My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Supêmes de Volaille aux Champignons - Chicken Breasts with Mushrooms and Cream

If you've attended any business meeting, wedding reception or banquet of any sort during the past three decades, you've no doubt been inundated with the ubiquitous, dried out and dreaded entree: Boneless, skinless chicken breast. (No doubt, accompanied with "vegetable medley" and rice pilaf.)

Am I right?

It's a horrible, insulting entree: Easy to serve, inexpensive, and a "healthy" thing that we, as a society, will blindly eat and to which we've become extremely inured.

From my own experience, having attended innumerable events in Chicago and Springfield, I can attest to the 'ubiquitosity' of this dreaded entree. (Hint: Whenever possible, request the "vegetarian option" ahead of time. Usually, it's surprisingly good and the other nine folks at your banquet table will probably be jealous of your meal.)

I had never really noticed the ever-prevalence of the boneless, skinless chicken breast until my dad brought it to my attention many years ago.

My dad is only 21 years older than I, a staunch, conservative Republican in Texas, an incredibly appealing guy to be around, and is not without a good bit of executive influence on the local and state level of the Texas political scene.

Here's my dad, all friendly and shaking hands with President Bush back in '06.

So, yes, my dad's been around and did express to me his disdain toward the ever-prevalence of the boneless, skinless chicken breast, especially at political functions.

As a matter of fact, my dad has wielded his executive power on both local and state organizations -- and has commanded that neither may be allowed to serve boneless, skinless chicken breasts at any function.

These are really big functions in Texas. They now serve steaks, Mexican food, pasta -- anything but boneless, skinless chicken breasts. All because of my dad.

I've often heard my dad say that chickens don't suckle their young and, therefore, don't have breasts. They have chests.  
"They're chicken chests."

Recently, he was at a restaurant with his two young grandsons, my nephews. The server announced that the special was a chicken breast . . .
And both boys said in unison, "Chicken chests!"

There are probably well over a thousand people in Texas who will say the same mantra, thanks to my dad.
"Chicken chests" can be heard across Texas.

I've even heard my dad jokingly claim that Hillary Clinton had financial ties with Tyson Foods in Arkansas and was involved in a financial kick-back campaign with Tyson to get Americans to eat healthier, i.e. boneless, skinless chicken breasts. 

My dad and I couldn't be farther apart on the socio-political scale. We poke gentle fun at each other, but of respect, I don't diss the Republican Party and he changes the TV from Fox to CNN whenever I'm home visiting. (We both have little respect for MSNBC)

So it was with a good bit of hesitance that I decided to try Julia's Chicken Breasts with Mushrooms and Cream. I thought, "What could Julia have done with the boneless, skinless chicken breast that won't remind me of the rubber-chicken circuit?"

I also thought, "How will I tell my dad about this?"
He knows I've met and supported Obama, but boneless, skinless chicken breasts might push the envelope.

There are the political, banquet-dinner chicken breasts and then there is Julia's "Supêmes de Volaille".

"Supêmes de Volaille" are the "finest part of the chicken." I did as Julia told. I went to Whole Foods Market, purchased two plump, expensive free-range organic chickens, and boned out the breasts myself. None of this factory-raised, supermarket, plastic-wrapped nonsense.

Boneless chicken breasts can be awfully dry. Julia's recipe does everything to alleviate that. Here, technique is really the key. . . .

A small amount of shallot and mushrooms were sauteed in a huge amount of butter in a casserole. The breasts were placed in the casserole with a buttered piece of wax paper on top. This was placed in a 400 degree oven for 6 minutes. The breasts were turned over and placed in the oven for 6 more minutes.

The breasts were removed, port and beef stock were added to the shallots, butter and mushrooms in which the chicken was baked. This was reduced by quite a bit to concentrate the flavors and cream was added.
And that was served over the (gasp!) boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
(Sorry - chicken chests)

First of all, the results were unbelievable.

I've never tasted chicken so juicy and "chickeny" as this, breasts or otherwise. Julia's method made me think that the chicken would be undercooked. And it would be if you were using those gargantuan, hormone-pumped chicken breasts that are usually available in supermarkets. Purchase a normal-sized chicken that's been running around (or kill your own that you have to run around after) and you'll see what normal-sized breasts are supposed to be.

The sauce was so creative. Shallots, butter, port, (not white wine) beef stock (beef stock!) and cream.

When eating this, you'd never know you're eating anything remotely associated with that dried-out, tasteless banquet fare. No, this was succulent-for-succulents' sake; the most chickeny thing I've ever eaten.

Here it is with a side of tarragon-buttered peas and a baked tomato Provençale.

I'm really looking forward to a Texas vacation so that I can cook for my parents. Julia's Boeuf Bourguingon will be a must. So will the Almond Praline Bavarian Cream. Chicken Fricassee would also be impressive. 

As you can see from the above description of my dad and his politicized disdain for boneless, skinless chicken breasts (sorry, chicken chests) the ONE thing that I must make for him, the ONE thing that would truly impress him about Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, would really be this recipe for Supêmes de Volaille.

I truly look forward to making Julia's boneless, skinless chicken breasts for my dad.

How impressive is this recipe?
Good enough to make him vote for Obama in 2012.

Sorry, chicken chests.

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