Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Bistro Chez Moi

Two months have passed in Paris, and I’ve hardly eaten in a restaurant. There have been the odd lunches with colleagues, usually in a creperie or sandwich bar, two casual midday meals during G’s first visit to Paris, the odd pho outings, and a late-night supper of onion soup, steak tartare and Beaujolais at a famous, if perhaps overrated, brasserie near Les Halles. But I’m yet to pass an evening in that most quintessential Parisian institution: the bistro.

The best of the genre are rightly fabled for serving diners three or four courses of well-executed standards, a proper baguette and a bit too much perfectly quaffable wine, all in an unfussy and convivial setting. Whether a resolutely traditional bastion of cuisine grand mere or, increasingly, updated with a sleeker, seasonal twist at the new gastro bistros, this kind of meal is what tens of thousands come to Paris to find.

So it may seem perverse that, despite an ample list of must-visit bistros—a few within easy walking distance from my apartment—I chose to cook this past Saturday night. The idea was not mine, I must admit. But our bistro-inspired meal turned out to be an intimate, smoke-free success. The wine was a light Loire red, slightly chilled, the bread from my favourite local bakery. There was soup to start, a simple pea and mint, and a fresh, peppery mesclun salad. For our main course, we adapted the classic rabbit in mustard, swapping lapin for chicken but retaining the voluptuous, winey sauce. Dessert came in three parts: a half-bottle of honeyed Sauternes drunk alongside its time-honoured partner, soft, salty Roquefort, and a tarte fine aux pommes from Montmarte’s best pastry maker, Arnaud Lahrer.

Dessert was a predictable knockout, but the chicken was the sleeper hit. Whether it was the shallots, reputed to be one of the secrets of French cooking, the judicious use of butter and cream, or the intensely flavoured meat itself, I do not know. But it provided exactly what the best bistro meals always do—a frisson of excitement, followed by intense pleasure. And that is certainly worth staying home for.

The technique for this dish came from the rabbit with mustard sauce recipe in the Gourmet cookbook. We left out the parsley and cornstarch, added a bit of cream and used only Dijon mustard. Below is the adapted version. Although we drank red, I imagine that a lightly oaked chardonnay, pinot gris or pinot blanc would also work well.

Chicken with mustard sauce (quantities serve 2)

Total time: 1 ½ hours
Active time: 30 minutes

2 chicken legs
2 banana shallots (the large, oblong ones)
½ mug (6-8 oz) dry vermouth or white wine (we used Noilly Prat)
½ mug good chicken or vegetable stock
1 heaping tbsp Dijon mustard
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraiche
a bit of butter or neutral oil

Warm the butter or oil in a deep, lidded skillet or a casserole pan large enough to hold both chicken legs.* Add the meat and brown thoroughly on a medium-high heat; this should take a full ten minutes. While you are waiting, chop the shallots very finely. Remove the chicken from the pan, turn down the heat and add the shallots, tossing to soften for a few minutes. Now add the vermouth or wine and bring to a boil. Boil hard until the liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the stock, return the chicken to the pan and cover. Cook on as low a heat as possible (using a diffuser or cast iron griddle if necessary) until chicken is very tender, approximately 1 hour.

When the meat is ready, remove from the pan and keep covered. Pour a ½ cup of the braising liquid into a small bowl, add the mustard and whisk to combine. Return this to the pan and mix through. Add the crème fraiche, season to taste and serve over the chicken.

* Although the ideal sizes for frying and braising are probably different, you should be able to do everything in one pan. For the first step, make sure that the chicken legs have enough space to sauté, not steam. When it comes to the casseroling, fill in the extra space at the top of the pan with a layer or two of foil. According to Molly Stevens, this helps to tighten the condensation cycle.

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