It’s mid-March. Temperatures here, in New Mexico, where I live, plunge well below freezing at night. There’s still snow and ice on the trails, but I finish my hikes these days with top layers stripped off, wind-chapped, sun-flushed. It’s still winter, but spring is on the rise.
Last night, buoyed by these occasional sudden breaths of warm juniper-scented air, Brendan and I invited five other writers over for dinner. We writers are a hungry tribe. We love to eat, elbows on the table, while we gossip and kibitz and try to make the whole table laugh. I decided to make a family-style feast, the kind of drawn-out, plentiful meal that lends itself to storytelling, laughing, shop talk, and gossip. In other words, a dish for dishing.
So I made a favorite chicken dish I’ve been cooking for years. I actually thought I had invented it until I learned that it has a name, chicken fricassée, and a long, much-beloved provenance: according to Martha Stewart, there are “as many variations as there are grandmothers in France.” It’s a one-pot stew/sauté mash-up of butter-browned pieces of meat, usually chicken, veal, or rabbit, smothered in a creamy vegetable sauce.
Going back to medieval French peasant cookery, the word “fricassée” is thought to be a combination of to fry and in pieces, and that’s literally how you make it. The meat is cut into pieces, fried in fat, and finished in liquid. Most recipes start with onions and carrots or a mirepoix (sautéed fine-diced onion, carrot, and celery) and call for the addition of mushrooms, broth, sometimes flour, white wine, cream, lemon juice, and herbs, generally thyme and bay leaves.
My own version is lighter and simpler than the traditional one: I sauté the chicken pieces in olive oil. I forego the mirepoix in favor of shallots and garlic. For the sauce, I whisk together non-dairy buttermilk and Dijon mustard, which beautifully replicates the rich creaminess/tangy acidity of the butter-cream-wine-lemon juice combo, but is easier on one’s (my) stomach. I flavor the sauce with tarragon, which I love for its sharp freshness and hint of licorice; this is, to me, the quintessential French herb. And rather than the bone-in, skin-on meat called for in the traditional recipe, I use boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which stay juicy through the cooking process but are satisfyingly easy to eat, leaving more energy for talking.
I made enough food for a hungry crowd. Along with the huge skillet of fricassée, I made a big bowl of potatoes mashed with the broth they were cooked in, vegan butter, and olive oil, plus roasted and matchsticks root vegetables and Brussels sprouts. I also threw together a salad of assorted chicories in a champagne vinegar-fresh orange juice dressing, and for dessert, my sister, Susan’s, infallible pear tart recipe.
As the seven of us sat around the kitchen table and served ourselves family style, we fell into my ideal dinner party state: one general tablewide conversation, sustained through all the courses, punctuated with raucous laughter. After dinner, everyone full and sated, we left the table to lounge on more comfortable furniture by a fire, where we went on talking and laughing until well past our bedtimes.
It was a very good dinner party, and I credit its success, of course, to the warm, entertaining, infallibly interesting company of my friends, but also to the homey deliciousness of a chicken fricassée.
Mushroom-Tarragon Chicken Fricassée
Serves 4, can be doubled for a larger crowd
You will need:
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Plenty of olive oil
Salt and black pepper
4-6 shallots, minced
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped or minced
1 pound baby bella or button mushrooms, washed and sliced
1 cup buttermilk OR 1 cup extra-creamy oat milk with 1 T rice or apple cider vinegar stirred in
3 T Dijon mustard
2 T fresh and 1 T dried tarragon, or 2 T dried
Salt and pepper the chicken thighs generously on both sides. In two batches, in a hot skillet over medium-high flame, brown the meat well in 1-2 T olive oil per batch, 3-4 minutes per side. Set the thighs aside in a bowl, covered.
Lower the flame to medium-low. Adding more olive oil if necessary, sauté the shallots until soft, add the mushrooms, garlic, and dried tarragon, stir well, and sauté on low, stirring often, for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a measuring cup, whisk together buttermilk (or oat milk plus vinegar) and Dijon mustard and let this sauce rest while the vegetables cook.
When the mushrooms have released their liquid and softened, add the chicken thighs to the skillet and let sauté for a few more minutes till cooked through. Pour the sauce over the pan, mix well and let simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Add more salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with the fresh tarragon, and serve over mashed potatoes.
Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist and food writer based in Taos, New Mexico. This essay is part of a monthly series about French food called Bouffe, created and written exclusively for Frenchly by Kate Christensen. Her books, Blue Plate Special, How to Cook a Moose, The Last Cruise and more can be purchased here, on Amazon. Her next book, a novel, will be published in 2023.
All photos are courtesy of the author. To see more of Kate’s photos of food, family, the writing process, books and her darling pups, visit her on Instagram, here.