed for an hour. Remove and leave in the roaster or aluminum foil packet until you are ready to assemble the dish.
2. Prepare the chicken for roasting: Set the oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the chicken inside and out, and pat dry. Rub all over with canola oil. Sprinkle generously with sea salt and rub some into the cavity. Stuff the cavity with 6 sprigs of fresh thyme and the two remaining cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed. Tuck the wings under the bird and tie the legs together in front of the cavity with a short length of kitchen twine. Place the chicken in a roasting pan with a non-stick surface. Set aside while you put the potatoes on to boil.
3. Begin the potatoes: Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel. Put them in a large pot with 2 inches of cold water to cover. Place the pot over a high flame and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium and boil until the potatoes can easily be pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, 20-30 minutes.
4. While the potatoes are boiling, turn the chicken so that it is lying on one side and place it in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and turn the chicken onto the other side. Roast for another 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and reduce the heat to 400 degrees. Turn the chicken so that it is on its back, breast up. Baste with pan drippings and roast for 10 minutes more, basting once or twice. Remove from the oven and let the chicken rest for 10 minutes.
5. Mash the potatoes: While the chicken is roasting, drain the cooked potatoes in a colander and shake out all the excess moisture. While they are still hot, cut them into thick slices or quarters, depending on the size. Using a food mill or ricer with the finest sieve (smallest holes) attached, press the potatoes through the holes into a large bowl. (The skins will remain behind.) When all the potatoes have been riced, quickly beat in the softened butter, to taste. Add enough warm milk, ¼ cup or more, to give the potatoes a smooth, creamy consistency. Add salt to taste. Keep warm.
6. Carve the chicken: Using a sharp knife, remove one leg and attached thigh from the chicken by cutting down through the skin at the point where the leg meets the breast and gently pulling the leg to the side as you cut through the joint where the thigh attaches to the backbone. Then separate the thigh and the leg by cutting through the connecting joint. Set the thigh aside. Cut off the wing and set aside. Remove the breast meat on one side by cutting closely down the breast bone and ribs and gently removing the meat in one piece.
7. Repeat on the other side.
8. To serve: If you are serving in individual cocottes, spoon a generous amount of potatoes into the bottom of each cocotte and place the breast meat on top. Position the leg on top of the breast. Tuck a few springs of thyme into the potatoes and put two of the roasted garlic cloves on top of the chicken. Cover, and return the cocottes to the 400 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes.
9. Otherwise, bring the chicken to the table in a covered serving dish, with potatoes on the bottom and the chicken, thyme and garlic on top. Or simply arrange the chicken and potatoes on individual plates and bring them right to the table. Serve with a simple green salad dressed with a vinaigrette.