When I went to Italy to study architecture back in my college days, one of the things that made me feel at home right away was the discovery that the Italian outlook on life was just like a Southerner’s: that is, both revolve almost completely around food. When we’re not actually putting it into our mouths, we’re talking about what we’ve eaten, what we’re going to eat or, at the very least, what we’d rather be eating.
There’s no getting away from it: just like Italy, almost everything in Southern culture comes around, in one way or another, to this relationship with food, even when, at first blush, it doesn’t really seem like there can be any connection.
Take, for example, the old expression “Well, she’s no spring chicken.” We’ve all heard that said of someone trying to look and act younger than they really are, but few of us take in its full meaning, because we’ve forgotten that it goes right back, yep, to the table.
Once upon a time “spring chicken” referred to an actual bird, to the young, tender chickens that could only be had during the barnyard’s natural breeding season in spring and early summer. Only new birds whose underdeveloped muscles are supple and tender are suitable for grilling, broiling, sautéing, and frying. Try doing any of those things with a tough old hen and the results will not be pretty.
Ever since poultry farmers found a way to fool their flocks into reproducing year round, however, we’ve come to take young chickens, once a strictly seasonal delicacy, for granted. Unfortunately, we’ve also become a little too used to having fried, broiled, grilled, and sautéed chicken any time we want. Fried chicken, the icon of Southern cooking for many, is nowadays so commonplace that it no longer seems special, and even stands in danger of becoming ordinary.
There’s one spring chicken dish, however, that is endangered, though more from neglect than overindulgence: the fricassee. It’s a sort of refined stew in which the bird is first fried and then simmered in a richly aromatic liquid. The name is thought to derive from two French verbs, frire (to fry) and casser (to break), the latter because the bones were disjointed and often chopped into chunks or cracked to expose the marrow.
A fricassee can be (and sometimes was) made with an old, tough hen, and even meat other than poultry, but it is at its elegant best when made from birds young enough to cook quickly, so that the flavor is as fresh and delicate as the sun-washed air on a warm spring day.
Here’s a classic fricassee from old Savannah. Until well into the twentieth century, Madeira, a sherry-like wine from an island near Morocco, was one of the most popular in our city, not only for drinking, but for cooking. It’s only natural then that it had a hand in the way our spring bird came to the table.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 chicken, weighing no more than 2½–to-3 pounds, cut up as for frying
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
1 cup minced shallots or yellow onion (about 5 medium shallots or 1 onion)
8 ounces fresh brown (crimini) mushrooms, wiped clean with a dry cloth and thickly sliced
1 cup thinly sliced leeks
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1 cup medium dry (Sercial) Madeira
1 cup chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
½ cup thinly sliced green onions
Warm 6 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a deep, heavy-bottomed, lidded skillet that will hold the chicken in one layer. Season the chicken well with salt and pepper and when the butter is hot, add it to the pan. Sauté, turning frequently, until browned on all sides, about 8 minutes, and remove it to a warm platter.
Add the shallots and sauté, tossing frequently, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they are beginning to color, about 2 minutes. Add the leeks and sage and sauté until fragrant.
Add the Madeira, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, and bring it to a boil. Add the broth, let it come back to a boil, and return the chicken to the pan. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook gently until the chicken is tender, about 20 minutes longer.
Remove the chicken to a warm platter. Raise the heat to medium high, add the cream, and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly reduced. Knead the flour into the remaining butter and add it in bits, stirring constantly. Simmer until thickened, about 4 minutes longer, and stir in the green onion. Turn off the heat, pour the sauce over the chicken, and serve immediately.